Thursday, October 15, 2015

The Importance of Preserving History

From a very young age, I’ve loved history.  In fact, I can’t remember a time in my life that I wasn’t fascinated by all things from the past.  So much so, in fact, that I went to college and got my degree in American history.   

Consequently, most of my career has been spent in the history world, specifically in archives and museum special collections.  There are so many reasons I have enjoyed the work I’ve done throughout my career.  I’ve gotten to handle and work with fascinating artifacts, from Johnny Cash’s guitar to Civil War swords and flags to all five of our Arkansas’s Constitutions.  I’ve held Louis Jordan’s saxophone and touched the keys of Scott Joplin’s piano.  I’ve handled rifles used at the Alamo and put together Santa Anna’s bed for an exhibit.  I’ve read countless journals and letters of Arkansans from various periods in our state’s history.  I get to watch rarely seen historic film footage and listen to the oral histories of veterans. And most importantly, I’ve worked with patrons who come in every day with the most fascinating family stories. I see the photographs they share, read the letters they preserve and listen to the stories they tell.  Every single one of these experiences for me, an unabashed history nerd, has been precious.

I feel I would be remiss if I didn’t mention I haven’t stayed for the money – pay in our field is abysmal. I also haven’t stayed for the laid-back, low workload atmosphere.  Because historical repositories are so poorly funded, we generally have a serious lack of manpower, which causes each of us to have a huge workload. We never have enough staff.  I’ve stayed in the world of history because I’m so passionate about its maintenance and preservation.  It’s been a struggle, though.  It’s difficult to work in a field with so little support and so much uncertainty. 
Historic institutions are often faced with the mindset that because we don’t provide life-saving services, we are non-essential.  This couldn’t be further from the truth.  If you’re proud of your family history, your community’s history, your state’s history, and yes, even American history, maintaining and preserving that history should be considered essential.  

Regardless, historical institutions are now struggling more than ever before.  Archives and museums are at the top of the list of those historical institutions that struggle the most.  It’s completely fair to say that museums, historical societies and libraries, university and state archives all face a considerable lack of interest about our survival.  For example, over the last several years, museums have been closing in droves. I can’t tell you how many I’ve watched close week after week.

Archives are also facing an uncertain future. Several years ago, Georgia’s State Archives, established in 1918, was temporarily closed by its Secretary of State because it wasn’t considered important enough to be kept open and was chosen as the sole institution used to cut costs.  After a large public outcry, it was reopened but with fewer hours, far less staff, and moved over into Georgia’s state university system.     

I think a lot of state government archivists had felt more secure in their jobs until Georgia closed its archives.  Now….we recognize no possibility is off the table.  

So why are we, a state archives, important?  Why should people support us and care about our survival?  The answer is really simple.  What we have is yours.  The historical material in our archives represents your history, your family’s history, and the history of your communities.  We also maintain and preserve state and county government records which affect your daily lives.    

We even preserve material that helps you in your daily jobs.  Are you a local journalist?  Chances are you’ve used us to research a story.  Are you a student?  Our archives help provide material for your papers and theses.  Are you a writer or a professor in the state?  I know we can be found as cited sources in many books.  How about contractors and builders and architects?  We have deed records that often get requested by these professions.  Are you an Arkansas genealogist?  Then you have absolutely used our archives. The list of professions who do research with us is endless.    

Like other state archives, the Arkansas History Commission represents all facets of its state’s history. And like all other state archives, we are passionate about preserving that history. We are necessary and essential because we are Arkansas.