I was lucky enough to spend Easter in Washington DC. We took in the White House, the National Mall, the Air and Space Museum where we saw the space shuttle Discovery and Washington Monument as well as George Washington’s home at Mount Vernon, Virginia. All were busy with international and American tourists enjoying the spring break but where were the lines the longest? At the National Archive to see the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights – all dating from the late eighteenth century.
I am working in the UK archive sector and initially felt the pressure of one who has a lot to learn! However my experience of working in archives has demonstrated so much in a short time: issues around conservation, preservation, digitisation and access. It also has illustrated some of the opportunities to use the archives, particularly with the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War. So many of us are looking into ancestors who fought in the war – and archives are central to that research.
So what is it that makes people join a line (or queue in the UK) or spend hours seeking details about regiments and battalions, constitutions and other document?
Archives are unique – they provide evidence of events, decisions and people’s identities. It is the primary record or source that can show us something actually happened, who was involved, why and how they did it. It’s not just someone else reporting on it – it is the real thing!
They provide us with a tool to engage our children in education –digital images offer immediate access but it is good to see the manuscript, the handwritten documents and signatures and records. You can imagine the quill in Thomas Jefferson’s hand.
As adults, the archives can help us feel a part of our society and understand events in the past that we may be aware of but to which we want to feel closer. By looking at the Declaration of Independence, you feel the spirit and determination to set out those reasons why America wanted to leave the monarchy and the British crown.
In other ways, archives are an opportunity to engage with the past and with people around us. They can be a great tool for promoting social interaction and a common bond among those for whom that can be difficult; for many people an old record can bring alive memories and stimulate the mind in a wonderful and positive way. The links with heritage, culture, arts all become clear as archives can provide that sense of wellbeing and community that we so often seek.
The public may see archives as a dry and dusty topic but when you see the lines to participate in a project or see a key historical document the power and the importance of the archives come to life – check them out!