Perceiving the Value of Archives


Archivists have come up with many different ways to describe the value of archival sources: legal, fiscal, administrative values; evidence and accountability; various research uses; memory; community building; and social justice. And the list goes on. The nature of potential value has expanded exponentially since the days of archival pioneers such as Jenkinson and Schellenberg. Some of these values can seem contradictory at times, but all of them have merit for why the archival enterprise is essential.

There is a more traditional way of perceiving the value of archives, via their use by storytellers, when they choose to take on this function, such as historians, journalists, and other scholars. While on my vacation in Maine, when not eating lobster or painting, I read two books reminding me of this. William Carlsen, Jungle of Stone: The True Story of Two Men, Their Extraordinary Journey, and the Discovery of the Lost Civilization of the Maya (New York: William Morrow, 2016) is a detailed account of the early nineteenth century explorers and their accumulation of documentation about their efforts (revealing how much more we have yet to know about this civilization). Carlsen, a journalist, draws on this rich textual and visual documentation to tell their story pitting them against harsh conditions, political and civil unrest, and other challenges. Darrin Lunde, The Naturalist: Theodore Roosevelt, A Lifetime of Exploration, and the Triumph of American Natural History (New York: Crown, 2016), is a contribution to the history of the field of natural history. Lunde, based on his long career in this field, builds on Roosevelt’s many writings and archival remains to provide an engaging portrait of this President’s scientific interests in the context of his own era (and what a contrast he is to those currently seeking higher office; there was a time when ideas were important).

It should be obvious that I selected these two books as entertaining diversions while I rested from other tasks. I was surprised, although I shouldn’t have been, by the many references to letters, diaries, photographs and drawings, and many other sources. In addition to the usual acknowledgements to editors, friends, and family, there are thanks to librarians and archivists. The power of archives is, perhaps, best expressed through volumes such as these, rather than in what archivists assert about their work and holdings. Anyone reading about historical events, politics, and society should be remind of the significance of archives and that their description as “dusty” (as one of the authors references) is only appropriate when we ignore them.


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