Not all history is recorded in writing or sound or images, but it exists in the world to be read and interpreted. This history of a city is written in its infrastructure and design, a mingling of the co-existant far ago and recent memory. Documentation such as photographs and oral histories and objects help relate that history when it has been erased from the landscape, but such mediums cannot capture the living history and emotional essence of epochal juxtapositions experienced in real time.
I love train travel and visting new cities for the ability they provide to traverse areas outside the city center (at early hours before the city awakes) and read new histories. To see where industry happens or happened, where city services park their vehicles or where long haul truckers park overnight, where development is blossoming or where it occurred and has faded, where people live or where they used to live or where they would never ever ever live.
A city’s history is a story of planned and unplanned growth, of desires achieved and unrealized, of dreams and crushing reality.
A city’s history is written in the brick and steel and asphalt and paint of these fluctuations. Growth and decay. Growth and decay. Growth and decay. And, finally, decay.
Decay, as with everything, is what infrastructure does. The urge to rebuild, of course, has its economic sources, but ultimately it is the impulse of social good. To revive an area, make it more livable or visitable, to improve public safety, to increase local pride, and to support the development of society and culture.
There may be economic impact from these things, such as jobs and tourism and real estate, but malls and industrial parks can bring that, too, without the positive impacts on health and community. We have the responsibility to invest in our infrastructure — outside of cities and in — for the good of society. This includes new development, maintenance, and rebuilding. The economic impacts we tend to focus on will follow, in ways we were unlikely to anticipate. But really, how does revenue compare to a child in Montana visiting a Smithsonian museum online, or the ability to walk safely outside and visit a nearby park, or bridges not collapsing on us?
Archives are part of the infrastructure of history and culture. Like our physical infrastructure, they require continued maintenance and development to persist and remain viable. And as with our physical infrastructure, this work has massively overwhelming amounts of backlogs and incoming new work…and is massively underfunded and under appreciated.
But where this parallel is strongest is in the vital importance of each to the health and growth of our society. Underscoring this recently was the study — filed under “Well, duh.” — finding that reading literary fiction makes us more empathetic and increases our social perception and emotional intelligence. This improves our social interactions and ability to relate to and care about others, which ultimately supports the social good.
The material found in archives has the potential to expand on this by engaging the public with the history and thoughts of individuals, groups, and locations. Opening us to what has come before, thus helping us understand that something comes after us. Connecting us to stories and ideas that exist outside our own ideologies, our own little neighborhood, our own present concerns that fail to recognize the impact our decisions have on others and the impact that others can have on us.
Archives are in a special position to do more than provide content for esoteric research or YouTube mashups. Archives have the opportunity to impact society in a positive way by providing insight and understanding, by keeping the memory and culture of a community alive for the benefit of that community and others, by showing us where we have succeeded and where we have failed in order to strive to be better.
As an archivist I feel we have a deep responsibility to serve in that way. That means there’s a lot of heavy lifting to be done to overcome the backlogs and challenges and crumbling infrastructure, work that needs to be done soon before we start losing too much of our past. It’s going to be hard, but it matters. It matters because history and culture make us care so we don’t recklessly destroy what we have built, and care so that we make what we have built better.