What Are Archives and Why Do We Need Them?
” . . . archives consist of records that have been selected for permanent or long-term preservation on grounds of their enduring cultural, historical, or evidentiary value. Archival records are normally unpublished and almost always unique, unlike books or magazine, of which many identical copies may exist.”
— Wikipedia article on archives
Over the course of history, it hasn’t always been possible to interview or even find a record of interviews of some of our most important and memorable historical figures. For that reason, archives are a key resource for any historian. Recently, archives have been talked about in the news every day. Even so, most people have no idea what archives are or why they’re important. We tend to think archives are the same as libraries or museums—but nothing could be further from the truth.
Archives consist of doodles, scribbles, notes and letters, among other things. They contain the materials used by historians, novelists, dramatists and anyone else concerned with telling the stories of historical figures and times gone by.
There are all kinds of archives, such as the Gun Violence Archive and the National Archives. In Cleveland, Ohio, we have the Ukrainian Museum-Archives, while Chicago, Illinois has the Carter G. Woodson Archives. While there are many different kinds of archives, the Carter G. Woodson Archives are quite unique, because they focus on the kind of Black historical personalities and events that Carter G. Woodson dedicated his life to documenting. As far as archives go, the Carter G. Woodson Archives are part of the handful of archives in the USA specifically focused on Black history that are well organized and easily accessible to the public. Another Outstanding Black history archive is the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York City. While the National African American Museum of History and Culture in Washington, D.C. is still in its infancy, the other archives on Black history mentioned are well established, with histories going back more than 100 years and collections comparable to the Getty Museum in Los Angeles.
For decades, Black people have sought to establish Black history museums. A museum is not an archive, but museum exhibits are often based on available archival materials. Similarly, books in libraries are also based on archival materials, but libraries themselves are not archives.
So, why is it we know so little about archives themselves? It’s really quite elementary. Archives don’t sound exciting or interesting to the average person. School children have little interest in visiting an archive. They’re not flashy. They’re typically not engaging and hold little interest for the younger generation. They’re like the foundation of a house. People don’t pay attention to the foundation of a house or a building until a tornado comes along and the strength of that foundation becomes the key to surviving the storm. When water damages a foundation and causes a building to collapse into a huge pile of rubble, people pay attention. But other than that, the foundation often goes unnoticed and unheralded. Similarly, archives form the largely ignored, but all-important foundation for much of our historical knowledge.
Recently, archives have been in the news on a daily basis as former President Trump engages in a battle with the National Archives over his papers and other documents detailing his activities in the White House during his term. The basis of the dispute is his claim that he had the right to remove a whole host of documents from the White House, in spite of the fact that many of them were labeled top secret. For most people it’s hard to understand why this was such a big deal. But archivists get it! They understand that his scribbles and doodles may be even more valuable than full-on congressional reports or even top-secret documents. Archives have been known to pay millions of dollars for these seemingly innocuous documents. Why, you ask? It’s because they’re unique and often offer insight into a person’s deepest thoughts, hopes and dreams.
Over the next 10 years, we’ll be working to establish The Crosby Archives as one of the country’s most important archival collections, with the original writings, photographs and recordings of the Crosby Family as the basis for the collection. We hope to see this Black history collection become as significant, if not more so, than the Woodson or Schomburg collections. Keep your eye on this website for more information about The Crosby Archives as we grow and develop this already substantial collection.
If you’d like to donate to The Crosby Archives use this link to access our Facebook donation page.