By Michael D. Gibson and Timothy Walch
Ben Gates, where are you now that we need you?
You remember Benjamin Franklin Gates, don’t you? He’s the character played by Nicolas Cage in two blockbuster films titled “National Treasure.” In those films, Gates seeks to discover lost treasure and finds vital clues on the back of the Declaration of Independence and in “the President’s Book of Secrets.”
These action-packed movies were enormously popular at the box office and there are likely to be more installments in the future. They make great entertainment, but they also have an important message: documents matter.
Devastating losses that result from natural disasters like superstorm Sandy and the flooding here in Iowa in 2008 are dramatic evidence that we need to do a better job of protecting our precious cultural patrimony. We need to raise public awareness here in Iowa and across the nation about the importance of documents in our daily lives. Failure to do so will deprive our descendants of their heritage.
What are we talking about? Just about every aspect of our lives — our rights, privileges, responsibilities and achievements are recorded for posterity. In some instances this information is recorded on paper, some of it is in photographs, other information is on audio or videotape. And don’t forget all those Facebook pages, Twitter feeds and emails!
Documents are the blueprints of our lives. They mark the moment we enter the world and the day we leave it. They record our achievements in school and the compensation we receive for our employment. They capture our covenants with the ones we love and the people we respect.
Finally, documents reveal who we are as a nation and as individuals. Without documents, we would be anonymous. It is hard to overvalue such treasures.
Not all documents are of equal value, of course, and we all face the challenge of deciding what to keep, what to donate and what to dispose. It is often a problem that we put off until we sell our homes, or experience a crisis such as a fire or flood. By then, it can be too late.
A related problem is storage. Because of space considerations, we often put documents in attics and basements — the worst places in a home or office to store fragile, unique materials. The wide swings of temperature in most attics break down the fiber in paper and the emulsion in photographs. The high humidity in most basements is just as destructive. Finding a solution can take some time and effort.
That’s where archivists can help. Our most important documents are stored in thousands of local, state and national repositories. The archivists who work in those institutions are ready to help you. Don’t be shy about asking these wonderful people for advice.
Here’s another idea: If you work for a non-profit organization in need of archival assistance, hire a consultant through Iowa’s “Technical Assistance Network.” The network is sponsored by the Iowa State Historical Advisory Board and the cost is minimal. More information is available at: www.iowahistory.org/archives/technical-assistance/ihrab/index.html
It’s also important for all of us as citizens to support collective efforts to save the documentary heritage of our state and our communities. Support your local, county, and state historical societies with your charitable donations. Ask your elected representatives to increase appropriations for the preservation of documentary materials. Unleash your inner passion for history.
A wise philosopher once wrote that “every man is his own historian.” We want to extend that idea by adding that every person is also his or her own archivist. We should not neglect our responsibility to pass on our documentary legacy, as well as the legacy of our ancestors to future generations.
l Michael D. Gibson is the director of the Center for Dubuque History at Loras College. Comments: Michael.Gibson@loras.edu. Timothy Walch is the director emeritus of the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library. Comments: Twalch47@gmail.com. Both are members of the Iowa State Historical Records Advisory Board.