Monday, June 02, 2008

My letter urging preservation of American historic records

NOTE from DearMYRTLE: The following is the text of the faxes sent to my US Senator and US Representative in support of Preserving the American Historical Record Act (PAHR). H.R. 6056. See my previous blog entry Urge your Representative: sign "Preserving the American Historical Record" Bill for directions on creating your own letter. The red highlighted text is my own, and not from the recommended form letter. Also available in .mp3 format.

2 June 2008

The Honorable Orrin G. Hatch
United States Senate
104 Hart Senate Office Building
Washington, D.C. 20510-4402
Sent via fax: (801) 524-4379

The Honorable Jim Matheson
United States House of Representatives
1323 Longworth House Office Building
Washington, D.C. 20515-4402
Sent via fax: (202) 225-5638

Dear sirs,
On behalf of my genealogy “how-to” blog readers and podcast listeners, I am writing to urge your support as a co-sponsor of the Preserving the American Historical Record Act (PAHR). H.R. 6056, “To authorize the Archivist of the United States to make grants to States for the preservation and dissemination of historical records,” was introduced by Rep. Maurice Hinchey (NY) and referred to the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform on May 14.

Our nation has recognized the importance of preserving federal documents, archives, and our history by its support of national institutions such as the National Archives, the Library of Congress, and the Smithsonian Institution. However, this support does not address the other vital archives being held in state and local governments, historical societies, and library history collections. It is essential that more resources be directed to states and localities to ensure that documents and archival records can be readily used for a host of purposes by the people of this nation.

When archival documents are preserved in our states and communities, we protect the evidence of ownership of land, the rights and privileges of individual citizens, the right to know about the workings of government, the genealogy of our families, and the cultural heritage of our nation.

The organizations managing this essential evidence face many challenges, from fire and hurricanes to mold and mildew; from decaying materials to ensuring the recovery of outdated electronic media. This part of the American record needs attention now to ensure that the documents, records, and collections we need and treasure are cared for and available to all Americans for generations to come.

The PAHR bill will address this issue. When enacted, the proceeds will bring critical support to the state of Utah through a formula-based distribution of funds. If the full request of $50 million is approved, Utah will receive $499, 691. This would have a major impact on the ability to ensure that your constituents have access to irreplaceable archival records throughout our state and in our communities.

Determining one’s ancestry by searching copies of old public records is a right long honored by your constituents in Utah, that is also valued by historians and genealogists the world over. Those with roots in war-torn countries cringe at the thought of records lost to time and the ravages of war.

On the local front, folks throughout the US are at a loss as to how they can educate and provide for preservation of documents given current economic difficulties of the past few years. I have written a series of blog entries about preservation of documents in a small county courthouse in Tuscaloosa County, Alabama.

  • 21 Sept 2007 “Tuscaloosa County Courthouse Records Progress is slow but sure, and the local volunteers are on task. Courthouse apparently makes a 180 degree change in preservation policy. Here I wrote: “If those records are destroyed there is no turning back in the case of a blurred image on the microfilm.”
  • 7 Sept 2007 “Alabama preservation efforts remain unclear” citing “County records also suffering from summer heat” by Howard Michael Sullivan, Tuscaloosa [Alabama] News, Wednesday, September 5, 2007. Reprinted by permission of the author.
  • 21 August 2007 “Triangulation: Analysis of historical documents” Why we must revisit and review evidence to understand history. Here I wrote: ‘One cannot overemphasize the need of responsible citizens to look again at surviving documents to see if the history being taught is accurate, and that conclusions are not skewed by inappropriate societal pressures influencing the previous historian, who may have been too close to the situation to see the bigger picture. Microfilming and proper storage is the least we can do to preserve those documents for future generations. It is our legacy, it is their heritage.'
  • 13 Aug 2007 Alabama preservation efforts remain unclear”. [This project was in cooperation with FamilySearch, but did not cover the scope of records sitting in the roughed-in attic of the Tuscaloosa County Courthouse.]
  • 8 August 2007 “Courthouse video: a picture is worth a thousand TEARS”. [Includes video of the actual courthouse books housed in deplorable conditions.]
  • August 2007 “Tuscaloosa & Greene County AL courthouse records at immediate risk. Will the Alabama Department of Archives & History create a 15th and 16th local government archives?” [Funding from this bill can bring this about.] This blog entry includes a quote from Elizabeth Shown Mills, CG (Certified genealogist), CGL (Certified Genealogical Lecturer) and FASG (Fellow of the American Society of Genealogists) :

    “In past years, I spent much time up in the Tuscaloosa County courthouse attic with those records. They are a goldmine of information not to be found anywhere else on the earliest settlers of the county—many of whom do not show up in the early land, marriage, and probate records. The records in Greene County are in even worse condition. When I last used them, they were piled in an outbuilding behind the jail, with—literally—rusted out lawnmowers piled on top of the heap.”
  • 24 July 2007 “Tuscaloosa County Courthouse to scan & destroy original records” quotes Circuit Clerk Margaria Bobo. [However, scanning isn’t infallible.]
  • The responsibility for preservation of government records is virtually mandated by your constituents on the premise that public records are to be maintained for viewing by the public. Our nation’s residents cannot take up the slack if government fails in this regard. It is all our aging population can do to keep up with inflation, and the choice of purchasing food or the medications prescribed by their physicians.

    Some of our nation’s leaders provided opinions about the importance of history:

    • President Martin Van Buren’s Inaugural Address, Monday March 4, 1837 highlights the importance of studying history in living our lives as responsible citizens: “All the lessons of history and experience must be lost upon us if we are content to trust alone to the peculiar advantages we happen to possess.” See:
  • John Hay’s Tribute to McKinley 1906 speaks of the sensational aspect of reporting history that today’s paparazzi & tabloid journalists certainly emulate on the nightly news. “For the third time the Congress of the United States are assembled to commemorate the life and the death of a president slain by the hand of an assassin. The attention of the future historian will be attracted to the features which reappear with startling sameness in all three of these awful crimes…” See:
  • President Theodore Roosevelt (1858–1919) in writing “History as Literature” 1913 states “History can never be truthfully presented if the presentation is purely emotional. It can never be truthfully or usefully presented unless profound research, patient, laborious, painstaking, has preceded the presentation. No amount of self-communion and of pondering on the soul of mankind, no gorgeousness of literary imagery, can take the place of cool, serious, widely extended study.” See:
  • How different would recorded history be if it weren’t for an 18-minute gap in the Nixon White House tapes, or the loss of pertinent data surrounding events at Roswell, NM or Kennedy’s assassination? We cannot reduce history to well-timed sound bites and news tickers flashing across the bottom of our television screens during commercial breaks between episodes of Dancing with the Stars and reality TV shows.


    Certainly the NARA has provided a worthy example by partnering with and is a new player in this arena. is willing to digitize records for a local government, such as the death records of West Virginia that appear in the Family History Library Catalog at: . Images appear online at:


    I urge you both to become original co-sponsors for this legislation. For more information on becoming a co-sponsor, you may contact Anne Georges in Representative Hinchey’s office (202-225-6335). I look forward to your support of this important initiative.

    Making such a choice is the high road. The “common folk” portion of your constituencies may never appreciate this initiative, but even 25-50 years from now, the wisdom of preserving our nation’s historical documents will prove itself in the works of honest reporters and students of history. And it will help genealogists with US ancestry, to boot.

    Thank-you, for your immediate attention to this important initiative.

    Pat Richley
    PR: ss
    CC: The Honorable Maurice Hinchey
    Sent via fax: (845) 331-7456

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