A few months ago, I was tremendously gratified to tour the Oregon Historical Society’s (OHS) newly remodeled research library. The work accomplished by my former colleagues was impressive to say the least — a new and more functional layout, updated technology, fresh and beautiful décor, appropriate lighting, and (most importantly) new and efficient bathrooms. Much of this project’s success can be attributed to the current library director, Shawna Gandy, but all who contributed did a first-rate job. And yet, beyond my admiration for such an important accomplishment, I was reassured that one of America’s great repositories of historical records was flourishing so splendidly. This is something that was far from assured a decade ago, and it is something that we should never take for granted. The renovated library is one more important step in OHS’s mission to provide broad access to its collections.
This mission is so important because the fact is, historical records provide the nearest we can come to the truth of the past. And at the present time, this fact is more important than ever. As Max Fisher wrote recently in the New York Times, “a wave of brazenly false or misleading historical revision, from democratic and authoritarian governments alike, may be threatening an already-weakened sense of a shared, accepted narrative about the world.”* We are now seeing this historical revision everywhere, from Russia to China to our own country. And the real-life implications of this are starkly real, be they military aggressions to restore an imagined empire or discrimination against ethnic minorities in the name of an artificial notion of national complexion. Too often history is distorted to fit the needs of the present — even if such needs are as benign as a glossy re-make of a past era in a Hollywood movie.
Long ago, historical writing was more akin to fiction. The gallant exploits of a society’s forbearers gave readers a sense of meaning and purpose in their present lives. Beginning in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, scholars turned to archival research as sources for their historical writing, which often told a very different story than was commonly believed. More and more, historians began to search for the real truth in the past — es eigentlich gewesen in the words of German historian Leopold von Ranke, “how things actually were.” And so, a new focus on the historical records increasingly became the norm in the profession.
But historical fictions persisted and — in many cases — flourished. Today, we can find myriad examples, from fantastic online conspiracy theories to state-sponsored distortions of the past to legislation intended to omit and erase certain aspects of history. And yet, historical records persist in serving as tangible evidence of people and events of the past — even if those records are continuously re-evaluated. And naturally, these records themselves become a threat to baseless theories and distortions. This was why the Big Brother regime in George Orwell’s 1984 was continuously destroying old newspaper files.
Luckily, research library staff members continue to preserve the archival materials in OHS’s care, whether they are paper or photographic images or motion picture film or sound recordings — even digital files, which are now more accessible than ever. These records are key to understanding the past. This is why OHS’s library matters so much — at least to me, and hopefully to our society at large. Yes, it is also wonderful to read documents in a beautifully redecorated reading room staffed by dedicated librarians — and with commodious bathrooms, of course. But there is far more for which we can be gratified.
* Max Fisher, “In a Race to Shape the Future, History is Under New Pressure,” New York Times, January 5, 2022.
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