Arizona is losing its history.
Rats build nests in historic documents, old buildings sag and buckle, roofs leak and records blacken with mold. Collectors slip a few papers into their homes and looters plunder archeological sites. Historians and archivists say the problem keeps getting worse as budgets are slashed and information is processed digitally, then deleted.
To understand why records matter, it is important to understand that Google doesn’t know everything and history books don’t always get it right.
The first draft
Some people think history is dry and tedious – all those dates and proper nouns, but strip away history to its raw components, and you have stories of men and women who are not all that different from people today – hungry, horny, greedy, hysterical, kind and gentle. Many of them kept records, which we can look at to this day.
The first draft comes in newspapers and books by people who were there. Sometimes people hand these stories down accurately, sometimes not. Historians like to check other sources besides those early drafts, and the best way to do that is to look back at old diaries and government records.
The bulk of the state’s history remains on paper, microfilm or microfiche – photographs, diaries, census reports, school records, council minutes, newspapers, tax logs, maps and diaries. These documents leave paper trails of land ownership, policy and taxation, arrests, trials, the decisions on which government, our legal system and daily life are based. It would take a lot of hours to convert these documents to digital formats.
Archival records are not just for academics, genealogists or hobbyists. One archivist told me about a family that came into the state archives as a last resort. They had been working a ranch since the 1870s, she said, and found themselves in a dispute over water rights. The state archives had all the assessment rolls for their county, she said, which showed the family had paid a water assessment that went back to territorial times. A record saved the family’s ranch. Another archivist told me of a woman who was able to prove she was a U.S. citizen.
Historians are treasure hunters, detectives, assembling a puzzle out of documents. When pieces of that puzzle are missing, the historian hits a dead end. Like a biologist who has run out of DNA strands, an astronomer with a blurry telescope, a prosecutor without a witness, the historian can only speculate when information is missing. Primary sources are not infallible, but they can change an interpretation of how a historical event has been presented before, and allow researchers to expand, affirm or dispute the work of others.
The digital world has not made piecing together the historical puzzle any easier. If anything, it has made it harder. To put the entire collection on a digital format would require scanning thousands – millions – of documents, books, letters, notebooks and articles, one at a time.
How technology swallows the past
The rapidly changing nature of technology creates another problem as machines and recording devices become obsolete. One archivist once told me about a conference that took place in 2000, where people talked about the digital black hole that we’re already starting to see.
The Arizona State Library and Archives and Public Records building has former Governor Evan Mecham’s impeachment trials on tape, for example, but the tapes are VHS. The library keeps old machines on hand to look at old records, but it gets more difficult with each new generation of technology. Machines, devices and gadgets quickly become relics: Reel to reel, cassette, VHS, beta, floppy. CDs, give way to thumb drives, which are easily corrupted. Bloggers take down web sites and links break. One researcher talked about the strange looks he got while looking for a computer that would take a floppy disc. The nature of technology also means that people frequently don’t save drafts, he said. There are several drafts available of the Constitution of the United States, for example, and you can see how the document evolved. People used to write letters, and save them. Today they write e-mails, then delete them.
With the electronic age information goes into cyberspace and we may never get it back again. And so we may know more about something that happened 500 years ago than something that happened 10 years ago.
A rich history
Because Arizona is a young state, people assume that it doesn’t have much of a history. But people lived here before statehood, and their stories go back centuries. There’s Old Oraibi, settled in 1100 AD and possibly the oldest continuously inhabited settlement in North America; there’s San Xavier, a mission founded by Father Eusebio Kino in 1692; there’s a collection of books and documents going back to the Lincoln administration; there are records of land ownership and water rights that go back to territorial days. These records belong the people, and deserve to be protected.