Letter to the Editor
Orange County Register
Letter to the Editor: A Vacation in the Past
As a history professor, I have always been fascinated with the past, and I have often wished I could travel back in time so that I could really experience the events I was researching. While I haven’t been a Doctor Who companion yet (still holding out hope, though), I have spent a great deal of time in many archives, which is really the next best thing!
Many people don’t really know what an archive is. There is a stigma in the digital age that archives are dusty, drab places where paper goes to die. In fact, there is a sense when you talk to people that archives are cold, dead and lonely places. I have found archives to be the reverse. Archives act as a window into the past; they are a place where history comes truly alive!
So many people read about the Civil War, and the hardships of the soldiers, but the sufferings of those soldiers often seem distant and abstract. Many students have a hard time seeing history as anything other than boring and irrelevant. However, if you show a student a letter that a Union soldier wrote to his wife right before he died – a letter the student can hold in her hand — the past now becomes real. The student can read a first-hand account of the pain and loneliness that a real young soldier was feeling before his death, and how all he wanted was to see his wife one last time. I have read letters like this in my research, and they are heartbreaking and beautiful. They make the past a real place that you want to explore.
Most of the material that is found in archives can’t be found anyplace else; they are unique. Since this material is unique, or very rare, archives can provide a vital perspective on the history being studied. The resources offered by archives are irreplaceable for academic researchers and the general public. What is even more astonishing in this age of digital research is that a great deal of the material can’t be found online. Now some might argue that documents and other physical materials are cumbersome and inconvenient in a time when we can access digital images of many things instantly. I would say that the experience of actually going to the museum or archive further transports the researcher. It is hard to be truly connected to the past while staring at your computer screen.
History teachers often struggle with how to make history “real” for students, and I often wonder why, especially in college level courses, archives aren’t utilized more often. I know that when I was writing my college thesis, it wasn’t until I began going to archives that I was truly transported into my research. Especially here in the greater Los Angeles area I find it astonishing that archives are not more widely used. The Orange County Archives has all of the historic records and photographs from the county government. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) has an extensive library and archive. UCLA Film and Television Archive is one of the best archives in the country for film. The Japanese American National Museum has a research center and archive that documents the museum’s collection. Most recently, Chapman University here in Orange has become home to the Center for American War Letters Archive. Those are simply a few of the more prominent archives in the area. All of this, and yet so few bother to go to the archive for an adventure to the past.
Archives are custodians of this unique material, and a house of history. But the truth is, too few students go to visit them. Archives are tragically underused for research and education. If more teachers encouraged undergraduates to do research in an archive, history would no longer be the cold, boring, abstract and inaccessible subject that many students argue that it is. They would find themselves transported to the past, maybe just for a moment! I promise that a moment would be enough.
Associate Professor of American History
University of California Irvine