The Importance of Archives

12 Apr

by Gemma Tennyson-

This semester I have had the amazing opportunity to intern at the Missouri State Archives. I have been learning so much about the preservation of history, especially of primary source documents. The St. Louis branch of the archives has most of the St. Louis circuit court documents from 1800 to around 1875. The archives house a large collection of court indexes and case files. One important job that is being done at the St. Louis branch is document preservation of cleaning and humidifying documents.

Court documents are usually folded up and shoved into small filing cabinets. It is important to preserve these documents and be able to read them. Many of the files have coal dust and dirt deposited on them. At the archives we spend a lot of time cleaning, unfolding, and taking apart these documents. They are often fastened together by grommets, ribbon, or glue. After they are cleaned and separated, we are able to humidify the documents.The humidification process takes the most folded wrinkly paper and makes it flat without harming the documents. It uses water vapors to smooth out the paper. They are then dried with specific materials that prevent harm. This is an important step because it makes the documents easier to digitize. There is a large push to make archival material available online through the Missouri State Archive website.

Why is it important for these documents to be preserved?  Interning there as made me realize how important the preservation is for a variety of reasons. Court documents are some of the best primary sources. The Missouri State Archives in St. Louis have daily calls and emails from researchers across the United States. There have been many books that have used St. Louis court documents for sources. One important case that the archive processed was the Dred and Harriett Scott freedom case. Now many of the documents that were found are being used in the Dred Scott exhibit in the Old Courthouse in downtown St. Louis.

Some of the documents have helped to present current events, including the issues of control with the St. Louis City Police Department. The archive was able to find the documents that gave the State of Missouri control. In the last few months this has been a big issue for the City of St. Louis to take control back from the State. It was important for the government and city officials to see why the state took over to begin with. All of these are important impacts of the preservation of the court documents.

Many historic sites, museums, states, and even large corporations have their own achieves. What are your thoughts on keeping historical documents even after digitization? How can we benefit as researchers from seeing both digitized and real documents?

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