The American Revolution and Access to Public Records

The Declaration: Mural by Barry Faulkner [click here to see who’s who]

Some of my reading this week for library school has focused on the historical and contemporary importance of records in American life. Archives have played a significant role in building a sense of national identity and in the creation and protection of civil rights and government responsibilities.

The idea that archives preserve evidence and are therefore instrumental in holding accountable those in power is one of the reasons we have such repositories today. [Although in the case of our current political crisis what does evidence matter if, A) those in power don’t care about wrongdoing and B) there seems to be a colossal failure in checks and balances meant to actually hold people accountable? But I digress.]

In last week’s “What I learned in library school” post, I wrote about how the French Revolution helped create the card catalog. This week’s post centers on a revolution closer to home, The American Revolution.

Declaration of Independence
Read & learn more at the National Archives

When was the last time you read The Declaration of Independence? Do you remember the fourth complaint? It comes after the first three complaints about how the King of Great Britain was interfering with Laws the colonists wanted to implement for self-governance and before concerns regarding the dissolution of representation and then not allowing elections to seat new representatives. Laws, representatives, elections. Major issues we continue to struggle over today.

Sandwiched between these crucial complaints is the forth complaint:

He [the King] has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.

Read the Declaration of Independence HERE on the National Archives website.

This complaint points out not only the challenges that occur when a meeting is set in a weird and unsuitable location but, significant to the study of archives, it also highlights the problems involved when the meeting location is set in a place where documents are not easily accessible. These governing documents serve as evidence — reminders of previous debates and resolutions and as support to form new arguments.

I don’t know about you, but for me the issue of public records did not jump out at me in past readings of the Declaration of Independence. My guess is that I probably thought about representatives having to travel to remote places at the last minute in horse-drawn carriages on muddy or icy roads that were often impassable.

Now I imagine not only the rough travel and inhospitable working conditions but also not having the document needed to support an argument or lacking evidence about something the King’s representatives agreed to in the past. Maybe they had to reschedule and delay pressing matters, or wait days for an assistant to travel back to the depository to get what was needed. I can picture them loading wagons full of wooden crates filled with papers and ledgers to take to the meeting, just in case.

It is kind of wild to think about, isn’t it? We have so many ways of creating, copying, storing, and accessing records today — even at the tap of our phone screens — that it is hard to imagine a time when there was only one document and maybe a few copies to support or denounce an assertion that could protect or threaten the rights of an individual or an entire population.

Let me know if you found this interesting or if you have any questions about archives, libraries, or my school experience.

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