When I was a kid, watching the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark, as the Ark is taken to an enormous warehouse and stored among piles of boxes of who knows what, I wanted to shout (with every other kid in the theater), “No, that’s really important!” Then I remember thinking, “If the ark is in that box, what’s in all the others?”
Last week when I visited the National Archives in Washington DC and Archives II in College Park, Maryland, that Raiders of the Lost Ark feeling came back.
As we walked through the stacks, our guides would stop, take down a box and pull out a document–a telegraph message from Abraham Lincoln–then put that back on the shelf and move on to another box, another document–George A. Custer’s acceptance letter from West Point–put that back, then go to another part of the building and take down the next box, the next document.
Of course I mention the big-name examples, but we also looked at service records from average soldiers, correspondence from various agencies, photographs, court records–you name it. Pretty soon I came to feel like I was in that warehouse from the Indiana Jones movie and each document held a story that someone really needed to get out of that box.
The other great thing about the visit was the people who work at the National Archives. It was like being back in that theater with all those other kids who wanted to shout, “Don’t just put that in there!” They know the collections so well and as far as I could tell, they genuinely love what they do. I was impressed at the lengths they go to maintain these records and help people find what they are looking for.
Anyway, it was a great trip. I’m excited about our partnership with the National Archives and I can’t wait to get some of those documents out of their boxes and onto the internet where their stories can be told.