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Guest Opinion: Iowa is at a precipice of "historic" proportions

BY GUEST OPINION | MARCH 25, 2015 5:00 AM

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The state of Iowa stands at a precipice that too few of its citizens realize. We are at risk of losing access to a substantial portion of the state’s history that is richly documented in original diaries, letters, land-ownership maps, photographs, the records of civic and religious organizations, oral histories, and countless other original sources, currently housed by the State Historical Society at its two branches, in Iowa City and Des Moines. This risk is being perpetrated, largely without public input, by state officials in the Department of Cultural Affairs and by consultants whose advice is misguided and ill-informed.

Access to our history has already been significantly degraded in recent years by state bureaucratic decisions to cut staff and hours at the Iowa City facility in the Society’s Centennial Building. In the archives and library, only two professional staff members will remain of what was a staff of 20 librarians and archivists. The society is now only open three days a week compared with five full days in the recent past.

Why does this matter to us as citizens of this state? The history housed in the Society’s archives and library represents our collective memory and our common heritage. Those records tell stories about who we are as a people and how this state came to embody the culture and values we have.

They give life to our institutions and our communities. They make possible the reconstruction of the lives of ordinary people from the past who are our grandparents and the generations that came before them. Their efforts to improve their communities, to seek equity and fairness, and to leave a record of their lives is a history we cherish.

Some argue, following current fashion, that all of this can be digitized and made accessible through the Internet. Such a view betrays an ignorance and fundamental lack of understanding of how historical investigation is done. Primary documents have an inherent, tangible value. Their arrangement and description by a professional archivist or librarian make possible a qualitatively different kind of access than a “Google search” might enable. In a library or archive, it is possible to move easily, with the help of professional staff, from one kind of record to another — an immigrant ship register, a manuscript census record, a plat or fire insurance map, a diary or scattered collection of correspondence, a photograph of a farmstead, workplace, church or community hall.

They provide threads and connections that permit the reconstruction of a life or a community that random digitized records, using a “key word” search, cannot begin to replicate. And digital records cannot produce the “affective learning” — the sense of personal connection and meaning that working with the original document can produce and what may produce for a student or a senior a lifelong fascination with understanding the past.

The fad of digitization should not be allowed to distract from what must be an ongoing commitment to collecting, preserving, and making accessible the rich history of this state. Our history did not stop in the 1970s or 1980s. Continuing to build our historical collections for the future is integral to what professional archivists and librarians do. It is work on our behalf. The mindless budget cutting that leads to proposals to reduce the hours and staff of the State Historical Society to the point where it is impossible to fulfill its mission must be stopped. In the end this is a very small portion of the state’s budget.

Write to your legislators and the Department of Cultural Affairs. Tell them to restore the cuts to staff and hours of these archives and libraries that have served the state so well.

Shelton Stromquist, UI history professor emeritus


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