Archives and the Power of Democratizing History

By Jenny DeRocher

On September 17, 2020, President Trump announced while standing inside the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) headquarters that he is starting a “patriotic education” commission, which would have a “pro-American curriculum.” Whether or not this goes forward, this national news story demands a community-level discussion: how do we, the community of La Crosse, promote fair education in our places of learning? How do we celebrate and learn about history in our daily lives? Who holds evidence and does that evidence fit the narrative of a “pro-American curriculum,” whatever that means?

These are questions that have been burning in me recently. I am a trained public historian and a librarian. Which means that what I care most about is making information accessible to the public. I enjoy inspiring interest—dare I say passion—in history-related topics within my community and friends.

So in recent community conversations, when I heard the argument that statues are an important tool to learn and appreciate the history of La Crosse in defense of a racist monument, I couldn’t help but feel defensive. Where did all these people caring about local history education come from? It’s hard for me to get people to engage in my work—where I teach different topics in La Crosse history regularly. How did a racist statue, that has no history panel contextualizing its history—or La Crosse history—become the symbol of local history education? Whose history education, exactly, is it important for? 

I will make my argument here, among these questions: history narratives need archives, which are the repositories of our society’s evidence. The narrative that the Hiawatha statue carried—the idea that he stood for peace and celebrated indigenous history—never matched up with the evidence in our archives. Trump’s “pro-American curriculum” will never match up with the evidence in our nation’s archives. History is complicated. Forming and writing history narratives require patience and citations and research. And it deserves many perspectives.

The mission of the National Archives is to strengthen American democracy by providing access to our nation’s records, which can help U.S. citizens hold our government accountable and understand our country’s history better. So when President Trump chose to make his announcement about his patriotic education campaign, which he is calling the “1776 Project,” on the floor of NARA, it hit me deeply. He and his administration purposefully chose a place that holds and makes accessible literal evidence that doesn’t match up with the monotonous narrative of the 1776 Project.

But What Are Archives?

Archives don’t make it in the news, or even pop culture, very often. And when they do, they are often misrepresented as dusty places where secrets are held under the protection of these smart-aleck, curmudgeonly geniuses (AKA archivists) who haven’t seen the sun since they were children, before they started a life of protecting secrets and obviously—from the looks of their hair and skin—sleeping in piles of dusty papers.

La Crosse is home to two archival repositories and I can promise you if you visit one of them, this will not be your experience. These two archives—the La Crosse Public Library Archives (LPLA) and the UWL Murphy Library Special Collections and Area Research Center (UWL MLSC/ARC)—play an integral role in our community. That seems dramatic, perhaps, but let me make a case.

Archives collect and document records relating to a community’s cultural heritage, and then archivists work to make those records accessible to the public. They provide outreach and programming around those materials to try and contextualize them. They connect with local teachers and professors and work hard to get students engaging with primary sources. They build websites and indexes and online databases and interactive maps and provide tips on how to search and use these resources.

And this isn’t even what is integral to the community. It’s the preserved records: the proof of existing. Cultures around the world have different ways of preserving their existence. In some cultures, this is preserved through oral tradition. Some cultures exist despite the efforts of colonialist governments trying to erase them from records, and they have found resourceful ways to keep records—or even languages, traditions, and spirituality—alive through attempted cultural genocide. But in the U.S., paper records are generally considered the way to prove existence.

Let me tell you three stories. Each is very different and deserves more background than I will lay out, but they all have the same theme: archives and the records they hold are essential for history education. And the evidence held in these records cannot simply be flattened under a patriotic education campaign.

Records and Colonialism in America

From 1754 until 1917 the U.S. Virgin Islands were under the colonial rule of Denmark. When the Kingdom of Denmark sold the islands to the U.S. in 1917, they were sure to take with them the 150+ years of records that held the evidence of the islands’ histories and inhabitants. And as a U.S. territory, any new records created were held primarily in the mainland U.S., leaving the people of the Virgin Islands without access to their written cultural heritage. 

The reason I know this story is because one of my professors in graduate school was archivist Jeanette Bastian, who was the head librarian of the Virgin Islands for many decades. During her time there, Dr. Bastian managed natural disasters like floods and hurricanes that wreaked havoc on the livelihood of Virgin Islanders, including the libraries that she was in charge of. But she was also constantly faced with the fact that the Islanders, who had lived there for hundreds of years and many generations at the hands of colonial Denmark, had limited records of their existence. They had no proof of the land they owned, the taxes they paid, their births, marriages, and deaths. And what was worse was that colonial Denmark had set the foundation of their local government to be dependent on these records. 

Though Dr. Bastian witnessed the barriers that Virgin Islanders faced without their records, she also noticed the resilience of the Islanders, who formed an oral tradition to keep their history and cultural heritage alive. And through hearing her friends’ and communities’ collective memory, she realized that their own, celebrated history built through generations of experiences held more weight than interpreting their history through the records of their colonizer. 

This story exemplifies a history that isn’t told in U.S. education, even though there is evidence of this story held at NARA. But it doesn’t match up with President Trump’s proposed 1776 Project, does it?

The Archives War

When the Republic of Texas was formed in 1836, it was amidst a state of unrest. Within the first five years of its existence, the Republic’s capital city—and therefore archival records—were moved to three different cities. The first two acting presidents, Sam Houston and Mirabeau Lamar argued over whether the government seat should be Houston or Austin. 

When he was serving as the third president of the Republic, Sam Houston was rejected by Texas Congress to move the archives yet another time. Under the guise of needing to protect the archives from Comanche raids, Houston sent a group to secretly load the archives from the General Land Office in Austin onto wagons and bring them back to the city of Houston. 

Austin residents largely disagreed with moving the seat of government from their community. When local boarding house owner Angelina Eberly caught Sam Houston’s men packing the archives into their wagons, she ran to a nearby cannon and fired at the men and the Land Office. However, no one was hurt and the archives received no damage. The men then took off slowly in their 30 wagons towards Houston. 

This statue depicts Angelina Eberly firing a six-pound cannon in Austin. Mitchellhobbs/CC BY-SA 4.0

When Austinians caught up, they demanded that the records be transported back to Austin, and Houston’s men relented, worried that more violence would jeopardize the safety of the archives. Some sources report that the archives were held in Angelina Eberly’s boarding house for some time after the battle, making Eberly one of the key figures in preserving Austin as the capital of Texas and home of the archives. Today, there is a statue of her, celebrating her legacy of saving the capital city of Austin, with little critique of her firing a cannon at the very archival records she was fighting to keep in her community.

Today, the records from the Republic of Texas (the treaties, military records, land titles, etc.) are safe for researchers to access and consume in their history education. 

Wisconsin’s State Capitol Fire of 1904

Robert La Follette is one of Wisconsin’s most notorious state officials. He served as governor from 1901-1906 and then was elected as a State Senator for 20 years after that. Often referred to as “Fighting Bob,” Governor La Follette was a national leader in progressive reform. And he single-handedly saved our state’s recorded history.

On an early winter morning in February 1904, a newly-installed and “highly varnished” pine ceiling within our state’s capital was too close to a gas jet. The resulting fire spread quickly. The corridors acted like flues for the fire. Governor La Follette woke up to the news by 4 a.m. and when he reached the blazing capital, he ran into the building and led an effort to save nearly all of the pre-1904 state records, correspondence files, and the law library. 

Governor Robert M. La Follette, Sr. Public Domain

To this day, the state of Wisconsin has Governor La Follette to thank for much of our early recorded history. Dozens of other state capitals and municipal buildings around the nation faced similar fires with no “Fighting Bob” to run and grab the archives. La Follette stood for the Wisconsin Idea, which to him meant that academic research at the university could better the quality of life for the rural citizens of Wisconsin. He saved the records because he saw how they fit into the Wisconsin Idea, and today we can use history research to improve our relationship with our cultural heritage, and therefore, our quality of life.

Question Your History Sources

I share these stories to highlight that archives are places where evidence is stored, and that evidence is essential in how we frame ourselves in history narratives. Archives hold information that is multifaceted and complicated and do not align with President Trump’s predetermined narrative. And to be clear, it isn’t even taught in our current or traditional curriculum and textbooks. History shouldn’t be taught from one perspective and should never be presented in a way that is “pro” anything. Arguably, “pro-American” should mean teaching and learning from many perspectives, because that is the foundation of a true democracy.

All I’m asking is that you approach history as more complicated than one, simple narrative. To strengthen our democracy, question your history sources. Think about who the narrator is, the origins of the primary sources, why they still exist, and who holds the power within them. Think about who is left out, and what reasons there are for those voices to be unrepresented. And if there are no records to give you answers to your questions, what does that mean about our records? Our record keepers? Our society? 

Remember as you learn, spread, and teach information, that historians and archivists and records can perhaps provide facts, but that doesn’t mean they are objective. This will give us a stronger community and democratic society.

Author’s note: This article portrays views of my own and I do not represent the La Crosse Public Library or the UWL Murphy Library in any way. 

Jenny DeRocher fell in love with La Crosse history while studying at UWL. After earning her Master’s in Library and Information Sciences in Boston, she returned to La Crosse so she could return to what she loves most: inspiring passion in her community about local history.

Top image shows the Public library, St. Thomas, Virgin Islands. Credit: American National Red Cross photograph collection (Library of Congress).

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