Old government records are on my mind. Yesterday, I worked in downtown Stockton with one of members of the San Joaquin County Historic Records Inventory Project. So far, the team has inventoried about fifteen hundred items, bound volumes that range in size from small to enormous. We still have a long way to go before we're finished.
I couldn't helping asking myself how I would justify going to this trouble.
Several answers came to my mind, and there are probably others. One of the most obvious is hard to explain: We—or lots of us, at least—just like old "stuff." I suppose old objects allow us to touch the past. I see this impulse related to the acquisition of antique furniture, machinery, and clothing. The possibility of making money—witness Antiques Roadshow—seems to solidify this impulse.
Another justification speaks to identity, the need to understand our origins, not only at the personal level but also among groups and nations. I've lost track of the number of patrons who've visited the archives at the San Joaquin County Historical Museum in search of tiny bits of genealogical data: a birth date, the name of a long-lost grandparent, or when a couple married. Those pieces may be small, but they are very important for genealogists. In many cases, they can't be found anywhere else except government records.
Much the same can be said for history as a formal discipline. At times, government records buttress major interpretations that deal with significant issues. Sometimes, they're crucial for the never-ending quest to understand human thought and behavior. The hope, according to the familiar truism, is that the process of grappling with weighty historical issues will help us avoid making mistakes that marred the decisions of our forebears.
One of the most compelling justifications for this project, though, is the practical value of the records. Today, all sorts of legal decisions hinge on historical evidence. Attorneys, administrators, judges, elected officials, and a host of others depend on reliable records to arrive at just and fair decisions. Think about it: contracts, property rights, child custody, rights of way, and real estate title all rest on reliable historic records. Those of us who live in and around the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta need not be reminded that claims to water rights also depend on historic documentation.
So is it worth the effort? It doesn't bother me at all to serve as a guide for antiquarians, genealogists, historians, and a host of professionals that turn to such records to avoid endless disputes and untold grief.