Have you been watching “The Roosevelts” on PBS? Bully!
As many know, President Franklin Roosevelt was instrumental in the creation of the National Archives, signing the 1934 Act that established both the Archives and the National Historical Publications Commission (later renamed as the National Historical Publications and Records Commission).
But it was President Theodore Roosevelt who actually started the whole process. In the 1880s and 1890s, the American Historical Association began pushing for a national archives and for a commission to “edit and publish” historical documents of national significance.
In 1905, Roosevelt established the Commission on Department Methods, headed by Charles Keep, to consider, among its many reforms, the care of Federal records and the publication of historical materials. Over the next few years, the Keep Commission researched and worked on recommendations, and by 1909, the Commission’s Report called for a national archives and a Commission on Historical Publications. Several bills were introduced in Congress, but they were not passed before the end of Roosevelt’s second term.
But that didn’t stop TR’s interest in archives and history. In 1912, he was named President of the American Historical Association, and his Presidential Address, “History as Literature” is oddly prescient and vital to this day. He said:
The great historian of the future will have easy access to innumerable facts patiently gathered by tens of thousands of investigators, whereas the great historian of the past had very few facts, and often had to gather most of these himself. The great historian of the future cannot be excused if he fails to draw on the vast storehouses of knowledge that have been accumulated, if he fails to profit by the wisdom and work of other men, which are now the common property of all intelligent men. He must use the instruments which the historians of the past did not have ready to hand. Yet even with these instruments he cannot do as good work as the best of the elder historians unless he has vision and imagination, the power to grasp what is essential and to reject the infinitely more numerous nonessentials, the power to embody ghosts, to put flesh and blood on dry bones, to make dead men living before our eyes. In short he must have the power to take the science of history and turn it into literature.
Made me think of the Internet and the role that historians play in using archives to tell the American Story.