Why preserving historical documents is important

While researching local servicemen and women who were killed during World War II, I ran into an obstacle. The military records for the vast majority of them had been destroyed.

This wasn’t an intentional choice.  A massive fire at the National Personnel Records Center in 1973 obliterated the service records for about 80% of Army and Air Force veterans who had been discharged between 1912 and 1960. A smaller percentage of Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard records were also lost.

This was not the first time that a large collection of historically important documents was lost.  A fire in 1921 destroyed all of the original data from the 1890 Census.  The household-by-household records would have been a tremendous resource for researchers, offering unique insight into issues such as  immigration, industrialization, and westward migration.

Reaction to the loss led to the creation of the National Archives, which has been hard at work to collect and preserve important historical documents.  It was there, a few weeks ago, that  a researcher found a previously unknown letter from a young doctor to his superiors, describing the death of Abraham Lincoln.

Helena Iles Papaioannou was at the National Archives, looking for correspondence written to or from the 16th president when she found ther report.

In the 21-page letter, Dr. Charles Leale described seeing the shooting from his seat about 40 feet from he president’s box.   He goes on to explain in detail how he examined Lincoln, helped move him to a boarding house across the street, and stayed with the President until his death the following morning.

This document was found in the collected papers of the Surgeon General’s office, an archive which you might imagine has only been examined infrequently, and only by the most ardent researchers.

But thanks to the efforts of the National Archives, that document survived for nearly 150 years, waiting to be uncovered.

Another notable example of record loss occurred in 1836, when a fire destroyed all the records of the Patent Office (and the office itself).  Nearly 10,000 patents had been issued since the agency opened in 1790.  Congress enacted sweeping reform and launched an effort to reconstruct the records from copies that had been issued to inventors.  Fewer than 3,000 of those patents were recovered.

As part of the reform, the Patent Office created repository libraries where copies of these documents could be stored.  One of those is housed in downtown Rochester, on the third floor of the Public Library’s main branch on South Avenue.  The premise was that even if a disaster struck one location, it wasn’t likely to happen at dozens of locations.

The digital age has made it much easier to preserve documents by digitizing them, but that’s a laborious process, and vast swathes of historical documents still only exist in their original, hard copy form. Who knows what other gems are out their waiting to be discovered, tucked into a cardboard box somewhere in the basement of some government building.

This article originally appeared in the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle.