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What Are Historical Records?

We live in an information age in which we are bombarded on a daily basis by reams of paper, scores of visual images, and hours of sound and/or film.  The world has “gone digital,” vastly increasing our exposure to and processing of information that we would never have seen a decade ago.  We are inundated with e-mails, and we may additionally subscribe to blogs, e-zines, or social networking sites.  We, ourselves, generate significant quantities of information.  Much of it is routine or of fleeting value.  The scribbled note to “get milk at the store,” or the quick e-mail to arrange a meeting with a friend will be tossed into the trash or deleted.  These bits of information have disappeared into the dustbin of history and it’s no great loss.

Yet, mixed into the mountain of the mundane are also items of enduring value.  These are called “historical records.”  Those words make many people think of the Declaration of Independence, the Gettysburg Address, or a letter from Theodore Roosevelt.  Certainly, these are important historical records, but they are not the only valuable ones.  A death certificate for Martha Brown, a bird’s-eye view of Nedrow, a bill from the Cluett Piano Company, a family photograph on an internet host site, or a digital movie that is found online may have enduring value, too.  Historical records of all kinds are the raw materials of history.

Student Journal Account of 1888 Blizzard
School Menu from Vestal Central School District

When people write something, take a photograph, or make a digital recording, they do not do so with the conscious intention of creating a historical record.  Instead, as people and organizations go about their daily business, they create many kinds of information in a variety of formats.  Historical records created right around the classroom include:

  • A teacher’s grade book;
  • Minutes of school board meetings;
  • Monthly lunch menus prepared by the school dietician;
  • A student’s personal diary or online blog;
  • Financial accounts of a company that sells textbooks;
  • Student portfolios or projects, whether digital or paper-based.

There are many other kinds of information created by groups, individuals, or organizations that have enduring value.  They may include written documents like wills, tax assessment records, letters, or birth records.  They might be visual resources like photographs, maps, posters, films, or architectural drawings.  Most of these resources are paper-based documents, but with today’s technology, some resources only exist in digital form in computer databases or on the internet.  An ever-growing number of archival documents have been scanned and added to online collections of primary source images, making them readily accessible to researchers, teachers, and students.

Historical records do not have to be old; in fact, to some students, information that is 20 years old seems very remote.  But all historical records must contain useful information about people, places, events, or subjects — information that people need or can use in accomplishing their own daily activities.  These information resources can be of value to others.  People from all walks of life use historical records in their work: lawyers researching legal matters, public policy planners seeking information on previous government actions, genealogists and historians tracing personal and social roots, architects and engineers attempting to maintain and restore buildings, journalists following a lead, students pursuing research and, of course, teachers who prepare their own instructional materials.  For this reason, the following retain and preserve historical records and make them available to the public:

  • local and state governments, and the Federal government; 
  • historical societies and libraries; 
  • religious organizations; 
  • businesses; 
  • clubs; and 
  • individuals.