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You Can Look It Up, America

Documents matter in a democracy.

January 20, 2003|Tom Wheeler | Tom Wheeler is president of the Foundation for the National Archives and author of "Take Command! Leadership Lessons From the Civil War" (Doubleday, 2001).

Despots despise records. When Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990, one of his first acts was to loot the Kuwaiti government's national archives.

In this, Hussein was applying one of the clear lessons of history: Those who would abrogate people's rights or overthrow governments destroy documents to erase identity and the rule of law. In George Orwell's "1984," Big Brother destroyed each day's records nightly so that there would be nothing to stand in the way of whatever totalitarian decision was made the next day.

Leaders of Nazi Germany made the destruction of particular records a cornerstone of their efforts at world domination. The flames that leaped from the 1933 burning of the Weimar Republic's constitution presaged the abhorrent events to follow.

More recently, the Serbian government sought to obliterate the identities of the Kosovar people by destroying records that documented their rights and history.

Democracies are based on the establishment of individual rights and freedoms and the documentation of those rights through national records and archives. Our nation has long held our records sacred, both for what they establish about our past and for the guideposts they offer for our future. The Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights are tangible reminders of our civic legacy; without them we are denied our democratic heritage.

Our founding fathers had the foresight to create charters that not only reflected the American ideal but also were flexible and relevant over time. Those who followed had the courage to stand up for those ideals, whether on battlefields like Gettysburg and the beaches of Normandy, at the portal of Ellis Island or in the streets of Selma, Ala. The documents that tell these stories are the records of Americans facing and overcoming threats and challenges.

As we face a new generation of threats to our liberty and prepare for another war, these documents can be both our inspiration and our guideposts.

On Constitution Day this Sept. 17, the National Archives Building in Washington, which is being renovated, will reopen with the newly restored charters of freedom on display. There will be improved security to assure their availability for future generations. In addition, the National Archives has launched a new effort, the National Archives Experience, which includes new exhibits, a learning center and interactive programs that will make things like the Emancipation Proclamation, Edison's patent application for the lightbulb, census data and film archives accessible to the public.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt articulated the importance of a national archives at the opening of his presidential library in 1941: "To bring together the records of the past and to house them in buildings where they will be preserved for the use of men and women in the future, a nation must believe in three things. It must believe in the past. It must believe in the future. It must, above all, believe in the capacity of its own people so to learn from the past that they gain judgment in creating their own future."

For those who hold freedom and democracy dear, records do matter.

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