Knute Berger at the Nordic Heritage Museum, AKCHO Annual Meeting, January 31, 2017. Photo by Teresa Anderson.
At the annual meeting of the Association of King County Heritage Organizations, in a keynote address he described as a “love-letter of a kind,” Crosscut columnist Knute Berger reminded AKCHO members — historical societies, preservation organizations, archives, libraries, and museums from around King County — how their work supports journalism.
Journalists need facts, you have them. The public needs context, perspective, and together we can provide it.
– Knute Berger, AKCHO keynote address January 31, 2017
In his address, Berger warned that growing economic pressures and technological change are straining both journalism and heritage organizations, and that we face these challenges at a time when our physical and social environments are also rapidly changing, when preserving and remembering our history is especially important.
It is a dangerous time if journalism flounders—and it *is* floundering, faced with disruptive technological change, shifting business models, and downsizing. That is no good for our democracy. We need a literate, informed, and motivated electorate, and constitutionally protected media that speak truth to power.
It is a dangerous time if we are not informed by the past, by actual history. Many of the most precious resources that feed democracy—libraries, historical societies, archives, museums—have barely recovered from the knife cuts of the Great Recession and require more resources to modernize. Our built environment is now symbolized by cranes and the wrecking ball. Heritage groups have been impacted by technological changes and changes in the public’s attention span now too often limited to Facebook feeds or messages of no more than 140 characters, your Twitter handle excluded.
Berger described using local repositories to research several recent stories, including a series on racist place names in Washington State (see for example, “Racist Names to be Scrubbed from Washington Maps“).
I have looked at maps, mining claim documents, photographs, and probed databases, read reports from local historians and historical societies to understand how our names on the map came to be, and why they are important, why changing them might or might not be a good idea.
The variety of sources Berger consults in his work speaks to the importance of wide and deep research in establishing facts and in understanding and interpreting history.
Detail of map showing Coon Creek, one of the racist place names discussed in Berger’s series. Snoqualmie National Forest Cedar Lake Road No. 222, 1938. Series 488, Department of Transportation Road Services Division Maps and plans: Virtual Map Vault. King County Archives.
Historical records as evidence
In discussing maps, Berger pointed out that even some original, historical records, in so far as they are products of a given culture, don’t necessarily describe reality.
Maps are a mix of facts and alternative facts. To be on a map is to be, to exist. Remove a village from a map and its inhabitants will cry foul. But the politics of how places get named and after what or whom is important. How maps can reflect our best and worst selves is good to understand. Maps are where the rubber of regional and national identity hits the road, and a reassessment of values and history takes place.
Historical records can reflect cultural or other bias. They can also capture a record-keeper’s arbitrary decisions or mistakes. And, not insignificantly, they are limited by the technology employed to establish facts and to record them. Thus, piecing together multiple perspectives and cross-checking assertions from multiple sources, both primary and secondary, is critical to creating an accurate historical picture.
At the King County Archives, our primary role is not to interpret history, but to preserve and provide access to records that help establish and explain it. Our clients include teachers and students, business owners, homeowners, academics, attorneys, government employees, hobbyists, genealogists, engineers, policymakers, journalists, and others, from all walks of life.
It is our job, along with other heritage organizations, to record what was and what is, to preserve a sense of place, to document rights and obligations, and to invite newcomers to join in our region’s shared history.
Both Berger’s address and the AKCHO meeting served as a reminder that although we have different missions, institutions such as schools, news organizations, museums, libraries, and archives all share in common the desire to promote interest in and understanding of the past to inform the present.
Thanks to Knute Berger for permission to quote his keynote address here.