Yesterday a room of sharply dressed archivists, librarians and book conservators burst into laughter at a joke about mildew. They’re a funny bunch, these keepers of our national record, excited by different things than you and I. When they mention the billions of records, of which only a sliver has been digitized, currently stored in limestone caves in Lenexa, Kan., their eyes light up like deep-sea explorers contemplating the ocean. They all have stories to tell.
Stories like the time they found a trove of Walt Whitman documents written while he was a clerk in the Attorney General’s office. They were forgotten documents, which were only identified by a scholar who recognized the handwriting and made the connection. Or the photo unearthed of FDR standing beneath the newly laid keel of the USS Arizona in 1913, while the then-secretary of the navy was touring the Brooklyn Navy Yards. The same ship, of course, whose destruction in Pearl Harbor 28 years later would lead to arguably FDR’s most famous speech, and with it a declaration of war. As with any explorers, when they talk about the often serendipitous thrill of discovery, their enthusiasm is infectious.
“We guide people on the fun experience of doing research,” said Dorothy Dougherty, arching one eyebrow. The public programs director for the National Archives’ New York City branch, Ms. Dougherty was guiding The Observer through a tour of the U.S. record keeper’s new home downtown, inside the Alexander Hamilton Customs House on Bowling Green.
Downstairs, curators have put on an exhibit titled The World’s Port, highlighting the various documents and records of New York Harbor. Among the notable pieces are manifest lists drawn up and signed by Herman Melville in 1867 when he was a clerk at the customs house. The exhibition is meant as an homage to the building that had taken in the archives as much as it is to the historical documents housed within it.
It’s easy to make any number of ill-conceived and off-the-cuff comments about youth and the digital world. That in this internet-addled age of instant gratification, an institution like the National Archives might seem archaic. An agency that can only offer excitement through the careful, and often tedious, task of sorting physical documents. Or, as we like to say now, data-mining.
But that wouldn’t be true. According to a Pew Research Center poll released on Monday, nearly 60 percent of Americans between 16 to 29 frequented a library, and not just to surf the web: to conduct research, borrow prints and to read magazines and newspapers. Call it the Millennial Paradox. Somehow the more digitized our worlds become, the more we crave the physical connection to an object that exists in our hands.
It’s this connection that the National Archives only hopes to foster through its various programs. “The mission of the National Archives,” said David Ferriero, archivist of the United States, “is to ensure that the records of the country are available for the American public to hold the government accountable for their actions. To learn how decisions were made, to explore their family history and the history of the country through those documents.”
Formerly located on desolate Varick Street, the new offices of the National Archives in New York are located on the second floor of the customs house, with locals and out-of-towners bustling about outside between work and play, between the ferry, the Battery and the canyons of Wall Street. The new space just happens to be the same office where Melville worked 145 years ago, as one of the archive’s researchers recently discovered.
“There’s no filter here,” said Mr. Ferriero, sitting in the newly refurbished research library, “It’s the high points and the low points of our government history. We only try to provide context whereby we can encourage the public to discover the past for themselves.”