The Record - January 1998

Editor's Column

Exporting Documentary History

The United States Information Agency has included in its "American Studies Collection" approximately 100 volumes from historical documentary publications funded by the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC). The American Studies Collection, totaling some 1,300 volumes on topics relating to American civilization, will be placed in 57 participating libraries around the world.

Cover of the American Studies Collection

In 1993, two scholars from Romania, in conversations with the Historian of the U.S. House of Representatives and with officials of the National Archives, painted a bleak picture of the availability in Romania of documents and histories on the development of democratic institutions in the United States. The scholars lamented the fact that, as Romania and other countries in Eastern Europe are beginning their own experiments in democracy, their people do not have a documentary foundation to help inform their deliberations. Other scholars from different parts of the world have echoed the concerns of the Romanian scholars.

Officials from the NHPRC met with officials from the USIA to develop a program to provide such a documentary foundation to libraries abroad. Earlier that year, the Congress had passed legislation to provide collections of books comprising the core of recent American Studies scholarship to libraries abroad with American Studies programs. The NHPRC-USIA initiative was designed to complement that program. The American Studies book program provides monographic works; the NHPRC book program, Documents of Democracy: The Library of American Historical Documentary Volumes, provides documentary materials.

Since the inception of its grant program in 1964, the NHPRC has supported over 200 projects nationwide which have gathered and published in book and microform editions great reservoirs of original documents relating to the history and culture of the United States. At universities, historical societies, libraries, and state historical agencies, editors have undertaken extensive national and international searches for material, efforts which could be achieved only by teams of researchers. Published mostly by university presses, the various scholarly book series produced by these editorial teams have yielded challenging new information and insight into the American past. It is from those published materials that the foreign distribution program derived its collection.

In 1994, the NHPRC selected a committee of three individuals to choose approximately 100 volumes from the list of Commission-sponsored editions to provide a core collection covering the sweep of American history. The committee was chaired by Dr. Maeva Marcus, editor of the Documentary History of the Supreme Court, a project sponsored by the Supreme Court Historical Society. Her colleagues on the committee included Dr. Ira Berlin, Professor of History at the University of Maryland, and Dr. Richard Baker, Historian of the US Senate.

USIA's library services abroad are highly effective in communicating democratic values and information about the history and culture of the United States. The role of the libraries as advanced reference centers is growing, their purpose to provide materials that will help people in foreign countries learn about the United States—its people, history, culture, and political and social processes. The documentary library will make a significant contribution to that effort.

In making these materials available abroad, the documentary library program can make a special impact on how scholars and citizens in other countries view the United States, how they understand this country's cultural diversity and its traditions, successes, and failures. These documents represent source materials necessary for an understanding of the achievements of individuals and national movements and reveal information on issues we still confront today.

In this country, the impact of these published documentary works is affecting curricula and teaching at the college and secondary school levels, is providing the basis for public programming in a variety of media, and is influencing public policy and the national consciousness. These materials, now made available to scholars and others in foreign countries, can, we believe, promote greater understanding abroad of many of the elements of America's democratic experiment.

Roger A. Bruns