The Record - March 1998

Editor's Column

Signs of the Millennium

The signs of the millennium are mostly good. But not all of them. On Sunday, January 4, 1998, the Washington Post's "Book World" section ran a headline entitled "The Start of Something Big." The article was about five new books with so-called millennium-related subjects. All five of them were about aliens invading the earth.

Thankfully, another part of the millennium will be a celebration of our history and culture. As in the 1976 Bicentennial, the celebration of the past will take many forms. In that year we had anniversary tea parties. We had George Washington cherry-tree ice cream. We had Revolutionary War dolls in contemporary dress. There were mammoth birthday cakes with two hundred candles. There were fire hydrants colorfully decorated into miniature figures of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. There were commemorative ingots, franchised neckties, full-color T-shirts emblazoned with Washington crossing the Delaware, and plaques, flags, and contests.

There were also laudable attempts to bring history closer to our national consciousness. For example, the National Historical Publications and Records Commission here at the National Archives and Records Administration received matching grant funds from the American Revolution Bicentennial Commission for some of its supported projects. We hope that the upcoming millennium celebration will offer even grander possibilities. Indeed, I believe that there may be in the coming two years unprecedented opportunities for those of us in the archival, historical, and genealogical worlds.

Last August, President and Mrs. Clinton stood in the National Archives Rotunda before the Declaration of Independence and announced their plans for the celebration of the millennium. They came to the National Archives, they said, because the documents in the Rotunda represented those things that the celebration of the millennium should be about—an understanding and respect for the nation's past. The President and the First Lady were there to announce the creation of a special office to encourage worthy historical and cultural initiatives. The President said that the millennium offers us "a wonderful opportunity to honor the past and imagine the future." Mrs. Clinton said: "The celebrations of the millennium will reflect creativity, diversity, and raw energy of Americans."

A recent survey conducted by the Council of State Historical Records Coordinators talks about "A Passion for History" now alive in the country. It talks about the increasing numbers of individuals who are tracing their family roots, visiting historical sites, volunteering at historical institutions, reading historical journals, watching historical films, and visiting Internet sites with historical themes. The report quotes historian Michael Kammen, who, while warning against commercialism and vulgarization, says that "heritage that heightens human interest may lead people to history for purposes of informed citizenship, or the meaningful deepening of identity, or enhanced appreciation of the dynamic process of change over time."

"A Passion for History" Now Alive in the Country

As you will read In This Issue of The Record, the early millennium enthusiasm is already sparking positive action. Mrs. Clinton and the Pew Charitable Trusts have announced a major grant to NARA from the Pew Trusts to safeguard the Charters of Freedom—the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. I believe we will see in the coming months and years many other important efforts to preserve the nation's documentary heritage.

Now is the time, I believe, that all of us in the business of history must step forward with our ideas to accomplish such worthy goals. Now is an especially propitious time to champion efforts to train archivists and records managers, to help teachers in making primary source documents available to children in the classroom, and to support programs to make archival materials more easily available, especially through the new technologies. I believe that during the coming period, foundation officials will seek ways to invest in the millennium celebration in truly significant ways that will offer a lasting contribution to history and culture. During the next couple of years, all of us who care about the documentary record must effectively spread the message.

Now is the time. Millenniums only come around every so often.

Roger A. Bruns