For most of us, a file cabinet, a computer and a few boxes are all that we need to store the important papers and keepsakes that document our lives.
The concept isn’t much different at the state level, though archiving 220 years’ worth of history is, not surprisingly, a little more involved.
Kentucky began to get serious about preservation in 1825, when the General Assembly created the Kentucky State Library. These efforts were largely targeted at the state level, however, until historians in 1910 began systematically documenting local records as well. That helped ensure such things as marriages, births, deaths and various legal transactions would always be available for future generations.
Two main organizations are now charged with making sure our history is not lost to time: The Kentucky Department for Libraries and Archives (KDLA) and the Kentucky Historical Society. Both are invaluable resources for genealogists tracing their family tree, researchers or anyone curious about these first-hand accounts of our past.
At KDLA, there are several hundred thousand cubic feet of storage dedicated to collections that range from the papers of most Kentucky governors to 65,000 rolls of microfilm featuring local government records. KDLA also works with local and state agencies to make sure their day-to-day activities are preserved as the law requires.
Among the interesting finds in KDLA’s archives are handwritten pages from Abraham Lincoln before he became president. In this case, he had been accused of mishandling a debt tied to his father-in-law’s estate, but his sharp, four-page rebuttal helped the court find in his favor.
The Kentucky Historical Society complements KDLA’s mission by preserving other papers and artifacts that helped make Kentucky what it is today. Most of its work is now centered at the Thomas D. Clark Center for Kentucky History in downtown Frankfort.
Its research library has more than 90,000 published works, 15,000 reels of microfilm and 9,000 oral history interviews. The facility also houses things as small as Henry Clay’s cufflinks and as large as the one millionth Toyota Camry to roll off the assembly line at the company’s Georgetown plant.
For much of this year, the history center is featuring “Civil War: My Brother, My Enemy,” which is geared less toward the battles of that conflict and more on the devastating effect it had on many families. This exhibit, which will be available at the center through Dec. 8th, also includes items from President Lincoln’s wife, Mary Todd Lincoln. There is a baby garment she sewed for her son Robert and the papers from the mental institution in Illinois where, 10 years after President Lincoln’s assassination, she was involuntarily committed.
Until relatively recently, it took a drive to Frankfort to see many of these items, but in today’s electronic age, many are just a click or two away on the internet. Http://kdla.ky.gov is the starting point for Libraries and Archives, while the Kentucky Historical Society can be found online at http://history.ky.gov/. Both also feature experts who can help those who would like more guidance if the website is not enough.
It is also worth noting that Washington, D.C., has a wide array of documents key to Kentucky. Those range from the legislation declaring Kentucky a state in 1792 to the nominating papers of Henry Clay as President John Quincy Adams’ Secretary of State. The National Archives makes these documents readily available as well; its website is http://www.archives.gov.
Since October is American Archives Month, now is an ideal time to learn more about the finer details of Kentucky history. While Frankfort understandably plays a central role as the state capital, it is far from the only place where our collective history is kept. KDLA estimates there are nearly 300 archival and manuscript repositories scattered across the state. For many of us, these are the places where the legacy of our ancestors still remain.