The District Line article by Michael Schaffer asks, “Who Owns D.C.’s Past?” (7/31), but the more important question is “How well are we taking care of Washington’s past?” Historians, libraries, museums, and historical societies don’t own history. They are the caretakers of a precious community resourceits memory.
The concern of area research libraries that they are competing for local history collections is hard to understand given the present situation. There are many collections that should be preserved, many stories that need to be documented. Washington history is hardly a scarce commodity. There is history in every family, every neighborhood, every street comer of the city. If we are to truly document the people, places, architecture, and artifacts that together tell the story of the city’s past, there probably is not enough space in all the local collection facilities to store the historical materials that should be collected and preserved for future generations.
Information becomes powerful when it is shared and useless when it is hoarded. The mission of the Historical Society of Washington, D.C., is to make the history of the city available to the people who own it. The Historical Society recently has been privileged to be a part of an exciting project that we hope will become a model of community history collecting. The exhibition “Remembering U Street,” mounted on the Metro construction fence at 13th and U Street, tells the story of the Shaw neighborhood using the words, photographs, and memories of the people who lived there. The exhibit resulted from three years of community meetings, research, and information gathering in which a large number of people from the community participated in telling their story. Watching people looking at that exhibit at all hours of the day and hearing their comments, it is clear who owns the past.
How are the institutions who are collectors and preservers of the city’s history working together to make history accessible to the community? There is plenty of work to do, and there are many untold stories to tell, as the recent dedication of the African-American Civil War Memorial so eloquently showed. In the end, what matters most is not which library or museum has the most collections in storage, but whether the people of this city know their history and have made it their own. We all have a lot of work to do, and I think we will each accomplish much more working together.
Historical Society of Washington, D.C.