Who benefits from state archives? Not just historians

Try as I might, I still can’t manage to suppress my irritation at some of the thick-headed arguments being espoused in favor of slashing the Tennessee State Library and Archives budget.

Last time I quoted one Concerned Citizen who remarked, in response to Mark Cheathem’s pro-TSLA editorial, that he was being asked to pay taxes to support a service that would benefit someone else.  Since this is basically how taxation works, it’s a rather odd argument.  It’s odd also because the fellow is assuming that academic researchers are TSLA’s main—if not sole—constituency.

Here’s a nugget of wisdom from another commenter: “By the way, this article does fail to point out one group that will be dramatically affected by libraries closing: The Homeless. At least in Nashville, they used the library more than anyone else and form a line on Church Street every morning – I guess Homeless people read more than most of us.”  I guess they do, since they’re informed enough to be able to distinguish between TSLA and the regular public library—a distinction that the commenter is apparently unable to make.

Another reader stated that institutions like libraries “are non-critical even if very desirable. They should all be at the front of items to be cut to balance a budget.”  Let me submit to you that archives are more than “very desirable.”  Indeed, preserving and maintaining records has been a function of governments since the days of the first civilizations.  This isn’t a Republican or Democrat thing; this is an obligation to society thing.

It seems that too many of us are simply ignorant of the scale of contributions that institutions like TSLA provide.  So here, for the enlightenment of those who think the state archives exist only for the benefit of researchers and history buffs, is a sampling of some services we Tennesseans enjoy thanks to these folks:

  • TSLA administers the Tennessee Electronic Library, an online collection of hundreds of thousands of reference resources provided free of charge to the state’s schools, libraries, and colleges.  For all these institutions to pay for this service on their own, the cost would be over $90 million annually, but TEL pays $1.5 million per year to provide this material at no cost to the state’s citizens.  TEL users conduct over 30 million online searches every year.
  • TSLA conducts free workshops for Tennesseans who are trying to trace their family history and provides information on preserving family records and materials.
  • TSLA provides a free library service geared specifically toward the blind and visually impaired, providing braille and large print materials to Tennesseans who would not otherwise have access to this reading material.
  • The Archives Development program makes TSLA’s expertise available to smaller repositories throughout the state, ensuring that local and county records are maintained for the benefit of people who live in these communities.
  • TSLA’s Education Outreach program provides teachers and children with access to primary source material for use in the classroom, which is a tremendous enhancement to Tennessee education provided without cost on the part of county or city schools.

I could go on, but the point should be clear.  State archives and library facilities do more than give us history nuts a place to do research.  Schoolkids, teachers, local officials, and the disabled are just a few of the other groups that benefit from these facilities, even if they never set foot in the facilities themselves.


Filed under Tennessee History

5 responses to “Who benefits from state archives? Not just historians

  1. Pingback: Exhibit A: Why Studying History Is Important « Jacksonian America: Society, Personality, and Politics

  2. Another fine and compelling post. But you wrote:

    . . . that he was being asked to pay taxes to support a service that would benefit someone else. Since this is basically how taxation works, it’s a rather odd argument.

    There’s a segment of the electorate that has convinced themselves that taxation itself is a form theft, “wealth redistribution” that is vaguely immoral in and of itself. When you start with that as a first principle, there’s not much else to say — at least any rational argument that I can come up with.

    There are simply some people for whom the concept of “for the public good” doesn’t register.

  3. Michael Lynch

    Thanks for the kind words, Andy. You’re right–it’s pretty hard to justify any public endeavor when the concept of taxation itself is called into question. Part of me sympathizes with that line of thought, since my basic political instincts are pretty conservative.

    Still, you’d think that a political inclination that so often invokes the past and claims a desire to return to basic and traditional principles would lead its proponents to recognize the need for robust archival programs. I don’t relish sending a check off to the government, but I can’t think of any other state activity I’d rather help fund than this one. Oh, well.


  4. Michael, this is a bit tangential to budget cuts at state and local levels — but then again, seems pretty relevant to me:

    What’s the mark of a Third World country? I’ve seen a lot of them, and to me the clearest trait is the squalor of the public realm.

    The rich people in your standard dictatorship/kleptocracy of course do just fine. But anything that’s public — schools, museums, roads, hospitals, legal system and courts, customs office and civil service — is either run down or corrupt. If you had to trade places with the top level of a “bad” country, you’d be OK. But if you had to rely on the public facilities, you’d be in trouble — as their people are. . . .

  5. Michael Lynch

    Reminds me of a joke I read in Thomas Friedman’s book on globalization. An Asian government official hosts an African government official at his home. The African official notes the luxurious surroundings, and he asks the Asian minister, “How can you afford all this on your salary?”

    The Asian minister takes him to the window and asks, “You see that bridge over there?” The African minister nods, and the Asian minister points his thumb at himself and says, “Ten percent,” since he pocketed ten percent of the cost of building the bridge.

    Some time later, the Asian official travels to Africa and visits the guy he’d hosted in his home. The African official lives in a palatial mansion, while the rest of the country is mired ins qualor. The Asian minister asks him, “How’d you pay for all this?”

    The African points out a window and says, “You see that bridge over there?”

    “No, I don’t see any bridge,” the Asian official says.

    And the African official says, “That’s right. One hundred percent.”


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