Preserving Our History, One Collection at a Time

Laura Starr (History Associates)Artifacts
A photo of President Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir overlooking the falls in Yosemite.
Harpers Ferry Center Historic Photos Collection

The National Park Service is committed to saving the nation’s natural wonders and historic places, but did you know that it plays an important role as our nation’s storyteller too?

In parks across the country, the NPS maintains more than 45 million objects and artifacts, and more than 76,000 linear feet of archival records, including resource management records and land-use histories that help piece together our national story.

Three people sitting at a table with piles of documents and files on the table at San Juan National Historic Site

Archivists Sarah Schubert, Stephanie Fell, and Doug Moore at San Juan National Historic Site

History Associates

You might be surprised to learn that parks also preserve historic collections, such as the letters and diaries of Civil War soldiers; personal papers of celebrated citizens like Carl Sandburg and Thomas Edison; the corporate archives of historic companies, railroads, and research laboratories; and the history of the NPS. Much of this information can be found nowhere else.

Since 2001, History Associates has had the privilege of working at more than 75 parks and heritage centers, helping process backlogged archival materials. Through these efforts, the archivists give park staff a fuller understanding of the content and structure of their collections, help to preserve and catalog them, and make them accessible to the public.

Much of the time, we start by working with staff members to develop a strategy for organizing the documents, or a “processing plan;” once the plan is approved, we roll up our sleeves to organize, preserve, and catalog the collections.

We’ve shared in the joy that comes from discovering this uniquely American heritage. In the Museum Collections and Conservation Services Division of Harpers Ferry Center in West Virginia, we helped inventory and catalog an extensive collection of historic park photographs, which were referenced by Ken Burns in his 2011 documentary about NPS.

A woman standing in a room of tables and chairs in the Reading Room at Ellis Island

Archivist Amy Lundell working in the Reading Room at Ellis Island, part of the Statue of Liberty National Monument

History Associates

At San Juan National Historic Site, our archivists worked inside a World War II bunker while processing a collection of correspondence from the Spanish-American War. And at Keweenaw National Historical Park in Michigan’s “Copper Country,” we found ourselves learning about copper mining while working on over 100 years of Quincy Mining Company records dating from the mid-1800s to mid-1900s.

There are unique discoveries to be made at every park site! We encourage you to find out for yourself what artifacts and objects are in your local park’s museum collections. Remember: every one, every place, and every thing has a story. So get out there and find them, and share what you learn with us with the hashtag #FindYourPark and #EncuentraTuParque

Laura Starr is a senior archivist at History Associates and has worked on many NPS collections projects, in addition to providing archival services to a number of other federal agencies, private companies, academic institutions, and world-class cultural heritage institutions. History Associates is a leading historical services firm that is honored to have helped NPS survey, organize, and catalog archival materials for over a decade.

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