No part of our lives escapes the torrent of statistics.

Thanks to the developments of modern technology, we have the ability to count and measure almost everything. We compile statistics to analyze the atmosphere on Pluto, figure out where on a baseball field David Ortiz is likely to hit a fastball and project the impact upon our weather from a change in the depth or temperature of ocean water.

With the ability to count, measure and record, we develop new ways to understand what those records mean, not just today, but yesterday, too. And, likely, what they mean for tomorrow.

In speaking with people about the importance of preserving the records of our lives, we at the Maine State Archives cite the fact that Maine has the most comprehensive records from the American Civil War of any state in the country. Other states have more records in terms of sheer numbers, but they cannot surpass the depth and breadth of Maine’s records.

The credit for amassing those records goes to the people who governed Maine’s war efforts: Adjutant General John Hodsdon and the three wartime governors, Israel Washburn, Abner Coburn and Samuel Cony. Their discipline in making the records was matched by their commitment in keeping them once they were made.

The easy answer for why they did it is that Maine then was much like Maine today. The state did not have money to throw away. Every dime, every dollar, needed to be counted and justified to the best of the government’s ability.


The stories that arise from reviewing those records are often amazing. Although they may have been retained for one reason, those records take on a new purpose over time as they disclose information that is far more telling about the people and events of the day, and about our society.

As recently as this past spring, that reality was brought home anew when we recovered for the Town of Mattawamkeag a government assistance ledger that was compiled immediately after the Civil War. Of the 12 families listed as receiving financial help from the state and the town, more than half were trying to re-start their lives because of what happened in that war. Even more telling, half of the families listed still had descendants living in Mattawamkeag.

It can be safely argued that the Civil War was the most disruptive and transformative event in Maine’s history. Our ability to understand that comes directly from the access we have to the records that we kept.

As a society, we would be foolish to think that those 150-year-old records exist in a vacuum, that they pertain only to that time and those events. They, like the many records that were made before and after them, provide a glimpse of what Maine was then, which we, in turn, can use to compare and contrast to what Maine is now.

And what holds for the Civil War records holds for the records that are cascading throughout our society today. Yes, they have immediate value in providing insight or offering guidance or proof of what is going on, but they are also important to be preserved so that a future accounting can perhaps reach the same comprehension that we draw today from records that are generations old.

Our archives provide immeasurable value. They present the evidence of who we were, and they give us a sense of how we became who we are. For that reason alone, drawing attention to our need to make and keep records is a worthy endeavor.

October is American Archives Month, a time intended to remind our policymakers, our leaders and ourselves that records matter. It’s a time to recognize that we have a responsibility to ourselves, and to those who will succeed us, to preserve our records and to be sure that those records are accessible so that they can be appreciated and understood today and for all of our tomorrows.

David Cheever has served as the Maine State Archivist since 2007.

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