History is made by everyone
"This project has provided a model for American secondary education at a time when fresh ideas and methods are very much needed."

James H. Billington, Librarian of Congress

Delivered at the Montana Heritage Project Youth Heritage Festival
March 30, 2004 Helena, Montana

Librarian of Congress, James H. Billington, speaking at the Montana Heritage Project Sixth Annual Youth Heritage Festival. Photo by Michael L. Umphrey.

It’s been a privilege for me as Librarian of Congress to welcome students from this project to the Library every year for the past ten years, and I am happy to be able at last to pay a visit to this grand state.

I should begin by thanking those who were there at the beginning and had the vision to launch this program, who stayed with it so faithfully, and who have been such marvelous citizens, supporters, friends of this state and of America. So, Liz Claiborne and Art Ortenberg, we thank you again for your ideas and wisdom as well as for your generosity. You have made it possible for thousands of students in Montana to discover stories of their families and communities, and we are happy that the Library of Congress and the Library’s American Folklife Center could help you in this vision. Our partnership with the students, teachers, communities, and cultural organizations has created a successful program for Montana. It’s a model project for states such as Arizona and Utah.

This project has provided a model for American secondary education at a time when fresh ideas and methods are very much needed. Almost every problem we have in this country and internationally is related to insufficient education. It’s wonderful–I would say it’s even inspiring–to see how the young people who participate in this project become models for others while enriching their own lives and enriching the national memory.

But even projects that are as pioneering as this one has been have models that inspired them, either consciously or unconsciously A hundred years ago in 1904, anthropologist Clark Whistler sat along the windswept Rocky Mountain front, somewhere in the vicinity of today’s Browning, Montana, and recorded twenty-five minutes of Blackfeet songs and stories. He came west to Montana by train and then traveled by wagon to a spot where he could camp.

The technology he used was relatively primitive. It was equipment that, with today’s pocket-sized tape recorders, you would hardly recognize. He introduced himself to people who had little reason to trust him, and he began making a record of Native American culture. We at the Library of Congress are grateful for the dedication of early cultural historians such as Clark Whistler. Because of him and others, we’ve assembled 10,000 wax cylinders and 3,000 very long playing special recordings of the oral history of much Native American culture—a priceless heritage that has to be preserved, as does so much of the memory of our country, which is in danger of passing.

We’re committed to making this record of American history and knowledge and creativity accessible to the Congress, to you, to the nation, and to the world. Some of the treasures that are recorded in the library from American history include the papers of twenty-three American presidents; the world’s largest collection of maps and movies; the libraries and papers of such Susan B. Anthony, Frederick Douglas, Alexander Graham Bell, Irving Berlin, and Walt Whitman; all of the collective writings from the federal writer’s project; the human record of the Depression, how America came out of it, how Americans coped with the tremendous difficulties of that period; the recordings of American poets like Robert Frost reading poetry in their own voice. There are folk music recordings from the Georgia Sea Islands, the San Francisco waterfront, and, thanks to students in the Montana Heritage Project, photographs and recordings that document ranch life in Montana and other aspects of life here.

History is not just made by public figures. It is not just made by the high politics of war and peace or by impersonal economic forces. History, particularly in a democracy, is made by everybody and it’s important that we collect the memories, the experiences. So the Library takes an interest in everyday lives of ordinary people whose names you would not expect to find in textbooks. We need to know how life looked and felt and smelled to immigrants crossing the Atlantic on a ship from Ireland, or to people standing at the headframe of a mine in Butte, or to settlers riding across a lonely prairie. These are the stories of our families, of our towns, our cities, our places of work and play.

So here you are in Montana participating in this great 100-year-old tradition of recording what those who went before us have experienced. You have documented and preserved how a photographer from the Sun River Valley ended up in Hollywood, what Salish beading in Ronan means to families there, why the tagging of railroad cars that travel through Missoula may be an American art form, and why volunteer firemen and women serve Bigfork on their own time.

Future scholars and future members of your own community will be able to compare the experience of coal miners in the Bull Mountains or quilters in the Townsend area to, say, their counterparts in Appalachia. They’ll be able to contrast the fate of sheep herders in the Castle Mountains outside White Sulphur Springs with those who migrated to New Mexico. They’ll be able to combine the documentation of one-room schoolhouse education in southwestern Montana with that of the plains of Kansas. I talked with four young men from Roundup last May during the Heritage Project’s annual visit to the Library. I listened to them puzzle over why their townspeople would be so cruel to settlers of German origin during World War I and what a Bataan Death March survivor thought about when he returned to his quiet, eastern Montana town.

The work you’re doing to record, document, and analyze human experience in Montana, when you do it well, is every bit as valuable as Clark Whistler’s work was in 1904 on those high and windy spaces of the Blackfeet Reservation. You contribute to the nation’s story and to the Library of Congress’ comprehensive record of American history and creativity.

By participating in the Montana Heritage Project, you have joined the work of the Library of Congress–and of many other libraries, archives, cultural and historical organizations around the country, and, particularly, the wonderful Montana Historical Society, which is also archiving this historical and cultural knowledge, making it accessible to all people. You’ve already begun to build databases of newspapers and cemetery information. This is very important. The care you take in recording a miner or a railroader may just enable us to put that voice in the digital files, and as you scan historic photographs, you contribute to their preservation, their accessibility.

As scholars of Montana’s and your communities’ past, you are linked to the people you have studied. In those linkages live the real secrets of community. You are helping to democratize history by reminding us that everyone lives in it. A great German historian said, "All points on earth are equal distance from eternity." All people are created equal, and the experiences of all are as important as the experiences of the mighty, the rich, and the powerful. It’s the whole texture of a society that makes it great.

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