By Lewis Beeson
How, then, can the local society best collect the war records of the community? Perhaps the first thing that will occur to the local historian is the collection of letters, diaries, and accounts of experiences written by the men of the community who are serving in the armed forces of the nation. Societies might compile lists and the service records of local men who have enlisted in the army, the navy, the marine corps, and the coast guard. The most numerous type of "war history" of the Civil, Spanish-American, and first World wars consisted of the rosters of the men who served in the armed forces, with an accompanying war narrative or memoir. This is the task which in the past has been of primary interest to local historians. It is still of great value. The desire to list and record the war services of men from the local community is understandable and commendable.
But the military contributions made by a community in the present war certainly will not represent the whole of its war activities. In modern warfare there is a civilian as well as military front, and the civilian front, as has been shown in Great Britain, may be as important as the military. Hence, the local historical society, if it wishes to fulfill properly its functions as the recording secretary of its community, should be as active in the collection of the records of civilian as of military organizations.
The collection of such records is not easy, for modern total war brings within its scope practically all the members of a community. New organizations, such as Bundles for Britain, Chinese War Relief, and Russian War Relief, will be formed, and new officials, like air-raid and blackout wardens and nurses aids, will be appointed. The records of their activities should be collected. Older organizations, such as the Red Cross, the Y. M. C. A., and others will experience an unparalleled expansion, with an extension of activities into every community. Existing civilian organizations, such as clubs, lodges, churches, chambers of commerce, and the like, will subordinate their peacetime programs to a wartime program. State and national governmental agencies will devote more and more of their energies to the war. The activities imposed upon these organizations by military needs should be of interest to the local historical society. When it is realized that civilian morale, civilian contributions to those who have suffered from military activity, civilian buying of government bonds, civilian restoration of purchasing, and civilian production of agricultural products and war materials are as important in the war effort as is the military organization, many other opportunities for the collecting of the records of war activities will be perceived.
The task of collecting the war records for a county is a formidable one, but it is one in which much can be done by a few interested people. War records are divisible into two groups: the correspondence, minutes, membership rolls, financial accounts, and the like, of organizations, which are needed in the transaction of their business and which cannot be obtained until that business is completed; and material which can be collected currently. The first class includes the archives of state and federal agencies which are not available for collection by the local society, because they will be preserved in state or federal archives. Yet, should there be a member of a local society who is a camera enthusiast, it might be possible for him to obtain for the local society microfilm copies of much archival material of governmental and national organizations, such as the United Service Organizations. Incidentally, the preservation of other kinds of material through the use of films should not be overlooked. In the second class fall publicity releases, leaflets, pamphlets, posters, badges, instructions to workers, forms of all kinds, such as pledge cards, and many other classes of material. These records can and should be collected currently, for many of them will be lost if they are not collected as they are produced.
By beginning its collecting activities at once, the local society can make contacts that will result later in the acquisition of much valuable material. Every organization has records that it cannot release immediately, but if the officials of an organization know the wants of the local historical society and are kept acquainted with them, it is not improbable that all its records can be obtained when it closes its activities. Thus each war organization in the community should be made aware of the local historical society's desire to obtain its records when it is through with them. It is possible to interest a key person in each organization and to enlist his services in collecting material for the local historical society. Certainly a key person should be seen periodically by someone representing the society and reminded of its desire to preserve material.
The local newspapers will aid in determining which are the important organizations and who are the important people in each. Essential to keeping track of the war activities in the community is the newspaper itself. Furthermore, it is the most important single war record, and its files should be preserved. Read the newspapers with care to determine which are the strategic war organizations. By this I mean that certain organizations will have liaison functions. They will know what other organizations in the community are doing and who is leading their activities. The organizations with general functions are the important ones from the standpoint of collecting. Their officials can help the local society in its collecting activities; they will know what organizations and which people are important.
My purpose is to indicate some of the possibilities for collecting war records that await the local historical society. The task is an enormous one. It is one that should be started now. It is one in which no one society can hope to obtain completeness. It is one in which much mutual benefit will result from co-operation among the societies of the state. The State Historical Society alone cannot adequately collect the multitudinous records of war activity that will be produced. In that undertaking the state and county historical societies must co-operate.
This article in a slightly different form appeared in the March, 1942 issue of Minnesota History on pages 19 to 23.