“Truth,” wrote antislavery activist William Lloyd Garrison, “is revolutionary in its tendency.” Those who fought slavery and prejudice two centuries ago recognized that one of the central functions of oppression is to conceal itself from view. If slavery preferred to work in the shadows, its opponents fought back by exposing it to the light of day. If slavery demanded forgetting, abolition demanded remembering everything it sought to erase. The facts, figures, and narratives published by antislavery activists built an archive of truth that remains essential to historians today. The ongoing digital revolution has made possible the liberation of many such archives. Yet the process remains haphazard, uneven, and incomplete.
Even as unprecedented numbers of documents are made available for free online, untold numbers languish in darkness, unknown and unheard. The institutions and repositories that undergird our democracy by preserving access to these materials face dramatic cuts in public support, and the open web itself remains under siege by private interests. Although every issue of Garrison’s Liberator is now available online, similar newspapers and manuscripts remain unavailable to the public at large. To view them, one must purchase or gain access to an expensive institutional subscription to a private database. In this situation, to remain neutral or to do nothing is to lend support to the status quo.
The first duty of every historian is to speak the truth. Therefore it is the responsibility of every historian to ensure the broadest possible access to the source materials from which they build their scholarship. It is the responsibility of every historian to work together with archivists and librarians to preserve and improve the integrity of our public heritage. As researchers, we often digitize vast amounts of information or rediscover underappreciated gems that remain locked away in our personal files. Most of this information is not available elsewhere online. By sharing even a small amount of this data, we can strengthen the public domain and draw much needed attention to our embattled public repositories and institutions. By enhancing and promoting access to the truth, we can fortify democracy and fight ignorance. Will you join us?