The oldest public repository of archival history in the United States is the Library of Congress — though several private institutions, such as ones at Harvard, predate it by several hundred years.
However, the oldest state archive in the nation is located in Montgomery, at the Alabama Department of Archives and History. Founded by an act of the state legislature in 1901, the ADAH has become the model for other state archival libraries and historical preservation.
The ADAH was the brainchild of UA Law alum, Thomas McAdory Owen. He and his wife Marie Bankhead (daughter of Congressman John Bankhead), sought to preserve the fascinating history of a state that was being lost to the passage of time and the dormancy of the Alabama Historical Society.
The Archives were not created in a vacuum, rather they were part of a larger Southern Patriotism movement that had swept through the South following the end of Reconstruction and the removal of the Reconstruction-era legislatures. Alongside the state’s passage of its post-Reconstruction constitution in 1901, Alabama also went on a construction tear: not only passing laws relating to preserving its history, but also constructing numerous monuments to its history, designating several state historical sites, and funding its public library system.
The original goal of the ADAH was to serve as part of that public library movement, but over the years, ADAH evolved into a scholarly resource and an historical society as much as anything — particularly with its addition the Alabama War Museum and the Museum of Alabama:
Significant to the department’s collections today are Native American artifacts and Civil War and other military objects, especially Civil War flags. Of note, its private records contain antebellum and Civil War letters and diaries and some collections that focus on Alabama political history. ADAH is also the official repository for all the papers of Alabama governors from 1819 to present, with an extensive collection of public and private records and artifacts relating to George C. Wallace. It is the principal repository of historic state newspapers, as well as microfilmed county records from across the state. As part of its outreach efforts, the department maintains an extensive website that provides users with access to records and information relating to Alabama’s history. The site offers finding aids and other useful databases online and includes digitized images of some of its collections, including photographs. ADAH has also used this medium to provide resources to teachers and students in secondary schools on Alabama history.
Beyond just relics from the Civil War and its Native American past, the ADAH hosts the War Museum, the Museum of Alabama, extensive genealogical records, cultural and entertainment events, archived newspapers, countless maps and databases, innumerable personal papers, and so many other volumes.
A sense of history has been a recurring theme in this series, often quite accidentally. But perhaps nothing else deliberately showcases that connection to the past quite like Alabama’s visionary state archive system.
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