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Why Preserving History Matters

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My thrillers center around one theme: something vital has been lost in the past and must be found today. That "something" varies from book to book--things like the body of Alexander of the Great, the first emperor of China's tomb, the Amber Room. But one thing remains constant throughout my stories--the greatest repositories of lost treasures are our libraries.

Firsthand, all across the country, I've witnessed the incredible treasures preserved within libraries in our schools, public buildings, historical societies, museums, and universities. At the Mark Twain House in Hartford, Connecticut, I saw a marginalia written in Twain's own hand. Inside the rare book room at the Library of Virginia was a book of psalms that arrived here on the Mayflower. In county libraries in rural America were the records of families who settled that land centuries ago, and in Smithsonian were the last remaining books of James Smithson, whose legacy was the founding of the institution itself.

All of these libraries serve to preserve our heritage. They are a record of who and what we are. Sadly, though, most times we lose these treasures not by fire, flood, or willful destruction but by simple neglect. One of my novels, The Alexandria Link, dealt with the famed Library of Alexandria. Most people believe that library was either sacked by invaders or destroyed by religious zealots. The reality is far more tragic. The greatest repository of knowledge in the ancient world most likely just rotted away, a victim of neglect and indifference, whose remnants were picked apart stone by stone, parchment by parchment. So complete that, today, we don't even know where the building itself once stood.

Imagine what we lost.

And the threat of losing priceless artifacts remains in modern times.

More than 4.8 billion artifacts are held in public trust by more than 30,000 archives, historical societies, libraries, museums, scientific research collections, and archaeological repositories in the United States, but lack of funding places a third of these items at risk of being lost.

This is why my wife, Elizabeth, and I started our foundation, History Matters, and why I am so proud to be the first national spokesman of the American Library Association's National Preservation Week, April 22-28. History comes alive when someone is able to not only read about the past, but is also able to visit the places, examine the artifacts, appreciate the images, and study the actual words. For most people, history starts with simply learning about their family or their community. A concerted effort to preserve our heritage is a vital link to our cultural, educational, aesthetic, inspirational, and economic legacies -- all of the things that quite literally make us who we are.

History is not something obscure or unimportant. History plays a vital role in our everyday lives. We learn from our past in order to achieve greater influence over our future. History serves as a model not only of who and what we are to be, we learn what to champion and what to avoid. Everyday decision-making around the world is constantly based on what came before us.

Why?

Because history matters.

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Steve Berry is the first national spokesperson for Preservation Week, April 22-28.