IN IRAQ, under cover of war, thieves stole history. Cuneiform clay tablets, the fragile note paper of ancient Mesopotamia, were hauled off for sale. Links to the cradle of civilization -- the birth of writing, of cities and of legal codes -- were broken.
Museum officials, historians and scholars went into mourning.
But something similar is happening in this country. The thieves are not agents of illegal art merchants or starving Iraqis. Records of this country's -- and this state's -- civilization are being stolen by time.
Maryland's Hall of Records in Annapolis, a repository of important history from the Ark and the Dove through the civil rights movement, is under increasing financial pressure. Already the archive has absorbed a 12 percent reduction in its $2.5 million state budget. Contract workers have been laid off. And the archive's research room has had to restrict hours of operation. In the 1970s, a professional staff retrieved materials six days a week. Today, it's on duty only four days.
Edward C. Papenfuse, the passionate collector and conservator of Maryland records, has become increasingly entrepreneurial as he struggles to save photographs and critically important papers. Half his overall budget of $5 million comes from the state's General Fund and half from the U.S. government, private gifts and other sources. A scholar from the State University of New York recently sent him a check for $20,000 as thanks for help rendered over a lifetime of research and writing on Maryland's various systems of crime and punishment.
This man would surely have some observations for Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, who suggested the losses in Baghdad were exaggerated. TV, Mr. Rumsfeld said, showed the same footage of thievery "over and over and over . . . the same picture of some person walking out of some building with a vase."
The fog of war obscures almost everything. It's difficult to argue that troops in the midst of battle would have time to safeguard a museum, and yet if a nation undertakes regime change, it might have some responsibility for preserving that nation's history. All the more so when those records of early civilization are owned, in the largest sense, by all the world. That same obligation should drive concern for preservation of public records at home.
Mr. Papenfuse observes that every record of Abraham Lincoln's career as a lawyer in Illinois has been found and preserved. But so much more valuable material about life in Illinois remains in disintegrating cardboard boxes, he says.
And much of it has at least as much value as Mr. Rumsfeld's vase.
In the 1960s, with riots threatening Baltimore and Cambridge, Md., infamous provocateurs descended on the cities to make their points. A black activist, H. Rap Brown, stood on the hood of a car urging direct action or worse against public authorities in Cambridge.
But archived court documents show Mr. Brown did not appear from nowhere. He was invited to counter the fulminations of white supremacists before heading for Princess Anne and Cambridge. Testimony in subsequent trials added further details to deliberations on the constitutional rights of assembly, prohibitions against prior restraint and free speech.
These papers are the modern analog of the cuneiform tablets. They're critical to understanding our system of laws and our society. Every document can't be preserved, but the professional archivist can find the most important ones and, with increasingly sophisticated technology, save the record of our own still evolving civilization.