At the 2019 American Library Association Annual Conference in Washington, D.C., thousands of librarians will attend committee meetings, hear great authors and speakers, grab signed books and ARCs, haggle with vendors, and make important professional connections in restaurants and watering holes all over the city. Many will also hit the cultural hot spots our nation’s capital is famous for, including the two grand palaces of our domain: the Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress and the Rotunda of the National Archives.

I’ll never forget the first time I saw the inside of the Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress. The exultant Beaux Arts Great Hall, and the awe-inspiring domed Reading Room (in many minds the sanctum sanctorum of libraries) reinforced the majesty and importance of what we as librarians and archivists do. And for those of you who remember such things, my first entry into that room was not at all diminished by the binders of Dialog blue sheets in the entryway.

The Rotunda of the National Archives is more modest but for what resides within: the documents that have become known as the Charters of Freedom—the original handwritten versions of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. Their prosaic catalogue numbers notwithstanding (1419123 for the Declaration), these are considered our nation’s founding documents and are among our most precious artifacts.

The Declaration of Independence is a true survivor. Over the centuries, it has had a pretty rough go. It has been moved at least 20 times. For about 35 years it was left sitting in the sun in the Patent Office. For another 17 years it resided in a State Department library room—with an open fireplace. And it waited out World War II in a vault at Fort Knox. Looking back, it’s a bit of a miracle the Declaration ever made it to the Archives in one piece (more or less) in 1952.

But what if something really did happen to these founding documents? What if, heaven forbid, the original Constitution or the Bill of Rights became heavily damaged, unreadable, or was destroyed? Obviously it would be a tremendous loss. These documents are among a handful of signal artifacts of the last quarter millennium. But would it matter in any meaningful way?

There are of course gazillions of versions of the text of the Constitution printed in books and on the web, along with images of the original documents, so many of you are probably thinking it wouldn’t matter, really, if the original 1787 version went poof somehow. Except that it would.

We revere these documents, even while acknowledging their shortcomings and omissions. We display them in a lovely room not only for something to do on a hot June day in Washington, but because they mean something to us—they reify and make explicit the values many of us would like to hope underlie our society. Thus, the loss of any of these original documents would undoubtedly leave an open wound in the national psyche.

But I would argue their loss would have a functional effect, as well. These original texts provide indisputable evidence of what was written and later ratified by the states. As long as the original documents exist, nobody can really dispute the actual wording—except for maybe the tinfoil-hat-wearing set. What those words mean is of course another matter, which I’ll happily leave to the legal scholars for now. But at a time when what’s “real” is becoming a fuzzier concept than many of us are comfortable with, it’s not impossible to think that the loss of these documents could prove an unsettling, perhaps even destabilizing force.

What if, heaven forbid, the original Constitution or the Bill of Rights became heavily damaged, unreadable, or was destroyed?

Fear not. They are extremely well protected. They live in cases produced by the National Institute of Standards, filled with argon gas to maintain the pressure that our atmosphere would normally exert on them without the degrading effects of oxygen. And, they are not at all susceptible to being casually stolen, as was depicted in the movie National Treasure (imagine my surprise one day in finding DVDs of that movie sold in the National Archives’ gift shop).

I doubt that anything grievous is likely to happen to these treasures, despite my close call nearly sneezing on a Dunlap Broadside a few years ago. Still, pondering their roles and uses, functional and otherwise, and how and why they are preserved is a valuable thought experiment. Consider any organization starting up today. Most likely, its founding documents would exist primarily in digital form (though there would most likely be some printed version, too—for reference, legal, or preservation purposes). Now, imagine the original file is lost or corrupted. Some people would sort of know what the latest version was; somebody’s probably got a copy in their email somewhere from a couple of years ago; another older printed version might surface. And so the scramble to piece together something that looks like a “real” version ensues. In a small organization, this probably works out fine in the end. But you get my point—the higher the stakes, the dicier things can get.

Fortunately, we have professionals in our midst dedicated to preventing this sort of chaos. In Washington, as well as in other libraries and institutions around the country, our friends and colleagues in the archival world remain dedicated to keeping stuff safe for the long haul, despite the ravages of time, and the vagaries of society. With ALA in Washington, try to find some time to visit the Library of Congress or the National Archives. Whether it’s your first time or your 20th, you won’t be disappointed. Visit the Rotunda, thank an archivist, and have a good, long look at the treasures therein. Just in case.