In the field of history, archives matter. It is a truism (although we do not reflect upon it nearly as much as we should) that historical knowledge will either be limited or enhanced by the state of our archives, where the evidence of the past that has been preserved is made accessible to researchers. Without archivists to collect, preserve, and make accessible the primary evidence of the past, there would be no potential for historical knowledge. Archives are the essential prerequisite for historical understanding. Likewise, without the intellectual work of historians and other scholars who research, evaluate, and weigh the extant historical evidence in light of what is known, there would be no new knowledge to inform, challenge, shape, and improve our collective historical understanding.
Because the work of archivists and scholars is never done, historical knowledge is always, in a certain sense, “under construction.” When we ask ourselves about the state of historical knowledge on any given [End Page 159] subject, historians tend to ask only about what is known and what remains to be known (or ought to be known), in terms of existing scholarship. But there is a larger conversation to be had beyond this, to which this special issue hopes ultimately to contribute. And it takes the field of Kentucky history as its starting place. How can historians and archivists (and the many publics they serve) work together to assess and address this most basic question: what can be known about twentieth-century Kentucky?
This special issue of the Register of the Kentucky Historical Society, guest edited by two outstanding historians, Robert S. Weise (Eastern Kentucky University) and Thomas Kiffmeyer (Morehead State University), was purposely conceived as a contribution to this larger conversation. From its inception, we had several long-term goals in mind: (1) to provide a concerted statement by scholars on the current state of historical work about or related to Kentucky across a wide spectrum of broad themes (viewed in their local, statewide, regional, national, or international contexts, as appropriate); (2) to draw attention to a number of twentieth-century subject areas in need of scholarly treatment; and (3) to identify a number of key contemporary societal issues for which deeper and more sustained historical research might inform public policy.
The result of several years’ work, this issue of the Register goes a long way toward achieving these goals. As Robert Weise and Thomas Kiffmeyer make clear in their introduction, the issue provides an excellent snapshot of our current state of historical knowledge in several broadly defined subject areas: politics and the economy; regions, cultures, and the image of Kentucky; and social groups and movements. To be sure, this special issue does not say all that could be said about the state of Kentucky-related historical scholarship. Numerous subjects come to mind that we would have liked to have included in this special issue; indeed, many of these await serious historical study altogether: public health, disease, the health-care system, welfare, and social services; drug culture; formal and informal economies; migration, immigration, and out-migration; criminal [End Page 160] justice, the courts, and the prison system; domestic and other violence; environmental history; coal and other extractive industries, hydraulic fracking, the Bluegrass pipeline; interstate commerce and international business; manufacturing and small business; transportation infrastructure; rural communities, suburbanization, and the politics of growth; and recent (post-1970s) activism. This list, of course, does not exhaust the number of subjects about which we still have very little historical knowledge for twentieth-century Kentucky.
It is our hope that this special issue on twentieth-century Kentucky history will help to broaden awareness of the enormous opportunities that exist for serious study by scholars at all levels. We especially hope that this issue will find its way into the hands of those graduate students currently defining new dissertation topics. Indeed, this special issue will be of interest to anyone looking to take on new research projects that expand and deepen our historical understanding of some of the most pressing matters facing this state and this region of the country. Finally, the Kentucky Historical Society, as both the publisher of the Register and an...