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Human Municipal Documents
by [?]

A literary adventurer not long since found himself, by one of the exigencies incident to his precarious career, turning over in the process of cataloguing a kind of literature in which up to that time he had been very little read, a public collection of published municipal documents. This gentleman had had a notion for a good many years that municipal documents were entirely for very serious people engaged in some useful undertakings. He had never conceived of them as works of humour and objects of art. But his disinclination to this department of pure literature was dissolved, as most prejudices may be, by acquaintance with the subject.

Municipal documents are human documents. They are the autobiographies of communities. The personalities of Topeka, Kansas, of Limoges, France, and of Heidelberg, Germany, rise before the impressionable student of municipal documents like the figures of personal autobiography, like Benvenuto Cellini, Marie Bashkirtsev, Benjamin Franklin, Miss Mary Maclane, Mr. George Moore.

A very touching quality in municipal documents is their naivete–that unavoidable and unconscious self-revelation which is much of the great charm and value of all autobiographies. By the way, do statisticians really understand municipal documents, or do they think them valuable simply because they are full of statements of fact?

Our literary gentleman, at all events, found his task very engaging, though as a cataloguer he was much perplexed by the extraordinary informality, in one respect, of formal public papers, a curious provinciality, as he could but take it to be, of municipalities. A very common neglect, he found, in such publications is to make any mention anywhere of the relation to geography of the community chronicling its history.

He would read, for instance, that the pamphlet in his hand was the “Auditor’s Report of Receipts and Expenditures for the Financial Year Ending February 10, 1875, for the Town of Andover.” Where, he asked, with absolute certainty, was the town of Andover here referred to? He examined the printer’s imprint, which was explicit–personally: “Printed by Warren F. Draper, 1875.” There was something very friendly about this. Printers of public documents seem to be an amiable, neighbourly lot: “Printed at the Enterprise Office,” one mentions casually in a large, warm-hearted fashion. Another imprint reads, “Auburn, Printed by Charles Ferris, Daily Advertiser Office, 1848,” Mr. Ferris, in his lifetime, was evidently a very pleasant man, but a little careless of what to him, no doubt, were inessential details. He was thoughtless of the dark ignorance in places remote from Auburn of the Daily Advertiser. Another prominent Auburnian of the same craft, one W. S. Morse, it may be learned from some of the products of his press, flourished in 1886. But, the puzzled cataloguer inquires, was Mr. Morse successor to Mr. Ferris, or was he official printer to the Government of Auburn, Maine, far from the scene of Mr. Ferris’s public services, possibly in Auburn, New York? To these picayune points the breezy gentlemen make no reference.

The worker with public documents turns from the title pages to search the documents themselves. Are these the “Proceedings of the Board of Chosen Freeholders” of the City of Albany, Missouri, or of Albany, New Hampshire? (A cataloguer has a faint impression that there is an Albany, too, somewhere in the State of New York.) Is this a “Copy of Warrant for Annual Town Meeting” of Lancaster, Massachusetts, or New Hampshire, or Pennsylvania? Impossible, he thinks, that there should be no internal evidence.

He reads on and on. He notes the intimate nature of an Article 19: “To see if the town will accept a gift from Hannah E. Bigelow, with conditions.” He peruses “Selectman’s Accounts” of expenditures, how there was “Paid on account of Grammar School” such or such an amount; he learns the cost of “Hay Scales,” the expenses of “Fire Dep’t, Cemetery, Street Lamps.” He peers behind the official scenes at Decoration Day: monies paid out of the public treasury for “Brass Band, Address ($20.00), flowers, flags, tuning piano.” He goes over appropriations for “Repairs at Almshouse.” He sits with the “Trustees of Memorial Hall,” and informs himself concerning conditions at the “Lunatic Hospital.” He follows with feeling municipal accessions, “purchase of a Road-scraper, which we find a very useful machine, and probably money judiciously expended.” But more and more amazed at the circumstance as he continues he is left totally in the dark as to where he is all the while.