Reality check: This week, in America

This week I was assigned a reference request for a naturalization that took place in Miami in the 1980s. This is a pretty standard, run-of-the-mill request, where a person writes or calls the National Archives at Atlanta to request the Petition for Naturalization of a person, for whatever reason they need it. I've had people call looking for records for genealogy purposes, so they are seeking the papers of their parents or grandparents. I've had people request these records from courts or other government agencies during the hiring or legal processes in which citizenship must be proven. Other times the individual has lost their own documentation and are left with two options: they can request a new copy of their final certificate of naturalization from USCIS for a cool $350, or they can have us try to track down their Petition, which is the document completed that leads to the final certificate, that oftentimes proves citizenship and holds up in court of law just as well as the certificate--but we charge $22.50 for a certified copy. You can imagine people are pretty anxious to come to us first, to see if we might have this petition.

The request I had this week was a Miami case, which is one of our most-requested cities, and it has an excellent index to aid our search. I located Mrs. Rodriguez's petition and called her to get the form of payment.

Her story makes my heart hurt. She immigrated to this country, from Cuba, as a child, and has been here more than fifty years now. She was involved as a citizen on the ground here in the U.S. in the Mariel Boatlift in 1980, she told me. She has three younger sisters, and even though they are all in their fifties now, she has always felt like the example, that it is her duty to be a good person, and a good citizen. She naturalized and became an American in the mid 1980s.

She recently got her first ticket, which has precipitated the situation she is in now. Apparently, months or years ago (that detail was unclear), someone broke into her home in Miami and stole her entire filing cabinet, that contained all her documents--birth and marriage records, as well as immigration and naturalization papers. Now she cannot renew her license and the state is prepared to deport her back to Cuba.

Can I repeat, she has been living in the U.S. for fifty years, and has been a citizen for the last twenty-five. The problem is, since her papers are now missing, she has to request a new certificate, which is no problem, except that USCIS averages three to four months to process certificate requests. They are prepared to deport her in just a few weeks. So she called us for help, to see if the petition would serve as sufficient proof. It lists her final certificate number and everything on it. She has also been in contact with her congressman (who she said was not help at all), and her senator (who is now working to help her, on her side).

I am on her side. It makes me so sad that this person, who told me vehemently that she believes this country to be the greatest one on earth, despite its behavior to her at present, that she is now facing the risk of being sent to a "home" that is not really her home, based on stringent laws that stemmed from this ticket--for not paying a toll on a toll road once--something that is easy to do by mistake. The consequences for me versus her, who cannot prove her citizenship quickly enough, are starkly different. And she chose to come here, wants to be here, appreciates the land where you can "do anything" you can dream of.

We have high hopes to live up to. Great expectations. But she believes in them.

This is a real person, a victim of strict immigration laws that I often doubt the benefit of. The best I could do was represent my own government agency well, and to wish her the best in this process. I said I hope she succeeds, that this document helps to prove her right to be here. Without getting too political, I just cannot understand not allowing people who want to take part in a life in the United States the opportunity to try. I hope I played a small but crucial role in finding her citizenship record, certifying it, and offering my well-wishes.

It was a reality check, that there are real people, good citizens, suffering the brunt of laws that it's easy to forget about, me sitting over here on the "safe" side, a natural-born citizen. And the reality, her reality, made me very sad.

Genealogy and history: love & hate

My hate story

Recently I was talking about the main duties of the student archives technician at the National Archives, and it lead me into a tangent about perceptions of archives and the public’s idea that digitization is some panacea for records management, and an easy fix.

What I didn’t get to are my other duties at work. Besides holdings maintenance projects (the ones that started the tangent on the sheer number of materials we have), I also work in the public areas, assisting the public and researchers, and complete research requests for patrons who are off-site but need help. The first of these assignments takes up half of every workday, as it is the job of the students to assist the public so that the full-time archivists can get down to doing the projects and work they are here to do. Not that their duties don’t also revolve around aiding researchers and the public, but if someone has to sit in the textual research room while a researcher is here and she must not leave the room, well, that limits the amount of other activities that she can complete while essentially on lock-down. In this case, right now, I am in the text room supervising a researcher for the Corps of Engineers, and so I cannot leave the room; it allows for time to write journals reflecting on my duties here, for instance. Sometimes, if the timing is right, we can bring a project into the text room and work on it while we’re trapped in here.

The other room is the research room, and that’s the general public area, the one where you do not need a researcher card to enter, and pretty much anyone who can get past the security guards and metal detectors is allowed in there. It means we are safe from criminals, but we are not safe from idiots and crazy people, and we are especially not safe from… genealogists. I am not the first person to write (no, complain) about genealogists as the annoying part of the duties of a student employee here at the Archives.

Not to sound snooty, but historians have a hierarchy, and genealogists are basically at the bottom, maybe even below the base marker. Family history is basically a nonstarter for most of us working here; it just doesn’t matter too much. We get a tiny thrill maybe the first time we see an ancestor’s draft card. That was the first thing I researched when I started working here, because they are commonly requested, and so I used it as a learning experience in pulling WWI draft cards. I found Perley W. Grubb, scanned his card, and refiled him with rest of the Wisconsin draftees. But where my family was positioned in history does not dictate either my feelings about history, nor the scope or basis of my research.

The problem is, most people’s families did really nothing much that would put them anywhere in the historical records. We have federal records here, and most people go their whole lives never really being really involved in federal functions. You fill out your census every ten years—that’s the main thing. Some people have military records—that’s another biggie. And if your ancestors immigrated or filed for a passport, they would also have filed federal records. But even then, in the case of immigration, they would have had to file their petition for naturalization in a federal court, and before 1907, it wasn’t required that they file them in federal court. So anyone who came to the United States in the nineteenth century could file in any level of court—county, state, federal, random Podunk local courthouse. And that’s if they naturalized at all; they might have remained nationals of their birth country.

We have research tools here for people to begin to find records their ancestors more commonly filed—vital records of birth, marriage, and death. Those are records filed with the state, and so are most often held by either the state’s historical archives or the vital records office—depending on how old they are and varying widely by state. People often get frustrated that before the twentieth century (and even in that one, in many cases) births were not recorded officially. If their great-grandfather’s birth was recorded on the inside of some Bible somewhere, I can’t help them.

It’s not to say that I wholly dismiss genealogy. I understand regular people’s need to see themselves in the past in order to make it meaningful for them. Genealogy is a significant historical experience for many people in today’s digitization-happy world. Part of public history is finding a way to make the past matter to an individual; this means including genealogy on the totem pole, for what value it does offer to a public craving connection. Historians whose focuses lie in larger themes, events, historical trends, and connections—oftentimes professional historians and scholars—don’t focus on minutiae of particular individuals unless they did do something significant or relevant to the subject of their study. Whereas genealogists go looking for a particular person to see if he might have done anything worth recording, historians find the things that were worth recording and then find out more about the people who did them. They start from different points, and work in opposite directions.

I understand though, that a large portion of the public we serve is here to do just that, to find their family. So I work in the research room, patiently helping octogenarians use the printers and computers, and try my best to let them do their own research even when it means teaching them how to move backward and forward on an internet page. (Yes, really.) We don’t do the research for them, we give them tools, indexes, direction on where to begin and what kinds of records will serve their needs best, and then we let them loose.

Once you’ve heard about Great Aunt Gertrude once, you’ve heard about her a hundred times. I cannot tell you how boring it is to hear someone rattle off names in a complicated web, as if I am going to remember or care how their whole family tree is organized. Funny anecdotes to them are a dime-a-dozen to me; but I try not to let my eyes glaze over, and always listen politely for as long as seems normal before bowing out and into my little glass room to hide (which doesn’t work so well in a glass room). Also fun: I can no longer count on two hands the number of people who’ve told me they are related to someone who came over on the Mayflower. This comment is my single biggest pet peeve of working in the research room, bar none. First of all, it’s probably not true; there are so many generations to prove unequivocally. (And there were not that many to survive, if you recall.) Secondly, it truly makes no difference to me whether your long-long-ago ancestors happened to live, even if it was in a colony that is super-famous and iconic in American history. You’d be more interesting to me if YOU have been on the Mayflower. Let’s talk about that!

The most frustrating thing about working with genealogists is when they get angry, upset, or even cry over not being able to find much about those farther back in their family tree. I had one lady in tears at 4:45 one afternoon, because an ancestor she had been researching twenty-five years was still eluding her. He was drafted from Michigan into the Union army during the Civil War, and then she knew that the family received record that he died. She was distraught that there was no record of anything in between. Ma’am, I wanted to say, what the heck else would he have filed with anyone? He was at war. Unless he wrote some diary that somehow made it back into the arms of his family after the war, which is highly, crazily doubtful, there would be nothing else. He fought in a war and he died. That corner of the tree is complete. I am sorry if that is unsatisfying. In my experience, genealogy is highly unsatisfying, because it is so unlikely that your ancestors left much of a paper trail.

We make more of a paper trail these days, but it’s technically an electronic trail. Maybe in one hundred years, my Amazon Wishlist will provide a descendent of mine with endless insight into what I was like. They will also be able to read my Twitter feed, which I do think is very interesting to ponder. I so wish I could read the Twitter feed of Young John Allen, or those sent among the members of a nineteenth century quilting group. But until some of those things become “history,” for now we have the United States census, where you can see interesting things like whether or not your ancestors spoke English and were or were not the head of the household. (Am I coming across here as scathingly sarcastic? I do hope so.)

In which discussing my job becomes instead a tangent on why we cannot digitize everything

I work part-time as an Archives Technician at the National Archives at Atlanta. During those days, half of my time is spent in the public area, meaning I am either in the research room assisting genealogists or in the textual research room observing and assisting researchers who are examining and using our original records. Working in the public areas is one of the most important tasks student workers do here, as it supports all the archivists by giving them more time to do the many projects they have going on, freeing them up from time-consuming work with the general public. The other part of my time is split between several tasks. One, which has pretty much been on the back burner since December, is a holdings maintenance project, as everyone who works here is assigned at least one of these, so that downtime that might crop up can be used for maintenance, organization, description, and database creation for and about the many, many collections and materials we have here. Over time, we are entering information about the items in collections and folders into a finding aid, as well as creating a database that helps archivists and researchers alike to navigate each particular collection. There are so many records here at the National Archives that I know we could all do this for the rest of our lives and not complete the task.

I often walk in the bays—which is what you call the giant warehouse-style caverns that hold the endless shelves stacked with FRC boxes, Hollinger boxes, abnormal-sized boxes, cylinders, map cabinets, and marvel at the sheer amount of material they hold. There are four bays total at the Atlanta facility. I cannot even estimate any remotely meaningful number of cubic feet or number of boxes—let alone estimate a number of documents within those. Billions. Kajillions. I laughed at a recent series of online articles and commentaries that were addressing the recent Civil Case Screening Project that NARA has undertaken in the last year (I'll explain soon), in which people objected to the National Archives deciding which records in the enormous backlog of civil cases would be kept, and which would be destroyed. People have been upset for a number of reasons, some founded, most unfounded or unrealistic. My favorite innocent comment came from a woman who perkily suggested these records all be digitized instead, since one of the arguments for destroying a portion of them was due to space constraints within NARA facilities. She proposed digitization as if that was the simpler, easier answer. Clearly this woman has neither spent much time digitizing anything (it is ENORMOUSLY time-consuming and painfully monotonous) nor, obviously, has she ever taken a peek at the cavernous bays I walk through every day I am at work. I think it would be a healthy dose of medicine for each patron, every American citizen who gets angry at the federal government for not being able to locate a record they are seeking by searching for someone’s name, to take a look inside the bays of the Archives for a glimpse at how many things we keep here. Records are not organized by a handy name reference, no. And they never will be if you understand anything about federal records. Nor, also, will they all be digitized. Not ever.