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.)

Make sure you've had your tetanus shot, and other important things I learned as an archives intern

For six weeks this summer, I worked as an intern in the archives department of the Southern Museum of Civil War and Locomotive History in downtown Kennesaw, Georgia. When I told people this, they undoubtedly replied, "The museum with The General, right? I went there all the time as a kid!"

Yes, it is the home of The General, the locomotive that was stolen by the Union in the famed Great Locomotive Chase in 1862, an event that gives the Southern Museum a wonderful spot in the arena of American museums focused on the Civil War. The Southern Museum tells the story of the role of Marietta, Kennesaw, and the Cobb County area, as well as the role of the locomotive, in the Civil War. It is much more today than it was even a decade ago, when it was only the home of The General. Its staff has since made it into a wonderful, ever-expanding museum with several permanent exhibits. In addition to The General and "Railroads: Lifelines of the Civil War," the Southern Museum also houses an exhibit on the history of Glover Machine Works, a local steam engine manufacturer, and the modernization of southern industries like it.

For someone who wanted to learn more about developing effective interpretive programs in museums, it was a wonderful opportunity to work with the staff--many of whom were founding members of its team, as the museum was officially founded as the Southern Museum (and expanded from 4,000 square feet to over 40,000) in 2003.

Over the course of my time there, I cataloged an entire collection from start to finish, including creating a finding aid for it (so researchers can find what they need easily); I helped install a traveling exhibit (the museum is an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institute, and the exhibit was one of theirs--"The Working White House"); I helped out at an evening fund-raiser, cocktail party, of sorts; I learned more about the education programs held weekly at the museum; and I did a bit of research on legal issues in the museum world. Throughout, I kept a little list of the truths of the whole world that exists inside the museum.

Things I learned during my internship:

The budget is tight. This is the mantra that all museum business must work within—and around. Do what you can with donated items, such as slightly incorrect—albeit free—file folders for archival materials. In the curatorial department, donations are not always as welcome, as they are oftentimes community members’ old things dropped off at our doors, and are added into the museum’s already stretched storage. The tight budget can often slow or even stop the curatorial and archival goals of a museum, and the mere freezing of a project is in itself a lesson in museum patience. The not processing is part of the experience.



It’s all for the documents and artifacts. This means anything we do must be in an effort to sustain the items we’re working with and keep them as close to their present condition as possible. As Mike the curator told me, our job is to slow their inevitable deterioration. This means removing metals from documents, using pencil only, using acid-free folders, boxes, and tape to hold the materials, and ensuring that our own skin oils and food products do not spoil the items around us. For an intern, it meant pulling out (with an appropriately gentle tool) hundreds of rusty, stubborn staples each day, cursing the use of this office essential while organizing all the staple-free pages into their acid-free folders.

But it’s really all for the community. For, if there is no community for the museum to serve, there is no purpose in its work, no reason to preserve the documents, artifacts, and history it contains. The best way to engage the community is to foster relationships with the children and adults who walk in the door, to keep them coming back; this is done by continually offering new learning experiences in the form of programs and exhibits that expand their knowledge and keep them curious.

And it’s also for your donors. When your museum makes the news and the archivist is interviewed for the radio, it is important that the largest supporters’ projects also get mentioned. Because of news editing, this part was left out at one point during my internship, and we heard about it just a few hours after it was broadcast. When we get press, its important that our patrons are included—rightly so. We also sometimes bend the rules to suit the benefactors’ requests, like allowing them to climb up onto The General, the locomotive that, large as it is, is still an artifact, threatened by its age and the wear and tear of human use. There are simply times when the donors’ satisfaction is paramount.


A man cannot be a museum (however, sometimes he must be). The museum functions only with the contribution and partnership of all of its employees, and the community that arises among them when they come together to complete a project. The director, curator, accountant, volunteer, intern, and janitor are all equally important components of the success and progress of a growing, working museum. After all, with tight budgets, it needs people who are willing to work for free. It also needs people with museum expertise, and people who are good with numbers, and people who care about children. And it requires that they frequently come together and pool their talents. And thus, when working in a very small museum or house museum, the small number of employees must embody many of these skills and be able to perform many of these tasks. The museum world involves wearing many hats.

You must be willing to ask for money. It can be done in very classy or creative ways, absolutely, but the fact remains: the budget is small and the goals are huge. You don’t have to be great with numbers to figure out that equation.

Patience is a virtue. Partly because of the budget, partly because of the red tape involved when doing anything with public money or in a non-profit capacity, things sometimes take longer than planned. Projects wait in the background for years sometimes, waiting for the right grant to complete them, or else for the museum itself to come up with the money. When dealing with third parties, perhaps for outside consultant work, projects are no longer only in the hands of the museum staff, and sometimes you must take a breath, and wait.

Exhibit set-up is mostly planned chaos. While I was at the Southern Museum, we received a traveling exhibit that belonged to the Smithsonian, titled "The Working White House." The installation of it was a whirlwind of unloading, floor planning, conditions reporting (where you record the nicks and scratches of any of the items you've received so that the museum who owns the items can track the wear and tear of their artifacts and display cases), and actual construction of the hardware that holds up the panels and artifacts. I never even considered the importance of lighting in creating an effective exhibit experience, but it makes all the difference. We walked through the whole thing, panel by panel, with the curator wheeling around on a giant ladder to focus the spotlights at precisely the right angle for maximum ambiance and effect. I also learned a lot about properly cleaning Plexiglas and how to avoid artifact theft (hint, no two screws have the same bit).

Always use a pencil. After recording and numbering an entire collection of boxes, someone might be out in storage and discover another box of random documents that belong with my collection. So, I dig in, I organize them by date, and then place each file into its chronological spot among the rest, thereby renumbering every single document that falls after the new entry (or entries). The folders we use to hold and store each file cost about $1 each, and considering the other axioms of museum life, on budget and limited resources, you can assume that use of a pencil is highly endorsed by all parties. But don’t use the eraser on top that #2—it’s not acid free. Use one of those nice, pink stand-alones.

Your work is never done. I finished cataloging an entire collection, from removing the staples all the way down to writing its entire finding aid (i.e. descriptions, so it’s easy for people who want to use this collection for research to find what they want quickly), on my last day at the Southern Museum. Unless, that is, you count the extra box of documents someone found in storage, which had been separated from the others. We found this so late, and it involved so much backtracking (as I hinted at before, with the renumbering and the reprinting of all the box labels), that we decided to keep the collection, as it was then, complete and finished for now. I had tackled a project that some of the other volunteers would not touch, due to its dull nature (the accounting files for various southern railroad companies when they chose to retire anything in its ownership, from tracks to work vehicles to store houses), and since I had so nearly completed it, we left it at that. The finding aid is posted on the museum’s website for anyone who wishes to do research in this collection. But the fact of the matter is, there is still one more box of documents to add it to it, someday.

The museum is a big, kooky family. My boss, the director of archives, is a motorcycle enthusiast who also collects historical guns and sometimes uses them for demonstrations. She used to be a nurse. One of the interpreters does Civil War reenactments and works with cattle-riders and other novelty odd-job folk in Wisconsin; he’s also appeared as an extra in several Robert Redford films. Everyone on the staff was enthusiastic, even, most notably, when dealing with the parts of their jobs that were not always as much fun. The whole staff I worked with was full of creativity, ingenuity, laughter, and kindness, and certainly an array of quirks. I hope their attitudes and teamwork are a sampling of the kind of people who work in the museum world not for its lucrative benefits (joke, there), but for the personal satisfaction it awards them, and for the effects of their work in the larger community--both that of Cobb County and of comparable museums.