The Return of the Archivist

by An Archivist

(Previously: Ask an Archivist.)

You teased us with this in your first column, but how DO you find the hot old-picture guys? For My Daguerreotype Boyfriend, et al. Asking for a friend / ghost from the past.

This is one of the most important, pressing and complex questions in the world of archives today, but I’m pleased to say that the sexed up ghost from the past looking to locate a hot dead hunk has many options available to her/him.

First we need to thank our lucky stars that scanning technology exists. Many institutions have begun digitizing parts of their collections (usually quite miniscule portions, but it’s a start). That means that most hot old-picture guy hunting can be done from the comfort of a ghost’s own desk.

So, first step is to select a favorite archival repository (so many to choose from, head is spinning!). Your ghost might want to start with a larger institution, only because they are likely to have a lot of photographs, and therefore more scope for the discerning spirit. Ideally your phantom wants a website that offers the option of only searching photographic databases, and only images that have been digitized. Nothing worse than jonesing for a glimpse of a rugged 1890s gold miner, and having to make do with a description, rather than the actual picture, let alone getting saddled with some letter he wrote, or worse a map of where he went.

Now, since archivists try to keep the title a photograph was originally given, unless the ghost is searching the Playgirl Collection (yowza!), using words like “hot” or even “attractive” in the search box won’t work. Instead, the ghost will have to get into the mindset of ye olde times and think about how the photographer would have described the image. Often it’s by the individual’s name, so unless your ghost happens to know the name of his or her ancient paramour, have a thing for Grover Cleveland or some other famous old stallion, that avenue won’t yield great results.

Another way to go is by occupation. Key word searching by jobs that manly hotsters would have performed back in the day can be quite fruitful. Soldiers are always a good bet, as are firemen. Lifeguards can be enjoyable, though the old fashioned swimsuits can be a bit distracting. Sometimes even random jobs can yield strapping young fellers. Who knew “Public Hack Drivers” were so attractive?

Favorite sports — Baseball? Basketball? Cricket? Football (British or American) all can yield deeply satisfying shots of sweet man flesh, which are perfectly acceptable to ogle because HISTORY. Here’s one of Mounties, who are also rugby players… Come on!

Finally, if your ghost is serious about hunting down photographs of historical beefcake, at some point he or she is going to have to leave their desk and float down to the local archives. Like I said at the start, most photographs aren’t described online, let alone digitized. Literally billions of photographs are stored in archives around the world, but the only way to see them is to show up onsite and start pulling boxes of prints and negs. Hunting bygone hotties is just like online dating, at some point you have to meet the dude in the flesh … so to speak.

I may want to be An Archivist. I’m also considering museum work or something similar — as an undergrad I’m keeping options open and learning as many useful skills as possible (typing, joke-telling, etc.). I have an internship at the Smithsonian next fall working in an archivey situation, which is so exciting. I’ve had other archivists tell me that you really have to want to do it and not make a lot of money. Like acting. But also like acting, I feel like if I do go into archival work there’s a chance I might make it big time, like the woman who found the Paul Revere print. Metaphorical big time. Without money.

What can you tell a wide-eyed aspiring archivist? Look into your past and tell me my future!

First off, congratulations on scoring a primo Smithsonian internship! No doubt they have a few skeletons hidden in various closets — literally — just yours for the finding. Then perhaps you really would hit the big time!

A fairly high tolerance for providing the same explanation over and over to friends, family and strangers is an important requirement when pursuing an archival career: “No … not anarchist … archivist. No, it’s not another word for librarian. No, we do not have a file on you.” But a love of history and the promise of unfettered access to archival material is the fire that really burns in the belly of most aspiring archivists. I have colleagues who enjoyed doing research but really hated that they couldn’t see everything they wanted to because of access restrictions imposed either by legislation or individual donors. Solution? Become an archivist so you can see pretty much anything, and as an extra bonus you can indulge your inner power tripper when people come to you for access and you say no. Win win!

There are a couple different ways to pursue this dream. The most common is to do a degree — generally at the graduate level — in something information management-related. There are a variety of programs available at schools across North America, some that are specifically called “archival studies,” and those that are some variation of “information studies.” No surprise that an archival studies program focuses pretty specifically on producing trained archivists, so offers you courses in all sorts of exciting-sounding subjects: arrangement and description of archival material, archives and the web, and digital records forensics. CSI: Archival Edition!

The schools that have faculties with a broader focus tend to deal with the management of information in general, regardless of the format. At these schools you can often pursue degrees in information management, archival studies, library science, or museum studies, all under one roof. Combine them to become some sort of information superhero! Generally these programs will run you around two years and often have an option or requirement for a placement of sorts in the real world of work, which can sometimes lead to actual jobs that may include paychecks and benefits packages; these can come in handy when you drop a 50 pound box of documents on your foot.

The other, less well-known path to a career as an archivist is to pursue a graduate degree in almost any of the humanities or social sciences. It depends on where you would like to work since different archives have different preferences. Some employers really want people with the archival or information management training, while others are happy to train you on-site and exploit whatever other skills you may have. The size of the archive sometimes can give you a clue; the larger it is, the more likely they are to consider a wide range of educational backgrounds, as more archivists = a diverse work description and more opportunities to do things other than play around with old paper and deal with researchers. Like write policy. Doesn’t that sound exciting?

Unfortunately there aren’t a ton of archival jobs out there, but they do exist and aren’t as hard to come by as you might think. Make as many contacts as you can in the shady world of archivy, volunteer if it suits you, and keep your eyes peeled for job postings. Don’t limit your volunteering to your local county archives, either; while you may love working for a tiny archives tucked into a side room of your library’s basement, you probably won’t meet a lot of job-hire-y people there. Instead, get yourself plugged into the state, provincial, or national archival associations and take them for all they’re worth; sometimes they have mentoring programs so you can badger and wear down an already down-trodden archivist with never-ending questions that will help you get a job (their job??). Help out with their annual conferences, schlep water bottles for the archival bigwigs (all that bigwigging makes for serious thirst), subscribe to relevant listservs, and chuck in a question or contribute to a discussion every now and then (though preferably only when you have something intelligent to say). You want to get your name out there so that people recognize it and think positively about you when your CV hits their desk. While in school, think strategically and try to get something you’ve written for class — a paper, a book review — published in one of the academic archives journals. It’s not as intimidating as it looks, and again, you want your name to be respected and recognized. Some journals and conferences even devote time and publishing space to the activities and research that students are doing.

Finally, take any job you can get your hands on, however remotely it relates to archives. Even if you hate it and are working for peanuts (this An Archivist once worked in a supply closet for three months trying to physically organize the paper records of a small section in a government department … oh, to see the sunlight …), you’ll be building your CV and hopefully meeting some people who can help you get that dream job. If you’re willing to wait it out, you could always work on your typing and joke-telling skills in the meantime.

How do I find all my family secrets? Do I look in an archives where my family is based? Or a bigger archives? How do I start? What keywords do I use? Is “keywords” even an appropriate word to use in this question? I want to find weird old pictures of my relatives’ wedding-announcement stuff, and their … actually, whatever might be in there. (“There.”) Who even knows. I got the bug because one day I was Googling myself and found the woman I’m named after’s scandalous first-marriage announcement, and now I want to FIND EVERYTHING.

A baby genealogist! So exciting. I’m dying to know WHY this woman’s marriage was scandalous … Bun in the oven? Shacked up with a cousin? I want you to find everything too! First, what you already suspect: Google won’t get you very far, and there is no such thing as “there.” At the same time, thanks to the magic of the interwebs, gone are the days when you had to camp out in the basement of your local Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. As a newbie, there are a few easy steps to your (mostly) internet sleuthing.

But wait! Before you fire up the modem, start by talking to actual people. Chat up Granny, or weird Aunt Mabel, or second-cousin-twice-removed Gareth. Barter cups of tea or an afternoon at the casino for stories about the fam. They will say they don’t know anything. Persevere. They are lying. There’s a box of letters in an attic somewhere, AS WE SPEAK. Also, trawl the Net for “relatives” who have already done your work for you (you’d be surprised … they’re out there). Genealogists are good sharers (and who knows, maybe you’ll get lucky and shack up with YOUR cousin). Just remember to take any such tidbits with a grain of salt; mistakes are easily made in the high-octane world of the family tree.

Okay, now you’re ready to hit the web. My inner archivist (Skywalker) and my inner genealogist (Vader) squabbled over whether to tell you first or last about corporate genealogy websites. The Dark Side won — for now — since such sites are the closest thing we have to the “there” that you asked about. So here you go: a powerful shortcut to the genealogy bacchanal I’m ABOUT to tell you about is to pay to subscribe to such sites (like that have digitized, indexed, and centralized many family history records in one place. If you’re looking for quick results, this is a really good place to start. As with all the advice in this post, however, keep in mind that success will depend on the accessibility of records. If, for example, you don’t speak or read the language of your homeland, or if your forebears used the Public Record Office as, say, a gunpowder store, you’re in for a harder time.

Let’s get to the good stuff. Where available, consider starting with the census. It can be a real goldmine, as census returns give you a snapshot of a household on a given day (names, ages, occupations). The downside is that the census was generally taken only every 10 years, so it’s easy to lose track of people from one census to the next. American and Canadian censuses for the 19th and early 20th centuries are public: in the US you can consult records for free if you physically go to a NARA office; in Canada you need not even leave the couch, as the returns are searchable and viewable for free online. Next stop: “vital statistics.” Governments in the USA and Canada, for example, started recording births, marriages, and deaths — “civil registration” — in the mid-1800s (before that, religious establishments were generally responsible). You can pay to get certificates from the appropriate jurisdiction (state/province/territory in the US and Canada). With full names, dates, addresses, occupations, etc., these give you nice overview of someone’s life.

Now, if you want more (of course you want more!), you can dig a little deeper. Governments, churches, historical societies, and “enthusiasts” have put all kinds of great stuff online. This treasure is often invisible to search engines like Google, so you need to actually explore the databases themselves. Among the things you might find: military records, property records, obituaries, parish registers, cemetery registers, and gravestone transcriptions, divorce petitions, wills, passenger lists, poorhouse rolls …bravery medals? I’m hoping, for your sake, that your family name is closer to ‘Clutterbuck’ than ‘Smith.’ Start by looking at websites that link to online resources. One example is Cyndi’s List, but there are loads of others. National and state archives also often provide advice on their sites about finding genealogical records specific to where you live.

Finally — and archivists would argue this is the best bit by far — get off your tush and go to your local studies library or archives. Ask A Different Archivist (or Librarian) where you should look next (make sure to show your completed homework; if there’s one thing we hate, it’s a person who waltzes into the archives yelling, “show me what you’ve got!”). Root around, wrestle with the microfilm reader under the pitiless stare of the old codger sitting next to you … the cockles tingle just thinking about it. Newspaper clippings, city directories, court records, old photo-postcards, a cache of toenail clippings … anything is possible. Then head down to the next meeting of the local genealogical society, bask in the bizarre, and Ask A Genealogist. It’ll be fun. Take a friend.

Are there weird things in an archive? Like non-text stuff? Is there some vault filled with artifacts and car parts and dried plants and ancient crinoline, etc.? Or is it all letters and books and stuff?

Oh my goodness! Where to start? There is some weird ass business in archives, my friend, no doubt about it!

Firstly, it all depends on the archive in question. The archives at the Andy Warhol Museum, for instance, contain 612 of the artist’s Time Capsules. Every now and then over a 30 year period Warhol would fill up a box with rando material, seal it up and fire it off to storage. Archivists are still digging that stuff out, finding Altoids boxes that may or may not have hidden Quaaludes and unidentified tightie whities.

Your normal, everyday, local archive is probably not going to have Warholian wigs or bottles of valium, but they will most definitely have some strange bits. The tricky part is finding it. Archivists very seldom have a handle on everything that’s in our holdings, because generally there is too much stuff and not enough staff (ha!). Most archives will have all the standard papery stuff, electronic records, photographs, artwork, maps, stamps, medals, audiovisual material. Hidden among all that, though, in some box we haven’t had time to open, can very easily lurk some intensely weird things: hair samples are fairly popular, though the official descriptive term would be “lock of hair.” No matter how you pretty it up, you can’t escape the fact that it’s essentially a small piece of someone’s body, and for that reason this Archivist will not even touch it with the white gloves on.

The Parliamentary Archives in the UK, which you’d think would endorse only the strictest of definitions of records, what with all the upper lip stiffening and tea drinking that happens over there, actually has some nutty things tucked away in its collection. Among all the records documenting British parliamentary history is an 18th Century gravestone submitted to a Committee of Privileges as proof of descent in a peerage claim and even a crude oil sample presented as evidence to a parliamentary committee.

Not quite as creepy as a gravestone but still odd is the famously short chair that renowned musician Glenn Gould used throughout his career whenever he played the piano. At the time of his death it was just a frame with no upholstery.

Sometimes finding the lost random stuff makes for a tear-jerking story. Warrant Officer William Caldwell was killed in 1941 when his ship was torpedoed by a Nazi U-Boat. Caldwell carried his newborn daughter’s baby ring around his neck with his identification discs. When his body was recovered, the discs and the ring were misfiled and the items were never returned to the family. In preparing an exhibit on World War II more than sixty years later, staff found the ring in a box of archival records, tracked down the child, now 64 years old, and returned it to her in a ceremony where she was reunited with members of her father’s family with whom she had lost touch.

Jackie Kennedy’s blood-stained pink suit is also stored at the National Archives and Records Administration, although good luck seeing it. For obvious reasons, the Kennedy family has placed a 100-year access restriction on it.

Drugs, underwear, and baby rings are just the tip of the archival iceberg, though. There is no telling what weird things are in the archives … The best way to get your freak on is to trot down to your local archive and start ordering up boxes. (FYI, if you haven’t noticed yet, going to the archives in person is ALWAYS the best thing to do.)

An Archivist” is a group of ladies who love acid-free file folders, the smell of vinegar syndrome in the morning, and answering questions on all things archival.

Image by Antonio Abrignani, via Shutterstock