Ask an Archivist, Part Three

by An Archivist

(Previously: Parts one and two.)

I want to find cool archivish things, but Googling never works, and even when I put key words into a specific archives’ website, I come up empty … Why can’t I just enter in the name/subject I want and get ALL the archives on that topic?

This is a very good question, my lovely, but one that is the bane of An Archivist’s existence. A mere 10 years ago (yeah, I know, that’s half your lifespan, you perky 20-year-old, but trust me, it’s a BLINK) such a question wouldn’t have even occurred to anyone to ask. Up until the arrival of Google and omnipresent high-speed Internet, no one expected archival research to be easy, or even key word searchable, let alone for archival documents to be digitized and available from the comforts of your very own bean bag.

Now archives, which have traditionally been the purview of mildewy history professors with giant tufts of hair sprouting from their ears, have had to try to adapt to an explosion of user interest, and the expectation that archival research is easy. The short answer to your question, therefore, is what this An Archivist tells her toddler 50 times a day: “You just can’t, that’s why.”

Here’s the longer answer: archival records aren’t catalogued by subject the way that books are. Instead, they’re first described based on who created them, and only secondarily by what the record’s actually about.

“Hey archives,” you might now want to yell. “That’s a crazy way of doing things. Jump on the library train, and start subject indexing, estupidos! (You’re inexplicably speaking Spanish at this point…)

Listen, there’s nothing archivists would rather do than just subject index the heck out of all archival records and get you abusive researchers off our backs, but there are a number of obstacles in our way. Firstly, there is a mountain of archival records out there. We’re talking about quantities bigger than Kanye’s ego and more enormous than your soft spot for Gosling (speaking of). Big archives describe the size of their holdings in terms of miles and terabytes. Describing every archival record the way every book is catalogued in the library is just not feasible and if we don’t describe at the item-level, you’re never going to get those sweet, sweet Google results you crave.

Aside from the crazy insane amount of data out there, another challenge is the very nature of archives. Archival records were made over the course of doing business or living a life without any thought to their eventual archivy-ness. Think of your own life — you’re merrily texting, emailing, word processing, letter-writing, photo-taking, video-making, and blogging, without considering your future as a Supreme Court Justice/ Champion Fencer/ Cancer Curer/International Expert on the Cultural Significance of Spanx. You’re creating a personal archive, and in 70 years, when the archivists start circling like dandruffy vultures to acquire your personal records, you’re going to hand them your hard drives without much extra organization or arranging.

This isn’t a problem for archivists, because we actually like your original arrangement, no matter how idiosyncratic. Archives, like ladies (amirite?) are obsessed with relationships. We believe that there is inherent meaning in the very way you’ve decided to organize things and we want to preserve that when we’re describing the records. Just like you pay attention to the spot where you dig up an ancient Greek vase, you also have to preserve the spot where a particular record is found. This context will tell you about the record itself. If you find an unsigned love letter tucked in beside a schoolboy’s homework, you can assume with reasonable confidence that little Petey Penobscot is the author of that letter. In a real-world example of the importance of archival context, a high-level figure in the Iran Contra scandal was actually nailed because he received a two-word email saying “well done,” which taken within the context of the larger group of records, proved he knew and approved of Oliver North’s skullduggery.

This dedication to preserving context means that we describe the records based on where they came from and how they were originally arranged. That way we preserve a snapshot of their original order. The downside of this approach is that we can’t describe things by subject as easily. So, as much as we want to group all of the records related to haunted lighthouses in one big, easy to find collection, we resist the urge. Doing so would destroy the original context of all those unique pieces of evidence. What’s more, in 100 years it’s possible (though doubtful) that people will no longer care about haunted lighthouses. If we’ve destroyed the context of creation by grouping records together by subjects we find relevant today, tomorrow’s researcher into the history of the lamp oil prices will be left with a lot of iffy stories about lonely, murderous lighthouse keepers instead. Not helpful.

This brings us to the final point: archivists are a self-effacing lot and we go to great lengths to eliminate our own biases in the records we acquire and describe. Fifty years ago only a few people thought that the everyday lives of servants were historically significant, homosexuality was illegal in most places, women’s roles in history were seldom studied, and many history-keepers believed that anyone who wasn’t white wasn’t relevant. As a result of these biases, there was very little descriptive effort paid to their records, and the documentation on these groups is often hidden under a dominant narrative. We’re trying to avoid making those same mistakes today, because inevitably, and without realizing it, we’re neglecting people, events, and trends that will be interesting to future researchers. One way to limit our own biases is by confining our descriptions to explaining who created the records, and letting the researchers figure out what they want to do with the records.

Here’s an interesting take on the whole issue, complete with a semi-catty academic-y/ journalist-y/archivist-y fight.

So, those are all of the reasons why you can’t plug in “old timey drama” into Google and get exciting clips of glamorous ladies and sword-wielding men from the aughts (although this is pretty close).

If you want to find the cool stuff in the archives, you have to work for it. Like making a Baked Alaska, that torturous relationship with your university boyfriend, or finally reaching Alpha Centauri in Civilization, archival research is a ton of complicated work, but getting there is half the fun.

I have a chance to help my super-into-genealogy-father put together a missing piece in our family’s history, but I’m not sure where to start.

The background, in short:

My ancestor was a sailor who moved around the world quite a bit before eventually becoming a captain. (He was shot through the face (!) by pirates at one point while sailing back up from South America, attested in a newspaper clipping and in later portraits of him where he appears with small but visible pockmarks in his cheeks.)

At some point, he showed up in London, and eventually he married an Englishwoman. They moved back to the US before the War of 1812.

This is the sticky point. When exactly did he get there, and what was he doing? Why would he have been there when there was an embargo on US-English shipping? How did the couple meet? (I know about her birthplace, her family (her father ran a coffee house), and the wedding/church in which they were married, and about his early life, and his life once he was back in the US.)

So, I travel to London pretty frequently, and would love to be able to dig through some papers, if any exist, that would shed light on more parts of their story — but I don’t know where to go, or what to look for when I’m there. My impression from cursory Googling is that regular incoming/outgoing ship records weren’t really a thing during this time period.

I’d appreciate anything you can recommend or do to point me in the right direction.

Your ancestor was shot through the face by PIRATES?!?! That is super cool and totally beats my ancestor who was crushed to death in a coal mine, and might even top the aunt murdered by Bolshevik bandits. I’m desperate to know more. How do you know he was shot by pirates? Did he meet Johnny Depp??

Okay, back to the task at hand. First of all, do I assume correctly that your ancestor was American? And a commercial sailor? Let’s say he was. Your question about why he ended up in England at this time is a good one. As you say, relations were less than brotherly in decades between the American Revolution and the War of 1812, what with the Royal Navy impressing American sailors willy nilly and the French stirring up all kinds of merde. In fact, if your ancestor had been a regular ol’ Joe Shmoe, just an ordinary seaman, you might have gotten lucky and tracked him down in the records dealing with impressed sailors. In short, in an attempt to defend themselves against John Bull’s bullies, American sailors used to carry around notes from their moms saying, “please don’t enslave me, nice Royal Navy man.” Which the meany Brits mostly ignored.

But your fearless forbear was an officer, and therefore normally (but not always) immune to such degradations. So why else might he have ended up on the wrong side of the pond? Well, if we dig a bit into the culture of life on the high seas at the turn of the nineteenth century, we find that seamen (hee) probably had somewhat fluid (double hee) notions of home and nation — not least because the very idea of American nationality was still in its early years. Your ancestor may simply have been fed up with the crappy job sitch caused by the embargo, and trotted off to Jolly Old in the hopes of a bit of coin and tail. Some American sailors even voluntarily defected to the Royal Navy, just to mix things up a bit.

But really, your mother lode might be the name of a ship on which he served. Any clues in any of those newspaper clippings, for instance? Commercial shipping has been meticulously detailed since as early as the mid-18th century, particularly in publications like Lloyd’s List of London. While the List was a British publication, the nature of global commercial shipping in ye olden days meant that you may still find precious info about your ancestor’s maritime movements. The imperial commanders at Google have kindly digitized early editions, so with a vessel name, a bit of patience, and a few key dates, you may well start to build a picture of his whereabouts. And while the List is concerned with vessels, personal names do crop up frequently, in lists of casualties, etc. On your next trip to London, why not drop into the London Metropolitan Archives and Ask a Limey Archivist? The former Guildhall Collection at LMA is rich with supplementary information about 19th-century shipping records. At the very least, the staff there should be able to advise you about what next steps you might take.

So, speaking of Britain: your question also raises interesting issues about how Britain treated foreigners. The Brits introduced alien registration (hee) in 1793, worried about the waves of revolutionary refugees coming from France. Unfortunately for you, the records are very patchy, but you should check them out nonetheless. Even where the central records no longer exist, you could get lucky and find alien registers still held in local UK record offices.

As you and your father have already discovered, genealogical records for the late 18th and early 19th centuries are infuriatingly scant. The census and civil registration come much later, and you’re right that routine incoming and outgoing passenger lists were not yet kept. So the first thing to do is to make sure you’ve actually got — in your hot little hands — all the documentation surrounding those events that you do know about. These records often reveal bonus details. You say that you know about their marriage. Do you have a copy of the actual parish register entry? Get it. Don’t forget that the ‘London’ of yesteryear was quite different from that of today, and you may need to look at other English counties. Then do the same for baptisms and burials, and extend your search to granny’s relatives. Again, you’ll be surprised at the extraneous info that crops up and tells you things about the hangers-on who serve as witnesses and freeloaders at such life events.

Now, you say that you know about his life once he was back in the US. Do you know how and when they returned to the US? You might find some useful incidental information about his earlier outbound trip on his return. While — again — the records are elusive, you should check out the published bibliographies that outline the resources that do exist. P.W. Filby seems to be the dude in the know. No doubt you can get your mitts on his books in the States, but why do that when you could rub tweed-clad elbows with the gang at the Society of Genealogists Library when you’re next in Londontown?

So in short, you’ve got your work cut out for you. But narrow your dates as much as possible and then start cozying up to some experts in the field. You’re in luck that there’s a whole ocean of people who are bonkers bananas for maritime history; someone out there knows the best way (if there is a way) to try to track down your pops. Hit the maritime museums (in the US and the UK) and local archives in the towns where you know your family lived.

Finally, if you are really devoted, you could turn your attention to the various primary sources left by the brave seafaring themselves. Ships’ logs and journals mention not only the crew of the ship in question, but also those vessels they happened to meet (or attack, or be attacked by) on the high seas. They’re hidden in archives and libraries hither and yon, but you could start with the bibliographies of published works about maritime culture in the Revolutionary and Napoleonic period, which will give you handy list of first-hand accounts of American mariners at the turn of the nineteenth century. Diving into these might just turn up your pirate-fighting progenitor. Ahoy matey!

You must get offered a crapload of stuff. How do you decide what to keep?

Ah, a question for the ages, and oddly enough, one that gets asked with alarming regularity among archival professionals themselves, who you’d think would have this down pat by now. There are actual theories out there — generally applied to government records — that try to make the archival decision more of a science, a sort of analytical sieve in which one can dump potentially archival documents (not literally of course, or else we’d end up with archival document confetti), shake them around, and the ones that meet the criteria fall out below, so that no matter who was doing the thinking around it, the decision would be the same each and every time. The reality, though, is that we are not impartial robots (though sometimes that would be great; I’d be able to get through an episode of Friday Night Lights without sobbing), and so what one person deems archival, another may not. These differences can become even more pronounced over time, as opinions change and things that were relevant at one time no longer are. Welcome to the Russian roulette world of archives!

Each archival repository has its own focus, which narrows down the range of material that they will consider as a potential acquisition. For example, the North American Carnival Museum and Archives will most likely not be terribly interested in Aunt Mabel’s journals circa 1940–1950, but they just might flip their big top for Uncle Joe’s drawings and accompanying stories about his life as a carny. Aunt Mabel might still have a chance, though, if she approached her local town or city archive, which would most likely be focused on documenting the life and times of its citizens. So our first step in deciding what to keep is to figure out if the material actually fits the mandate of the archive.

Now that you’ve determined that Uncle Joe’s legacy will live on alongside the two-headed calf and The Giantess, let’s focus on Aunt Mabel. Those diaries? We love that stuff. People go bonkers for a diary. Same goes for letters. And as well they should; they provide evidence of what people did on a day to day basis, giving us an intimate glimpse into someone’s life in a way that government or organizational records simply can’t. So say Aunt Mabel was a teacher at a one-room school in 1940, teaching 20 children of varying ages and snotty attitudes. Now, we know that these schools existed, and the government of the time would have records about how many of them there were, how they were run, and maybe even a file for each teacher and student; however, that doesn’t really give us the skinny on how Aunt Mabel really felt about those Johnson kids in the second row (she hated them) or about how she felt about Uncle Joe’s philandering with Pretzel Sue (she hated her). Those diaries just might fill in some of those holes, making that acquisition decision a pretty easy one.

What happens, though, with those other, non-diary items that Mabes kept and for which you are now tasked with finding a home? The scribbled notes on loose paper, receipts, unidentified photos, and scrapbooks of newspaper clippings from the county fair? Well, it depends (remember: archivy — not a science). Context is key; if Aunt Mabel was a prominent individual who made lots of noteworthy contributions to the city (or state, province, country etc.), then we would probably look at her scribbles with interest, simply because some of may be the seeds of things that eventually made her quite prominent. If, on the other hand, Aunt Mabel’s most public contribution was as the lady who was known for yelling at the kids to get off her lawn, then her scribbles would be gently placed back in the box for you to use as kindling.

It is also important that archivists consider whether this kind of material documenting the same or similar can be found elsewhere. Sometimes another archive has lots of this stuff, so it’s not necessary to keep more of it. Sometimes a book is a better source, and sometimes it just comes down to the fact that the documents don’t tell us anything of consequence about a person or an event or a group. Sad but true.

It’s a tough thing, trying to decide what to keep. Rough estimates say that archivists acquire less than 10% of what they are offered. It’s also a tough thing to tell someone (or, as is more often the case, their family) that you don’t want the records of their life. The reality, unfortunately, is that in an ideal world we would acquire almost everything that is offered to us; all of it is interesting in its own way and tells a story. Practical concerns restrict us from doing so, namely the fact that we don’t have armies of archivists to process the material or endless warehouses in which to keep it, but we are also aware of the fact that if we acquired everything, there would be so much that it would be an overload of information and therefore kind of useless. This shouldn’t discourage you from considering the archives as a final resting place for records that you might own or end up responsible for, but in the event that they don’t make the cut, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they aren’t still important and useful to you or your family.

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