There are definitely two types of personalities at the Archives. We have the introverts that would be very happy being in the stacks, not talking to anyone all day long — just come in and work with the records and not deal with people. The people that tend to be in Reference are the more outgoing types, where literally our jobs are helping people. We are involved with the digging-deeper process. It’s like being a detective, where you start in the most obvious places, and if they’re not finding what they need, then we’re the ones guiding them through and pointing them to different places to check.
I help other people do their own family genealogy; I’m not into my genealogy. I mean, my grandfathers were both in World War II, so I’ve seen stuff related to them. One was in the Army
in Europe, and then my other grandfather was in the Pacific in
WWII, so I have a good handle on what
their experiences were. Beyond that, it doesn’t really matter to me what someone was doing in the 19th century that was my relative. We have people that want to know what their relative had for breakfast at Gettysburg. That level of detail, that’s what they want to get down to.
Sometimes you have to be careful what you wish for. In some cases we’re enriching people’s family stories, and in other cases we’re kind of destroying family myths. They may not have been the heroic person that you thought they were. Sometimes that plays out in the records, and people leave very disappointed. The difficult part is giving bad news to family members. I did have one where they had gotten the service record, and [it] showed that their ancestor was in the hospital, but it didn’t show why. I did a little digging for them and found out he had VD, and that’s why he was in the hospital. That wasn’t uncommon in the 19th century.
One of the most surprising ones was a guy whose dad was in the
Army in the beginning of the 20th century. His father was typical of a lot of veterans, never talked about his experiences at all. And so he wanted to know about his service. I found his dad was on a “Wanted” poster. It was like, frontal picture, side profile – “Wanted.” He had deserted, and it had everything that he deserted with — the horse, the saddle, the rifle — and it was a $50 reward. So I’m trying to write the letter, and it was like, “Good news/bad news. I have great photos of your dad in the Army
but bad news: He was on a ‘Wanted’ poster.” How do you write that? I just kind of fudged it and said: “This is what we found. Enclosed is a complimentary copy.”
— Interviews by Robin Rose Parker