Saturday, February 6, 2010

An Hour in the Archives

Most of you reading this are probably thinking this is about the Church Archives. Well, it isn't. I live some 2,000 miles from the Church Archives, so if I go, I'll want to spend more than a hour there. No, this is about the Tennessee State Library and Archives in Nashville. I go to the Archives to find stuff I can't get on-line. I don't usually get more than an hour at a time, and sometimes I get less. But you can accomplish a lot in just an hour. Every state capital probably has a similar institution. Even our public library has some of the same services at the reference desk. So if live or work near an Archive like this and you are wondering if you can do somethin in only an hour, the answer is Yes!

11:55 AM  Sign in at the front desk. At the TN Archives, you have to register as a user to get by the guard at the front door. Registering means you can get a parking pass (free!!) and a card to give to the guard each time you visit. The log book shows only the number on your card so the log book maintains privacy while still keeping track of who is using the Archives.

11:58 AM  Asked the librarian at the reference desk for a book showing the State Senators. Turns out there is a collection of biographies for each of the State Senators. I'm interested in Thomas A. Kercheval and any one else with that last name. Turns out there is only one. The biography offers a more accurate set of dates for his service as Senator, making him in the right place and the right time to author a law which prohibited the teaching of polygamy in Tennessee. I make a copy of the biography (30 cents for 2 pages) and place the book on the cart for re-shelving. Total time: 12 minutes.

12:10 PM  Made my way to the Manuscripts division to find out how to look up court cases. After describing what I was looking for and confessing I didn't know how to find it, the archivists cheerfully helped me out. One showed me the right finding aid for court minutes in Anderson County, Tennessee in 1900 and how to locate the microfilm when I had the number. The microfilm library here is self serve, though they don't want you to refile the films when you are done. I locate a microfilm reader with a copy machine attached, load the film, and scroll to the index. I find three entries for D. J. Eaton and write down the page numbers, five in total. I scroll to the pages I want and make some copies. I have to copy a couple extra pages to get the entire event, but 7 pages (and $1.75) later I rewind the microfilm, place it on the re-shelf table and move on. I wasted 3 minutes getting correct change for the microfilm copier, but I'll do better next time. I didn't waste time trying to decipher the archaic handwriting. I can do that at home or in the hotel next time I am at a client site. If you are lucky, your archives may have software for copying images from microfilm to a pdf file for free. You only have to provide the storage medium. Tennessee's archives, however, does not. Total time: 15 minutes.

12:25 PM  Having completed my predetermined tasks, I go to the reading room and walk back to the section on Lewis County. I already knew where it was but if I didn't I could have just asked. I pull three books which I have seen before, but didn't previously have the time to go through. One is a WPA manuscript from 1938 on the history of Lewis County probably written originally in 1909. In it I find a reference to the Condor family arriving in the area in 1808, when it was still part of Hickman County. I note the reference data and the page number. Another book is a list of members of the Church of Christ covering the same area as Cane Creek. I saw a few names I knew, including at least one who was an LDS member in 1884 but joined the Church of Christ in 1896. I should have made a copy, but it slipped my mind. The last book was court minutes from just before the Civil War. I skimmed from 1854 to 1858 looking for "whatever." I found only a handful of events of interest to me. Most involving relatives of known vigilantes and other key figures like Tom Garrett and John Carroll all in positions of importance and influence. Noticing my time was about up, I placed the volumes on the re-shelving cart and collected my things. Total browsing time: 35 minutes.

1:02 PM Signed out at the front desk, richer in knowledge and $2.05 poorer.
Your results may vary, but even not knowing where to go for some of the stuff I wanted, I accomplished two specific tasks in 28 minutes and had time left over for browsing. The trick? No trick really.
  1. Know what you want to find out before you arrive. I had names and dates written on a piece of paper based on the on-line research I had already done. The more you already know, the easier it will be to find when you get there. Notice I didn't spend any time at the card catalogue. I can do that at home. 
  2. Don't be afraid to ask for directions. The librarians and archivist want you to succeed. They aren't always right, but they know the archives better than I do. Of course, they are not volunteers, they are paid to be there. Their livelihood depends on knowing this stuff when a legislator come over from next door.
[disclaimer: I don't always find what I am looking for when I go to the archives. But I always enjoy myself.]


Justin said...

Thanks for the update on your research. What years did Kercheval serve as a state senator?

I'm also interested in learning more about Eaton.

Anonymous said...

This was a fun read. Thanks!


Ardis Parshall said...

Nice tutorial that should take away a lot of the fear of the unknown for someone who may be a little shy about starting on, say, family history research in an unfamiliar place.

I look forward to posts on the actual stories that you were researching and the additional details you uncovered.

S.Faux said...

I love the fact that there are people like you in this Church that actually track things down. I wish there were more of you.

BruceCrow said...

Kercheval and Eaton are both subjects of future posts. But you are in luck. Mr Eaton will be on Monday.

Glad you enjoyed it.

Some may be shy about getting started, others might feel they don't have the time. Neither one needs to be a problem.

Thanks. Maybe someone else will read this and realize they can do it too.

Christopher said...

Well done, Bruce. Have you visited any archives yet that do not have catalogues available online (thus limiting how prepared you can be ahead of time)?

I've dealt with this recently here in Virginia (very small, denominational archives), and have found that the librarians and archivists have proved more than willing to help via email or phone calls to find and prepare materials ahead of time for me.

BruceCrow said...

Even when the collection is "online", the listing never tells you if it actually contains what you want. So like you I rely considerably on the librarians and archivists.

When I visit the archives in Salt Lake, I will call or email ahead to get the ball rolling on what I'm looking for.

Amy said...

Wonderful! Thanks for the write up. It sounds like a great trip to the archives.

BruceCrow said...

Thanks Amy. It was both successful and satisfying.

Edje said...

Great, insightful post.

"your archives may have software for copying images from microfilm to a pdf file for free. ...Tennessee's archives, however, does not."

Depending on library policy, microfilm condition, lighting, handwriting, etc, an alternative is to use a digital camera (with flash off, low-light settings). I find that 3-4 quick photos at various magnifications works for most documents.

BruceCrow said...

Then I must look into a digital camera. (I know, I know, welcome to the 21st century, Bruce). I assume I would need one with a pretty high resolution and a maybe a tripod.