What makes an archivist giddy…if anything? I think archivists are still considered, by those outside the profession, as the very serious librarian. We’re the image of the stuffy librarian that was around in the 1940s and 1950s. But hey, we’re people too and we do get excited by things even if we don’t always show it.
What makes an archivist giddy depends on the archivist. For me, two things make me giddy: discovering a really cool document and helping someone make that history connection. Last week, I was on the morning shift of the reference desk. It was like any other day. A little on the quiet side and hardly any researchers. About two hours into my shift, this woman came in. I remember her well because she was gobsmacked about being in the National Archives. I admit this made me smile on the inside. I walked her through the process of signing in and even gave her a mini-tour of our reference room (I had the time after all). Then we discussed the reason for her visit.
She was looking for her grandfather’s naturalization records. She produced from her pocket a copy of her grandfather’s certificate of naturalization with the petition number, which is the most important number to have. From there, I discovered that she would need to go to the original record as our microfilm collection only when up so far. As we waited on the record to come from our stacks, I helped her sign up for a researcher card and went over our rules for the our original text room. She was getting excited and that, in turn, made me more excited.
The more things change the more they stay the same. Here I am in a new job in a new city doing the same thing but each person is different. Each person I help is different. They have different needs and expectations. I’ll never forget the look on her face when she found the petition. To her surprise, there was an accompanying photo of her grandfather affixed to his Petition of Naturalization, a grandfather she never meet. The pure joy and excitement that emanated from her infected me too. There was plenty of “oh my god, oh my god” to go around. She was literally shaking with excitement.
Helping that woman, on that day, was THE best day of my entire week. It still makes me smile when I think about it. Before I became an archivist, I wanted to be a historian. I was inspired by my high school history teacher Mr. Ervin who challenged his students and made us think of history in a different way. He was the first teacher I had that made connections. That a solitary event isn’t a stand alone event but it produces a ripple effect that reverberates through time.
A long time ago, a dear friend of mine asked me “where do I find enjoyment in life?” This question required me to distill what I love by separating it out from a job title. After many months of pondering, it dawned on me I love to help people and I love to help people make connections with history. I want to show people that history is still alive and affects us to this day. And, by the time I’m done, you’ll have a greater appreciation for history. That’s my life’s purpose. It’s that guiding principle that lead me to the archives profession and not feel like a failure because I was giving up on my long time goal of being a professional historian. I still help people. I still make those connections everyday.
So, I’ll continue to sit at the reference desk with all it’s ups and downs because it’s what I do. It’s what I love. If you’re ever in Philadelphia, come visit the National Archives. I’ll be happy to help.