October is American American Archives Month. Rebecca Grandahl, intern in the Office of Public and Media Communications, will be highlighting the work of our staff throughout the month. For today’s post, we asked our staff: What made you want to work at an archives?
“The mystic chords of memory, stretch… from every… living heart and hearthstone across this broad land,” said Abraham Lincoln, as he delivered his first Inaugural Address from the steps of the unfinished Capitol building.. It was an early, yet powerful statement that relayed the importance of the past to the American people. During American Archives Month, we celebrate the work of preserving that past.
Staff and volunteers at the National Archives across the country pride themselves on helping to make history come to life through the use of archival documents and materials. Unlike a library, archives preserve and care for primary sources, providing historians and the public access to firsthand accounts, data, evidence, and more. In an archives, items are saved and preserved to show how an event occurred, keep financial records, or to remember important personal moments.
“[Archives] are what write history textbooks,” says Amber Kraft, National Archives Education Specialist. “I love working with the raw stuff.”
Before working in Washington, DC, Kraft was based in Independence Hall in Philadelphia, where the Declaration of Independence and Constitution were originally debated. Now, she has moved to the National Archives on Pennsylvania and Constitution Avenues, where the Declaration and Constitution are safely stored and sit on display in the famous Rotunda.
“It’s almost like they’re following me!” Kraft says of the two Charters of Freedom.
Just north of the District of Columbia sits a more modern building that is also part of the National Archives. This College Park, Maryland, location houses thousands of records, including motion picture archives.
Audrey Amidon works in the Motion Picture Preservation Lab. Amidon’s interest in film preservation was sparked early on in seventh grade, when she saw a film shot at the UCLA film archive. “I saw that and saw that there was a problem [in the film] that needed to be solved… and that was when I was first interested in film preservation,” Amidon says. Inspired by the knowledge that film records wouldn’t be around forever, and that someone needed to to care for them and extend their lives for as long as possible, she began to consider a career taking care of film.
On the other side of the country at the National Archives in Denver, Cody White admits he didn’t even know what an archivist was until college. Reflecting on his time in school, White realizes the moment when he knew he wanted to work in an archives.
“I was writing my History BA thesis, working in a Minnesota State Senator’s [office with] personal papers and having a ball,” White said. The experience highlighted what he really wanted to do in his career: take care of the records instead of being on “the other side of the transaction.”
In St. Louis, Missouri, Coast Guard veteran Kevin Pratt works at the National Personnel Records Center (NPRC). At the NPRC, over 1.2 million requests for veterans records are processed every year. Pratt solves problems within those many requests, which means anything from recovering medals and awards earned by a veteran in service to giving a family closure on a loved one lost to the war.
Pratt calls his work at the National Archives both “relatable and extremely rewarding.” At the same time, he says, he understands that the people who submit requests are “dealing with a lot of frustration,” typically because their request has taken a long time to be completed or records have been lost in the NPRC fire of 1973 that destroyed 16 million records.
Back in Washington, DC, National Archives volunteer Emma Taylor says she got into archival work before starting a graduate program in archival studies.
“I’ve found that at their core, the archives tell us stories,” Taylor says. “We get to be the detectives, searching for clues and getting tiny pieces of the puzzle that lead to the bigger story.”
Taylor recently worked on a blog post that highlighted the contributions of Hispanic American and Tejano soldiers in WWI, using draft registration cards, transport lists, award rolls, gravestone applications, and even personal handwritten accounts to help tell the story of these soldiers’ war experiences.
“While it may seem that over time people are forgotten as those who knew them die, they really do live forever in the records left behind in the National Archives,” Taylor says.