The Past Becoming the Present

Written by Justine Rothbart

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“To be honest, I couldn’t have imagined that Manna was still alive. Perhaps that’s one of the problems with being a historian — we assume that the people we read about live only on paper.” Rebecca Erbelding, the archivist at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum who oversees the museum’s material, said this in a recent article in the Washington Post. She was talking about the story of Martha “Manna” Weindling Friedmann who worked at Weir Courtney, the estate in Lingfield where Holocaust children survivors were given a home after the war. “I can’t tell you how long I’ve stared at these photos,” Erbelding said, “When you stare at them long enough, you know them.”

It’s an unusual feeling working with archival collections. You feel as if you know the people, but you also feel as if they cannot exist outside of the paper. Reading this article just reinforces that as archivists, many of us get this feeling. It is the feeling of knowing someone, knowing their stories, and knowing their emotions. Yet, often times, we are unable to meet these people we seem to know so well. What intrigued me about this article is how the archivist actually met the people who used to live only on paper. She gave a tour of the museum to two Holocaust survivors, Andra and Tatiana Bucci, who both lived in Weir Courtney after the war. She also accompanied Andra and Tatiana to visit Manna Weindling Friedman who they described as a “second mother” from Weir Courtney.

Stories like this one shows the range of roles of an archivist. We are the advocate, the teacher, and the memory keeper. We are the ones that connect the stories to the rest of the world. Who knows how many more roles we will acquire. All those roles morph into the exciting the ability to travel into the past and sometimes having the past become the present.

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Click here to read the Washington Post article.

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An Obsession You Just Can’t Shake Off

Written by Justine Rothbart

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We never knew them. And yet, we become encapsulated by their life. We never saw them. And yet, seeing their photograph is like seeing an old friend. We recognize their handwriting as if it was our own. We hear their voice through every written word. And we feel them holding the same paper in our hands. It’s an obsession that might strike once. Or it might be an obsession you just can’t shake off.

This obsession is genealogy.

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Our CUA CHIM cohort recently completed the class Use and Users of Libraries with Professor Ya-Ling Lu.  Each of us gave a presentation on the information seeking behavior of a user group of our choice. I chose genealogists. I discussed genealogists’ method for information seeking, the tools used, and their process for information sharing. However, I did not answer the question of why. Why do they do it? Why do they map out their family history? Why do genealogists spend endless days and nights obsessing over someone else’s life?

Genealogists are not just searching for answers about someone else’s life, but they are searching for answers about their own. Creating a family tree is like creating a map to yourself.

“Seeking information, seeking connections, seeking meaning: genealogists and family historians” written by Elizabeth Yakel discusses information seeking behavior of genealogists and also highlights some of the main reasons why people conduct genealogical research. Yakel states that genealogy is about making connections. These connections are not only with ancestors, but with other genealogists. Yakel puts genealogists into three categories: The Narrator, The Archivist, and The Navigator. The narrator is someone who tells a story. The Archivist conducts genealogical research for the preservation of information. The Navigator creates maps of family connections, such as family trees.

“My husband tends to be what I call a genealogist. He finds the name, and he’s got the birth date, and the death date, and the marriage date and that’s when he’s finished with that person. I tend to be a family historian.” (Genealogist 18, lines 144-147).

Maybe this is the key to understanding why. By learning information seeking behavior, we can better understand their motives. We can begin to understand this need for searching, discovering, and finding ourselves.

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If you decide to take the plunge and start your genealogy journey, I recommend visiting http://www.ancestry.com/.