So for the past couple of weeks I’ve been working an internship at the reference desk for the Southern Historical Collection. Well, technically its called Research and Instruction for Archival Materials, but who’s keeping track? Its been an interesting and rewarding experience so far. My main duties involve answering email reference questions, helping out the patrons who come to our repository, grabbing boxes from the shelves, and other things like that. The range of questions and patrons that we get is really cool.
You might think that we would primarily get people who are working on master’s theses and PhD dissertations, and the do make up a large part of our patrons. For example, there’s one PhD candidate who manages to get here every day at exactly 10am. I hear the door open, him walking in, and I look at the clock. He’s always right on time.
But we also get undergraduates, genealogists, local historians, people who just want to listen to some of the music that we have, most of which is bluegrass, country, and folk. The genealogists have the largest range of requests. Many of them just want copies of documents that were written by or to their ancestors. There is a powerful draw to being able to see and touch and possess something that your blood ancestor wrote, perhaps hundreds of years ago. For all that archivists ridicule genealogists in private, I must say that I can fully understand this desire to have your own copy of such materials.
They want to know what life was like for their ancestors. And really, thats the point of an archive: to perserve cultural memory. We shouldn’t be snobs about who wants to access that memory; especially in a public institution, every deserves the same service and respect.