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Finding Alice

by on March 15, 2012

Several months ago, as part of a processing project relating to Record Group 516: Records of the Federal Judicial Center, 1967 – 1994, I did a little research on a woman named Alice L. O’Donnell. In the Archives Research Catalog, also known as ARC, a researcher can, according to the Archives.Gov website,  search by a person’s name. However, in order to search by a person’s name, someone has to insert that data into the ARC entry.

Undated photograph of Alice O'Donnell

Image from RG 0516, entry A1 2, Office of the Director Alice O'Donnell

Unfortunately, Ms. O’Donnell’s name was not listed in our authority files. The authority files keep certain fields in the ARC database uniform and easy to use. Names are formed according to the Anglo-American Cataloging Rules, 2d Edition (AACR2).  In general, the person’s official name is the name by which he or she is most commonly known. In order to submit Ms. O’Donnell’s name, I had to learn a little something about the woman, whose files I had processed.

There are several biographical resources in print and on line for finding the necessary information. One place was the series itself, Office Files of the Director, entry A1 2, (ARC 4685570), where there is a file containing biographical information about Ms. O’Donnell, which was very helpful. Inside, a paper mentioned that as a woman in government, her papers were held in a university’s archive. However, the university’s archival catalog did not reveal any information. Also the file in the series did not say what happened to her after she left the Federal government. There was the possibility that she may have married after leaving government service and changed her last name. With that possibility in mind I searched online, the Social Security Death Index (SSDI), for an Alice matching her same birthday. It revealed that her surname did not change and provided a date and city of death. She died in Washington, DC. With this information, I searched the Washington Post and found her obituary.

I searched for her date of death because she had a common name, and birth and death dates help distinguish one commonly named person from another. I did the same for one of her collogues, (A. Leo Levin, 1919- ) whose name was the same as someone else’s (Levin, A. L., 1944-, or Levin, Leonard, 1924-), but was not the same person.

Not all ARC descriptions will have this level of detail or would warrant personal name fields. In this case, as she was the creator in one of the series, the search for Alice O’Donnell was needed. And so she was found.