Volunteering at Archives II: A Newbie’s “Close Encounters” with The Real “National Treasures”
Today’s post comes from Lisa Covi, a volunteer at the National Archives in College Park (Archives II) serving as a staff aide on the Panama Canal Photo Metal Application and World War II holdings maintenance projects. Lisa is also training as a docent to give tours of Archives II. She has a Ph.D. in Information and Computer Science from the University California Irvine and has published scholarly research and taught Information Science at the University of Michigan, Rutgers and the University of Maryland. Recently she has taken up documentary film making and was production coordinator for Kennedy Center Honors biographical films from 2009-2011.
I’m neither a regular blogger nor a veteran NARA volunteer, but Judy Luis-Watson, who coordinates the volunteer program at Archives II, asked me to write up some thoughts about my experience as a new volunteer. I started volunteering in January. I am very excited and grateful to be able to volunteer at such a prestigious institution as the National Archives. I also appreciate that the Archives values our contributions enough to devote scarce resources to support our participation.
Most of my career I’ve worked at non profits such as Universities and Membership Organizations. In recent years, I became interested in civil service and working in the Federal Government, but I was uncertain how to apply for jobs successfully. When I discovered the opportunity to volunteer with the National Archives at College Park, I was eager to get involved for several reasons.
Serving My Country
First, aside from reviewing grant proposals for the National Science Foundation and serving jury duty (inexplicably, I’ve been called to serve 10 times in four state and federal courts), I have not had the experience of directly serving my country. Because I had utilized Archives II in the past as a documentary film researcher, I appreciated the opportunity we have in our country for regular citizens to access government information. I feel very proud to be able to contribute a little labor to an institution with such a valuable mission.
The Scope of the National Archives
Second, I don’t think most people in our country are aware of the valuable function and resources in our National Archives. I feel that through volunteering and learning more about how NARA works, I can tell my friends, neighbors, past colleagues and future coworkers what an amazing resource we have. Although I have visited many of the presidential libraries in my travels, before I started working here, I never realized the intimate connection between the Archives and these Libraries and Museums. I hope, when I begin giving tours of Archives II, I will also be able to convey my enthusiasm and patriotism when I explain how this building demonstrates many ways NARA supports our democracy and citizen’s rights.
A souvenir (yo-yo) of my 1996 visit to the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, CA
Diverse Volunteer Corps
Third, I’ve met some very interesting people here. The other volunteers come from various walks of life, ethnic backgrounds and professions. Some are college students, retired military, federal government or contractor employees. A lot of them are big genealogy or history buffs. Some have extensive personal records of their own and others are information addicts like me with endless curiosity.
Generous and Knowledgeable Staff
Fourth, the staff members that we interact with are very generous with their knowledge and experience. During our orientation, they were also very friendly, appreciative and encouraging to us. Joe Schwartz explained that “dead men have no rights to privacy” with respect to requesting personnel records. Wilda Logan told us about the logistics of receiving Federal agency records using documents called Records Disposition Authority. She also gave examples of diverse items received, such as the cremated remains of Labor Organizer Joe Hill (later returned to the union he founded). Sam McClure explained how presidential records pose specific challenges due to the need to make the information available quickly and the creation of new buildings to house the resources. Lisa Isbell led us on a fascinating tour of the preservation and conservation labs that extend the life of the physical materials. The National Archives seems to me to be a living laboratory for how to manage the evidence of our past to preserve and advance the benefits of our culture.
Given that I developed my interest in history later in life, volunteering at Archives II offers me endless opportunities for personal learning and growth through hands-on interaction with the artifacts of our government. Through the basic but meticulous tasks of shelf-reading, data entry, holdings maintenance and preparing research resources for educational programs I have gained new insights into the context of American history. For instance, while entering data about the employees of the Panama Canal Company, I brushed up on my geography of the West
Indies/Caribbean, I learned about labor migration to Panama around the turn of the 20th century and I developed a greater appreciation of the Engineering and Health Care innovations that accompanied the building of the Panama Canal. A PBS documentary can pique your interest, but for a greater engagement with this endeavor, there’s nothing like meeting the people who were there by reading the records and looking at their photographs.
My first view of Archives II: the Loading Dock entrance on Metzerott Road
I imagine those of you who are reading this may already have experienced what I describe. Do you agree with me that the National Archives still sometimes seems like a “best-kept” secret in plain sight? When I used to drive past the construction site of Archives II, it seemed mysterious to me. At the time, I thought the building was a warehouse for what couldn’t fit in Archives I downtown. When I first visited to do research in the building, I was surprised by the beauty and hospitality of Archives II as a work place. Even more impressive was the knowledge and support of the reference archivists who helped me.
Since I began volunteering here two days a week, I want to shout from the rooftops the value of this agency to the many Americans who may think, “If information isn’t on Google, it doesn’t exist.” U.S. culture today is challenged with our economic limitations and how to act on an overload of information from a wide variety of sources. It seems to me that NARA is one of our best-positioned agencies to help people make sense of their world and how to function within it.