Monday, June 21, 2010

Time Well Spent

For days 7, 8, and 9 of my Georgia Archives Institute I was an intern at the National Archives Southeast Regional Branch in Atlanta. Seated next door to the Georgia Archives, NARA moved into this space in 2005. The facility is new and very nice, and has ample space for meetings and other public programs (which always catches my eye), as well as seemingly endless storage space. All told the facility has four storage bays with a combined capacity of 200,000 cubic feet.

NARA houses series of records, not collections. According to the main website, of all documents and materials created by the federal government, only 1%-3% are so important for legal or historical reasons that the NARA keeps them forever. In compliance with a set schedule, records are transferred from the creating body to federal record centers and then on to various regional branches throughout the country. NARA Atlanta is home to records relating to the states of Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee. The nature of these collections is quite different from the manuscript collections at the Russell Library, and the processes used to arrange and describe them is also quite a bit different. That aside, I still learned a good deal during my three days at NARA. My classmate Melissa and I were ably guided/supervised by Rob Richards, one of the archivists on staff. Rob was generous with his time and made sure that we had a great experience. He fielded every question we threw his way, addressed our individual interests (when possible), and showed us every nook and cranny in the building. So thanks Rob!

To begin, let me tell you about our project. Rob pulled two boxes of customs house records from Mobile, Alabama, ranging in date from 1826-1906, related to legal matters. Melissa and I spent a day and a half going through all the folders. We arranged the correspondence chronologically and re-housed everything in acid free, legal size folders. When we came across particularly delicate items, we placed them in plastic sleeves. When we came across particularly dirty documents, or those which could in some way be damaging to other items in the folder, we separated them using acid free paper. And finally, we moved everything into new legal sized archival boxes. The legal sized envelopes and boxes allowed us to remedy some crowding issues, as many of the documents had been folded previously in order to fit into smaller folders. Through this process we were able to create a better micro-environment for the records.

Rob told us to move through the folders at our own pace and insert place holders around any items that might be of particular value to researchers. Because these were customs records from the early 19th century, he mentioned specifically that items relating to the slave trade would be interesting to note. Most of the documents were correspondence between the U.S. Treasury and customs officials in Mobile regarding debts of various individuals and reports of various customs violations. Reports noted offenses like mail theft, assault and battery on the high seas, mutiny, and illegal slave trade. The handwriting was difficult to make out, but the further we got into the project, the better I became at skimming letters and looking for those with good research value. NARA does not dispose of any documents, so there was no appraisal in our process. In truth, Rob told us that he could have gone through these records in about an hour - so clearly there is a learning curve, because we took a day and a half.

So, what did we find? Glad you asked – because this part really rocked. I came across several letters regarding the attempted invasion of Cuba in the 1840s and 1850s. I tagged them because they stuck out, in overall content, from the other correspondence which related largely to unpaid debts. Rob told us that during this period proponents of slavery made “expeditions” to Cuba, Nicaragua, and other nearby territories in an attempt to make them U.S. possessions that could be brought into the union as new slave states. Several of these letters referenced William Walker and were appeals from the U.S. Department of State to local authorities in Mobile to be on the lookout for Walker and other unsavory characters who were attempting these ill-advised expeditions into Spanish territories.

My final find on the second day was the best. Rob checked in at the end of the afternoon to see what else we found that might be of interest and I mentioned a letter that referenced a slave ship that arrived in Savannah in 1858. When I told him the name of the ship was the Wanderer, he flipped out! The Wanderer was reportedly the last slave ship to arrive in the United States, bringing just over four hundred slaves from Africa into the port at Savannah, Georgia in 1858. They were then dispersed to states throughout the South. Rob has been culling through customs records from various states and creating a special finding aid of all materials related to the Wanderer and thought he had collected all there were to be found.

I don’t think Rob dreamed we would find such interesting material in this very small group of records, but the big finds were exciting for us! They capped off an already great experience. We spent our final day entering the records into the NARA database (ARC), so with any luck our hard work will be approved and accessible on the web in a few weeks.

When we reported back to our classmates on Friday about our experience, we had some truly interesting things to share. Beyond our project, we were able to offer a very different perspective on archives, as the records NARA manages and their methods for doing so are vastly different from the habits of university archives. Long blog post short – new perspectives, great research finds, helpful mentor = great experience at NARA Atlanta. I’ll post my overall recap and final thought on my GAI experience tomorrow (hopefully).

Your Archivist in Training,


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