Do you have …..?
By Karen Osburn, Archivist
“Do you have…..” the words following that inquiry can stir any number of emotions in an archivist. For example, confidence, “yes, I have ‘that’ and know right where it is”; or confusion, “do I have anything on ‘that’, have I ever even heard of ‘that?!’” to outright fear, “oh dear, I haven’t been able to find ‘that’ in three years and I have no idea where to start looking!”
Over the years I have experienced all these emotions and more when I hear those words. The archives at the Geneva Historical Society holds the answers to most of the between 600 to 800 inquiries we receive in any given year. We have almost 3,000 files, about 50,000 photos/images, and hundreds of books, manuscripts, ledgers, diaries, and more tucked in file cabinets and on shelves. All it takes is to have an image, box, manuscript or file put in the wrong place and it can take months to locate it again.
Archivists joke about the difficulty of finding things. We have phrases like “it is around here somewhere” or “comprehensive disarray” printed out and tacked to the walls in our archives. We like to get together and share stories of the lost and found. It seems encouraging that other people, who are supposed to know where “everything” is, also have no clue where something ended up after the last time it was used. Of course, there are archivists with photograph-type memories who appear to remember the whereabouts of virtually everything that has ever passed through their hands. I have not met one, but I’ve been assured they really do exist. Personally, I wonder if they aren’t a bit like the mythical unicorn, a creature you wish to believe in and long to see, but you only hear stories about them from someone who knows someone who has met one (the perfect archivist not a unicorn).
I vividly remember my first week on the job at the Geneva Historical Society. Someone called and asked for a ledger we had in the archives. It was a very old land transaction book and no one I worked with had ever heard of it either. This person knew we had it because of a collection of research resources in Ontario County published by Cornell University’s Olin Library in 1982. The list was printed 19 years before I started to work in Geneva! I was close to panic! And I was going to fail in my first real research request! I looked for two weeks and as the date of the researcher’s arrival drew closer I felt both doom and acceptance wash over me. I resigned myself to telling the man I couldn’t locate it and apologizing profusely. Suddenly, a miracle occurred! I found it! When I had given up, 2 hours before the man was to arrive I discovered this precious book on the very bottom shelf of the very last storage unit in the archive! I was almost dizzy with relief.
I later learned that this collection of research resources (there was a list completed for every county in the state) was the bane of many an archivist. Now almost 33 years old this source lists items that may have been deaccessioned, lost, destroyed or totally “used up.” Patrons and researchers don’t know this and archivists often hold their breath when the dreaded words “do you have…xyz..? It says you do in the ‘Red Book’ (this publication has a red cover).” If it isn’t something you have been asked for frequently it may take a long time to locate the item.
Over the years I have come to an uneasy truce with the “red book.” It can be a good resource to point you toward a particular set of holdings providing you know the institution you are going to contact may no longer have some of the information you seek. However, to be fair, I have found that if I am persistent I can locate almost everything the book says we are supposed to have in our holdings.
I have often compared my job to that of a treasure hunter, time traveler, and detective. It isn’t as dangerous as those three careers, but it is stimulating, uses many of the skills of a detective, has rewards that make you feel like you have found treasure, and allows you to use your imagination to go back to another time period. This is why I love being an archivist, even when I hear those three dreaded words…“do you have…?”