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Sunday, October 9, 2011

Finding Family in Finding Aids

In a conversation about complacency, a good friend shared a common word used in her country that changed my worldview about life: heimskur. The word heimskur, which means “stupid” in Icelandic, carries a negative connotation to describe a person who is narrow-minded in his/her thinking because of one’s failure to venture outside of his/her comfort zone to explore the ways of non-Icelandic Islanders, a mindset that counters cultural practice. Reflecting upon my personal experiences of traveling abroad and teaching in different countries, I am reminded of how heimskur could hinder one from exploring opportunities that may create personal and business enhancements.

A lot of Americans, including myself, have experienced lay-offs that have resulted in personal setbacks and financial challenges because of the state of the economy. Some people decide to stay at home, while others venture to discover ways to improve professional skills that are already in place. Thus, I chose the latter course. Dissatisfied with my current unemployment situation, I began to seek volunteer jobs to complement my educational objectives, passion for fine arts, and fascination for history.

My break came when I applied for a behind-the-scenes volunteer position at the Smithsonian, where I now assist with projects in the Anacostia Community Museum Archives. And now that I reflect upon my capacity at the museum, I clearly see how my recent discussion about the word heimskur is relevant to my life going forward, yet in a positive connotation. I am now better informed about world views as seen through the eyes of a researcher and the work of archivists.

Upon discovery of this position, I immediately saw the advantage of my joining the institution because it complemented my 15 years of research and compilation of genealogy work that was conducted on my maternal relatives, resulting in tracing ancestors to the 14th century. Thus, my passion for lineage and my research experience are skill sets that will be applied to my educational goals as I aspire to be a historian once I complete my graduate degree. Therefore, I share my anecdote to attest that achieving a personal goal is possible with determination, commitment, and sacrifice.

My first project consisted of audio reviews of Langston Hughes' lectures present in the Lorenzo Dow Turner papers; I compiled content descriptions so that information can be accessed by researchers by way of electronic media. Occasionally I assist researchers in the reading room with queries on where to locate additional resources in support of their professional or personal objectives. I have also become familiar with arranging and describing archival materials through finding aids. Through this process I made a surprising discovery in the John H. Pye papers.
White House retirement card,John H. Pye papers.
Stumbling across a document presented to John H. Pye that commemorated his job well done as a White House chauffeur led me to a recent discovery of a relative who was a colleague of Mr. Pye in the early 1950s. This finding was different than that of my own; it was a pleasant surprise for me to locate ancestral literature almost at my finger tips in an archival repository instead of only finding materials through traditional methods of months and months of library searching and courthouse visits. Through this volunteer position, I have gained an understanding of the benefits in consulting archival resources, whether it is for personal or business use. Knowledge about archival materials may assist you in locating the correct information or you just might find a piece of your family puzzle in a finding aid!

Antony Arnold
Behind-the-scenes Volunteer

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