Wednesday, July 18, 2012

NIGR: the firehose of information

Oh. my. goodness. Trying to take in everything at NIGR is like trying to drink from a firehose. Our first speaker on Tuesday morning explained that her one-hour lecture would be a condensation of a four-hour presentation. And then she was off and running, talking rapidly as we tried to keep up.  This was followed by another one-hour presentation by the same speaker. Followed by more speakers, each attempting to distill years’ and  years’ worth of experience into a useful package to enable us to navigate the 500+ record groups in the National Archives system.  This is key: the National Archives does not rearrange or combine the records that come to them. So, service records for a Civil War soldier are in one record group, his pension application in another, his medical records (if he ended up in a hospital due to wounds or illness) in another, and I refuse to even think about bounty land right now.  Anyway, we need to know that all these sets of papers are in different places and need to be requested separately.  Notations on papers in one set might well refer you to another set of papers… if you know how to interpret these things. Hence the firehose of information.

I’m beginning to feel less ignorant about military records—as in, I’m getting an idea of what I don’t know, which is the important first step. We have lectures on basic military records, Civil War medical records, pension records, discharge papers for the War of 1812, and Fold3’s military collections. Much of my own personal research time will be in the Civil War military and pension files of two or three men, supplemented (I hope) with some regimental histories. 

We had the DAR Library to ourselves for three hours last night with the undivided attention of four staff members; quite a treat! I found a North Carolina county history that I’d not come across before.  And then I found that the classmate sitting across the table from me was reading up on the same religious community in the same North Carolina county.  Gotta love the connections we make with other researchers attending NIGR! The DAR Library, by the way, is an amazingly beautiful space. I remember years and years ago when my family was taking the train cross-country and we changed in Chicago, our parents took us out on the street and we craned our necks at the skyscrapers, and Dad laughed at us little hicks awed by the city. Well, some things never change; decades after leaving farm country, I’m still awed by these things that we never saw amidst the forty acres of this and forty acres of that in rural Michigan. And so at the DAR Library I grinned to myself like a hick in the city, soaking up the beauty of the place.

Monday, July 16, 2012

NIGR: Day 1

I can’t believe today has only been one day long. Six content-rich presentations delivered with rapid-fire speed, NARA, Library of Congress (LOC), dealing with security at federal buildings, trying to remember the names of 41 other attendees (well, ok, I knew 3 or 4 already)… and now I still need to figure out what documents I want to order tomorrow.

Today’s take-away: just getting an understanding—or the beginning of an understanding—of what all is at NARA and LOC, how/where to find descriptions and finding aids, how to drill down to find the materials themselves, what all is online (whether info or digitized materials), and constant reminders of how to think outside the box when looking for info on people, places, and events. 

Things I’m still struggling with: The heat, occasionally. How to get from point A to point B (poor sense of direction!) Where in NARA and LOC I can take a tote bag or papers and where I can’t. 

Things that surprised me: How beautiful our classroom is (crystal chandeliers!); it’s well-air-conditioned too, thank goodness. The small size of the cafeteria at NARA (um, tad disappointed in options there). A lecture on military headstone records can be interesting. The Library of Congress takes the world’s worst ID photos; seriously,  makes the DMV photographer look like Annie Liebowitz. 

Things I wish I had known: I should have brought a lanyard for the two clip-on name tags I have to wear (awkward!). The Genie Guide to NARA is available in paperback—I’d bought it in hardcover. (PS—I’m glad I brought it with me on the trip; I was using it last night to refine one of my research plans.)

Tomorrow’s line-up includes military records (one of my weak points) and an evening at the DAR Library.