We’re delighted to feature this contribution from JI’s good friend and former blogger Heidi Harris as part of our “I Found it in the Archives” series.
As Christopher informed me this past week, it’s National Archives Month. Let’s all take a moment to appreciate our favorite historical discovery or mourn all those lost hours of daylight. Hug an archivist today, if you can find one. They usually hide out in the back, but you can lure them out by touching old photographs without the provided cotton gloves, or attempting to take scissors into the reading room.
My experience with real archive experience began when I worked for BYU Special Collections for three years while getting my undergrad degree. I loved my job. I loved the curators. I loved that extremely handsome and intriguing co-worker of mine who eventually became my husband (great story, but maybe another time). I also loved the collections themselves. I remember taking pictures with the Cecil B DeMille costumes (don’t tell anyone) and finding more personal treasures like
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an oral history from my great-grandmother,
Xarissa. One summer, I worked extra hours restoring a glass-plate photograph collection to prepare it for digitization. I remember painstakingly cleaning each of those 14,000 images with a cotton ball while my co-workers and I watched “You’ve Got Mail.”
Like I was saying, I loved my job.
After I graduated, I never really forgot how much I enjoyed the archives at BYU and so I applied for an American Studies PhD program where I geared my studies toward Cultural History and American Religion in the 19th century.
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At the end of my second year, I had to write a long paper with original research that would serve as provisional Master’s thesis. I flailed around a bit in various Boston-area libraries, but I finally came back to BYU’s collection, knowing that those thousands of central-Utah photographs had been digitized (as the George Edward Anderson Collection)–and I knew those photographs very, very well. Cleaned-with-a-cotton-ball kind of knowledge.
Some of my first posts here at JI summarized the various sections of the resulting paper I wrote–analyzing the Utah women depicted within the collection and considering whether photographs can serve as primary sources instead of just illustration.
There’s more to this story, by the way.
I ended up leaving my PhD program for a few reasons–the primary one being that I realized I missed doing and truly adored GIS and cartography more than I liked paper presentations and conferences. But, I’ve always retained my passion for cultural history and digging into the lives of everyday people from the past.
Just last month, I decided to do some fiddling around with my genealogy. Fully aware that my pedigree chart had already been pretty thoroughly mapped out by other (older, yes) relatives, I chose to focus on quality over quantity. I spent some time digging up primary sources and uploading them onto ancestry.com so others could use them. And, I did my best to find photographs of every parent, grandparent, great-grandparent, and great-great grandparent. I found all of
them except one! Just one! The matriarch of my matriarchal line–Rozena Evena Fechser.*
Then, I noticed something about her, something that brought me back to the BYU archives again. She was born and married in Mt. Pleasant, Utah during the end of the 19th century. And…I remembered those hundreds of hours
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cleaning photographs…and the locations written on the corners of many. Manti, Sanpete,…and Mt. Pleasant.
Excitedly, I searched for her name in the George Anderson database!
But, then…she didn’t go by Fechser her entire life…
Another search for “Madsen” (her husband’s name) and “Mt. Pleasant”…
And there she was. In the only known (and previously so, so very unknown) photograph of her.
It seems too coincidental to be merely coincidental
I think…that I would find my great-great grandmother in a place that only I would have known to look.
So again, take time this month to appreciate your local archive. You never know what you may find. You never know what you
may remember and find again in the future.
* Rozena also, interestingly enough, had ties to Hamburg, Germany. Her parents and grandparents lived in and emigrated from there. Oh, and you should know that Hamburg happens to be the closest city to where I found myself living as an expat last year. Finding her parent’s address in an old phonebook from 1854, I realized this past week that I’ve walked down that street on almost every visit I’ve made there.