We’re developing a catalog of stories that we can share with each other (and with the public!) to illustrate how archives change lives. Following are some examples of the impact of archives in “real life.” To share your archives story, click here.
As a young unmarried woman in the 1960s, Carol King Eckersley had given birth to a son she gave up for adoption. Although she knew his adoptive name, Kenneth Bissett, she never sought out her son in deference to the man she later married. After her husband’s death, she Googled Ken’s name – finding him immediately on Syracuse University’s website but then, devastatingly, on the list of student victims in the University Archives’ Pan Am Flight 103 Remembrance Collection. Carol decided to attend the upcoming anniversary memorial event. When she revealed to the Archives staff her connection to the tragedy, they brought out the photo album donated by his family that chronicled Ken’s life from adoption to death. Carol spent hours with the album, finally able to connect to her biological son’s life. When Ken’s family members arrived later that day and were introduced by the Archives staff, they immediately adopted Carol into their family and invited her to attend the services with them, beginning a connection that continues to this day. More than one life was changed that day—and it was because of archives and archivists.
The Wisconsin Child Care Center was a state orphanage. Perhaps the most striking example of the impact created when people use these records is the case of two brothers placed at the Center in the 1930s and then “indentured” to families in different parts of the state. One brother came to see the records and through them not only learned of the family situation that led to the placement, but also was able to locate and be reunited with his brother.
Through a Google search, a man from Colorado learned that we have an oral history interview with his grandfather, whom he had never met. The caller identified himself as a pilot, and the interview concerns the grandfather’s barnstorming career in the LaCrosse area. He ordered a copy of the interview on CD to share at his family’s Christmas gathering.
An elderly woman living in federally subsidized housing faced eviction if she was unable to comply with new federal rules requiring an official certificate of her birth date. Her family turned to the Idaho State Archives, which provided a certified copy of the Idaho Census to fulfill this requirement.
The Archives responds routinely to requests from individuals who need information from school records, court case files, and naturalization volumes in order to secure social security, get a passport, or prove citizenship. We received an inquiry from a recently widowed elderly woman now living in Oregon. She was naturalized under her maiden name in Dane County (Wisconsin) in the 1940s and needed to document her citizenship to receive certain Medicare benefits. We were able to provide a certified copy of her naturalization in the Circuit Court for Dane County.
In 1950 Mary Jean Price, salutatorian of her high school class, attempted to enroll at her hometown college to become a teacher but was turned away because she was an African-American. She didn’t go to college, but helped her aging parents, got married and had children, and worked as a janitor. Many years later, her son, who had heard the story of her attempt to enroll, visited the university’s archives and unearthed evidence that his mother was denied entrance specifically because of her race. As a result of his sharing of that information, in 2010 his mother was awarded an honorary degree from Missouri State University.
Nine miners were trapped underground following a serious accident at the Quecreek Mine in Somerset County, Pennsylvania, in July 2002. No accurate maps of the current and closed tunnels existed in the mine records, posing disastrous problems for rescue plans. But the family of a former Department of Environmental Protection mine inspector who had worked in the region had donated his maps – including maps of Quecreek – to the neighboring Windber Area Museum. The repository provided access to the maps, which were used to locate the miners and make a plan for their rescue. The miners quite literally owe their lives to the archives.
The American chestnut tree populated the landscape around the country two centuries ago, but an Asian fungus nearly wiped out these trees in the 1930s. The American Chestnut Foundation, which has developed a blight-resistant tree, sought information about where the trees had previously flourished so that it could test reforestation. Biologists from the Georgia Department of Natural Resources turned to the Georgia Archives for historic survey maps that showed the locations of Georgia chestnut trees in the past, including “hot spots” such as Atlanta and Lamar, Upson, Monroe, and Crawford counties. Combined with information about elevation, direction of slope, and soil types for these areas, researchers were able to identify conditions under which the trees are most likely to flourish and determine possible locations for replanting the American chestnut.
To share your archives story, click here.