Visiting an archives can be unlike any other experience. The staff in an archives are working to preserve documents so that your great grandchildren will be able to read what your great grandparents wrote. An archivist accepts the challenge of making paper survive from the time of birth (yes, a document goes through a creation process) on into forever. We’re not always successful because heat, wet, touch, and time are working against us. The effort is worth it, though.
The staff in an archives is there to provide public access to the information contained within a collection of papers. Whatever comes into our building can be expected to have a cool, dry, dark place to rest while it is in archival storage. The items aren’t meant to be closed away in storage forever, though. The archive provides a public place where anyone can come to learn and make discoveries. A record is useful when it is being read and enjoyed by anyone who wants to know the information found there. Using the collections for research gives them value. It is a way of preserving the history of events and lives through the words and images on the page.
An archives is a place where you can enjoy the hunt for information and get a personal thrill when finding something that is valuable to you. I have watched 12 year old students marvel when they find their birth announcements in newspapers from 1998. I’ve listened to teachers get excited about their students studying transportation routes in Ohio using colorful railroad maps from the early twentieth century. I have coworkers who enjoy thinking about the mysteries documented in our Mutual UFO Network of Ohio papers. And I’ve helped a woman who came to our archives with her daughter and granddaughter to search for her baby brother’s place of burial. The family left our building supremely happy after finding the child’s death certificate that identified the cemetery where he was buried in 1946.
I’ve come across many cool things in my fifteen year career at the Ohio Historical Center’s Archives/Library. One piece of knowledge that I found personally and universally valuable concerns our country’s military history. During the research I was doing for a curator talk I gave about the Dennewitz family of Chillicothe, Ohio, I learned that the In Service Flag (commonly known as the Blue Star Banner) was designed by an Ohioan during World War I.
Colonel Robert L. Queisser of East Cleveland, Ohio, received a patent for his flag design on 6 November 1917 (you can see a copy of the patent on Google Patents). A New York Times article of 23 November 1917 quotes Queisser’s story of the flag’s design:
“During the early part of last March,” said Queisser, “I was confined in bed following an automobile accident near Fort Wayne, Indiana, where I was stationed with the Fifth Ohio Infantry. It was during my illness that I was mustered out of service, due to the disability caused by injuries received. I thought of some visible signs for a mother to show that her son was serving the country rather than have her feel an emptiness about the house which would depress her. A service flag then came to me and after several days I evolved the design.”
During my research I found that Col. Queisser had his surname misspelled as Queissner everywhere it appeared in secondary source pages on the Web (including Wikipedia, the National Museum of the US Air Force, and Blue Star Mothers of America). I provided these organizations with information I found in the OHS archives in Columbus, including Col. Queisser’s death certificate and obituary, to prove the correct spelling using documents created by him or at the time of his death in 1939. I was able to influence an important change to the information on the World Wide Web that is still spreading. Yes, the misspelling continues to exist in the electronic world, but the errors are not as wide spread because I used information in the archives to recover the truth.