For the past seven years, I have had the honor and privilege of being the keeper and protector of Berks County’s history. I’ve held 200 year old documents and catalogued and interpreted thousands of archival material for use by researchers. I have grown to love and appreciate this community’s long, rich history. I did not need to be born in Berks County to understand the Berks County way of life.
While we all claim to love history, how many of you really, truly know your own history? I’ve met my fair share of “history buffs”; a term that usually refers to someone who occasionally watches the History Channel or reads a book. I’ve also met my fair share of historians, researchers who have spent years digging up documents, trying to absorb as much as they can about a person, event or building and who want to share and engage people in conversation. History is more than genealogy, the collection of names and dates. It is the study of how people lived and interacted with each other, their surroundings and events. Granted, I have an advantage over our community. I get to come to work in a building full of stories waiting to be uncovered and told. But as an “outsider” (because I am a New Yorker), I know more about Berks County, than my native husband, and probably some of you.
Why do Archives Matter?
Genealogy is a huge commodity. According to a recent article in the Colonial Williamsburg Spring 2015 Magazine, Ancestry.com cleared $540.4 million in 2013. I can’t even fathom that much money. There are over 100 different genealogical websites for use by researchers, not to mention the websites that will tell you which top 10 or 25 are the best to use. I ask myself, why when more and more people are joining ancestry and doing genealogy, why are we seeing less and less people at library’s such as the Henry Janssen Library? The Colonial Williamsburg article goes on to try and entice people to visit their archival holdings, because not all of it is online.
I’m not going to criticize online resources, such as Ancestry.com. They are a great tool in helping to track ancestors and making government documents, such as pension records and census records, available to the public. However, it is still just a tool, a database, and many of the records (and family trees) are incomplete, inaccurate, and in many instances wrong. As an undergrad and graduate student in history, we are taught to seek out sources, leave no stone unturned. Your best resource is the bibliography, or works cited, pages in the back of secondary resources. They provide ideas on where to turn next. They list primary resources and where to find them. Unfortunately, the new generation of researchers, don’t know how to use indexes in the back of books to find information on a specific page. Because they only seek out to collect information, and only specific information, they cannot create the story, nor do they see the whole picture. These researchers tackle their research with the understanding that, if it is not online, it does not exist.
At the Henry Janssen Library, and other research archives across the country, we have a wealth of knowledge that goes beyond names and dates. The documents kept in our walls tell the stories of the county and the people who forged through the wilderness to make a home. These same people, helped to alter State and National events. History does not exist in a bubble. What happens elsewhere ripples across time and space and influences the course of events. These resources are not online, not because archival institutions are being mean, or preventing researchers from accessing the information. This information is in countless boxes and folders and need to be used as a whole. These collections provide insight into the stories that make history. Holding a 200 year old document has more impact on learning, then just reading the words on the page. It reminds us that living, breathing, human beings existed, created, lived and left their legacy for the future to find. This experience happens when you visit the Henry Janssen Library
Interest in our history is waning, which is surprising when there are always Berks County connections to State and National events. Our collections are waiting for someone to come and uncover their secrets. And yes, there will be secrets…good and bad. Write an article for the Historical Review. Come in and volunteer. Record your history, not just names and dates. History is the story of us; without us, the story stops.