Walnut Room this way

Walnut Room this way

Friday, March 18, 2011

Road Trip: Research at the Mississippi Department of Archives & History

You would think after a road trip encompassing the 5 hours it takes to get to/from Jackson, not to mention all the wonderful buildings in downtown Jackson, that I would have a better picture than this to show for it.  Please note, I was not drinking while at the MDAH nor during the course of this road trip.  The story on the bottle of wine is at the end of the post.

I went to Jackson to visit the William F. Winter Archives and History Building at MDAH to research original documents pertaining to teachers at the Poplar Hill School in Fayette, Jefferson County from 1880-1953.  Yesterday was a perfect day for a road trip, given it was in the 70s, clear and sunny.

Entering the building was a startling experience: it is large, almost empty area with a receptionist.  I obtained a patron research card and proceeded through security measures that are more rigorous than going to the airport these days, though far less annoying.  First swipe got me through the turnstile, where I stashed my camera and bag in a locker.  Nothing is allowed in the research rooms except a pad, laptop, and pencil. Through the next door and I had to sign in and get my card swiped again.  I explained my purpose: I am looking for copies of teaching licenses for teachers at the Poplar Hill School from the late 1800s through the 50s.  She called a librarian to help me, and while waiting on him, showed me how to load money onto my patron card in order to make copies of records.

The librarian showed me how to use the search database and we located the information I needed, and then he showed me how to request it.  The request sent an electronic call number over to the reference desk where they proceeded to call for the boxes to be brought up from record storage in the basement.

Another security checkpoint: this time, Capitol Police, complete with sidearm and badge, swiped my card and noted my entrance into the archive room.  I had a seat at one of the tables and waited for my first box.  You can only have one box at a time at your desk, and you have to sign each one out, and then when you return it, they log the return back in.  Archives are serious business, and when one thinks about what would be lost with the loss of those records, it is comforting to know there are people and procedures still dedicated to preserving history.

The process was not really what I was expecting; I've never done research on original documents before.  One must comb through pages and pages (and pages, and pages) and read lists of names, dates, etc., attempting to locate the information for which one is searching.  Two hours into the process, and I had located two names of the 19 on my list.  Copy that page.

By then, it was time to meet Frank and EL for lunch.  I had to repeat the process in reverse: check out with the police officer, check out with the reading room librarian, retrieve my belongings, and swipe out of the turnstile.  We walked a block or so to eat lunch at a nearby spot--which had the most incredible potato salad and pimento cheese, and talk photography, preservation, music, and history for our first meeting outside of virtual life.  What was really interesting to me (besides the conversation, that is) is how much they both seemed so very much like who they are online.

Back to the archive room, and another 3 hours of pouring over ledger sheets and I had amassed a grand total of 3 more names!  I gained an immense appreciation for historical research--it is very different from the types of research that I have done in the past.  I'm up to 1946 finally, just because there were not that many teachers licensed until the late 30s.

The earliest records were fairly haphazard in that names were just recorded by dates the request and funds were received, so I had to read every name on every page.  Those records, however, at least identified both the town and the county as well as the date, so it was easier to confirm I had the correct person.  Later records began to divide the names by alphabet, so I could at least avoid reading A-G if I was looking for someone named H.  Unfortunately, the county name was not always listed.  I still had to read all of the H names, though, as they were still entered as the request was logged.  In those days of handwritten entries (and all done in cursive) there was really no way to put them in any kind of order other than date received.  The handwriting was interesting as well, some being quite beautiful and clear, and others being somewhat difficult to read.

I really wanted to get out of downtown Jackson prior to 5, so I checked in my box after noting how far I had completed, did the reverse security checkout, including let them look at my notes and copies to confirm I had not removed any archives, secured my belongings again, and headed out.  I had planned to  swing by the capitol and take a few pictures, but there was no nearby parking and I was unwilling to delay much due to it nearing 5.  I drove on up State street to Fortification, planning to stop by Katz Wine Cellar.

I turned right, but after driving a block or so, thought I must have misremembered and that I should have turned left.  Nope...a bit of driving in the opposite direction and I start encountering vacant buildings and its clear that now I am really going the wrong way.  After finally being able to turn around, and head back the opposite direction again, I was amusing myself thinking it was the only time I can remember when going "right" was really was where I needed to be.

Katz carries several of the really good South African wines available in the US, including one of my favorites, Warwick Three Cape Ladies.  I cannot pass up the opportunity when I am in Jackson, 5 o'clock traffic or not.  I still made it out of Jackson with no traffic tie-ups, and the rest of the trip home was fairly routine other than passing a wreck and a forest fire.  I even made it home before dark, thanks to our BFF Daylight Savings Time, and shortly after, my son arrived with the burgers.  Perfect timing!

I'll be back in Jackson in a couple of weeks to try to finish up the searches; now that I have the hang of it, I hope it goes faster.


Betty said...

Interesting! In the "olden days" so I read, teachers were just older students and called themselves such This was especially true in the soutern & western states.

Regarding wine, try "Running with Scissors", a Merlot!

frank_ezelle said...

I'm glad you went through that extensive checkout process to join EL and myself for lunch. That was time well spent and much enjoyed. As for being like my online personality, I'm just not creative enough to come up with a persona that is more exciting!