Thursday, December 10, 2009

And you thought government records were boring . . . .

Government archives sometimes get a bad rap: a lot of people are under the impression that they're stuffed full of old policy documents and other legally necessary but deadly dull stuff, and even archivists who work in other settings sometimes think that government records are pretty dry.

I could go into my standard spiel about how government records document the rights of citizens to hold property, receive benefits that they have earned, and participate in civic life and how government archives promote government transparency and accountability. I could also go on about how government archives attract not only academic historians and genealogists but also biologists, engineers, historic preservationists, linguists, epidemiologists, attorneys, documentary filmmakers, and all sorts of other users. All of these things are true.

However, one of the things I most like about working in government archives is that even the most humdrum-seeming of records series can contain the unexpected. Seven or eight years ago, several colleagues and I were moving a very large and red rot-plagued series of 19th century financial records and discovered that the series included a little volume bearing a crudely inked title: "No-Good Lawyers." It was a listing of Victorian-era attorneys who had, in various ways, run afoul of the New York State Banking Department -- and a welcome little diversion from a laborious and dirty task.

Sometimes the unanticipated finds are amusing, and sometimes they're horrifying. When I was still in grad school, I was examining a series of photographs taken at a psychiatric facility and found that, in addition to images of female patients playing around with cosmetics and staff-patient softball games, it included a series of photographs documenting the administration of electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). It took me a little while before I figured out precisely what was going on in those photos, and when I finally did, I was completely unnerved. I hastily put the photos back in their box, told the reference archivist what I had found, and fled the research room. I haven't seen those photographs in over a decade, but the thought of them is still unsettling.

And sometimes, of course, the finds are hilarious. Every day, the Web site of the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) highlights one of the records in NARA's holdings. Many of the featured records are historically significant; for example, yesterday's featured document consists of the U.S. Congress's official copy of the Twelfth Amendment, which it passed on 9 December 1803. However, today's document, which was issued on 10 December 1959, concerns a less weighty matter: the United States government's efforts to find the Yeti.

Clicking on the image below will bring up a much larger and more legible version. I'm particularly fond of regulation no. 2.

"Regulations Governing Mountain Climbing Expeditions in Nepal - Relating to Yeti"; UD-WW, 1454, , Box 252, Accession #64-9-0814, folder 5.1 Political Situation - General, File ended Dec 31, 1959; Records of the Agency for International Development; Record Group 286; National Archives. Image courtesy of the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration.

1 comment:

Jeremy said...

This is fantastic--regulation #2 reminds me of South Park's infamous "It's comin' right for us!" shout.

The banking thing is also interesting--point that out to me some time?