Our Wonderful Volunteers
By Adrienne C. Thomas
Every weekday, 10 individuals meet in the upper level stacks of the National Archives Building in Washington, D.C., to work on valuable old files from the post–Civil War era.
These pension case files—there are 1.28 million of them—tell the stories of thousands of widows, children, mothers, fathers, and siblings of deceased Union soldiers. They are some of the most-requested documents by researchers at the National Archives, a group that includes professional historians, sociologists, and genealogists as well as ordinary citizens.
For each file, these 10 individuals arrange the papers, abstract key information, and assess the physical state of fragile pages. After any needed conservation work, the files are then sent to the ground floor, where another team of individuals digitizes them and sends them to Footnote.com, which puts the images on the Internet as part of its partnership with the Archives.
None of these individuals is an Archives employee. They are unpaid volunteers. Upstairs is a prep team that has come to be known as the Civil War Conservation Corps (CWCC); downstairs are volunteers from another partner, Family Search.
"I truly love history," says CWCC member Pat Alfredson, "and working on the Civil War widows' pension digitization project is fascinating because we're really working on our own families. I haven't found mine in the documents yet, but I figure someone will be there eventually."
This digitization project, formally known as the Civil War Widows Certificate Pension Project, is one of a number of such projects now under way in the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) manned in whole or part by volunteers performing important work for which we don't have available staff resources.
Across the agency nationwide, nearly 1,600 such volunteers are at work alongside NARA staff, serving as docents, staff aides, visitor service volunteers, genealogy aides, research assistants, and records processing staff.
Our main building in Washington has 155 volunteers, up from about 120 three years ago, and our College Park, Maryland, facility has 76, up from about 20 three years ago. And they are busy. Through the first seven months of 2009, they were on the job 22,600 hours. At the same time, at last count, there were more than 1,100 volunteers in our 13 presidential libraries and some 260 in our 14 regional archives.
Volunteers must receive 16 hours of orientation and agree to work 100 hours annually for the first two years. Docents, who give guided tours, must spend more than 60 additional hours learning about the agency's history, organization, and holdings. Visitor service volunteers must be prepared to answer all kinds of questions, from "Where are the rest rooms?" to "How do I get to the Constitution?"
Some volunteers serve as genealogy aides, helping families navigate census records, land claims, or passenger lists to discover their family history. Staff aides work on a wide variety of projects, such as creating finding aids and preparing records for digitizing, so traditional records will be available electronically in the future via the Electronic Records Archives.
So why do people become volunteers?
Sometimes it's a personal experience. Don Ireland, a volunteer at the National Archives at Kansas City, remembered the stories his grandfather told about his family in the Civil War. When he died, Ireland saw that there was "no known family data" on his death certificate.
"So my neverending search was started," Ireland says. "As I got older, I realized other people faced the same obstacles I did. I went to help other researchers for free. So for over 60 years, I have helped those I can remove the roadblocks of their family genealogy."
Others find that volunteering is enjoyable as well as helpful to others. "I've never had so much fun in my life," says Janet Erickson, who gives tours and helps with special events at the Hoover Library. "I receive so much in return."
Some have an interest in a particular period of history or a particular historic figure, such as Cathy Buckley of the Kennedy Library. "I love traveling through [the] library with people who have come to learn more about him—people like me who remember him and younger folks who know him through history books and family memories."
Bob Gaugler, a retired Navy officer who became a volunteer at his wife's urging, has been involved in projects at College Park involving Vietnam-era photographs and records. "I think my knowledge of military records has been helpful in this review," he says.
For whatever reason, we are grateful that they decided to become NARA volunteers. They add immensely to the services we provide to our customers, the American people, in providing greater and easier access to the records we hold for them.
The NARA volunteers across the country are wonderful representatives of and advocates for the National Archives. They're an important part of the National Archives family, and we are in their debt for the continuing contributions they make to carrying out the Archives' mission of service.
As Maria Flesher, a long-time CWCC volunteer, says: "At NARA, a volunteer is treated as a true contributor, not just as a number."