22 May 2012


     Before I begin my rant, I want to make two things clear: 1) I truly appreciate the work done by repository staff, especially volunteers, and 2) I have worked in genealogical repositories and centers in both professional and volunteer capacities. I've been on both sides of that particular fence.
     Bad staff behavior at certain repositories and archives? The stuff of genealogical legend! Mention certain facilities at a genealogy gathering and eyeballs go rolling. Most of us researchers have encountered a staff person who seemed intent on being a linebacker instead of a guide.
     I recently had an experience at a historical society that ruined a research trip. I had done as much preparation as I could. I checked to make sure the library was open. I checked their holdings to pinpoint exactly what records I needed. I had my questions listed. I brought all relevant research with me.
     The people at the facility were extremely nice, which is one reason I don't want to identify the place. But the staff member in charge insisted on being a partner in my research. However, his interest was not in my research, but in impressing me with his knowledge. Since this was a facility where most of the records were accessible only through staff retrieval, I was pretty much at his mercy. Rather than retrieve the records I needed, he brought me records that he wanted me to see, records that were not pertinent to my research. When I insisted, very nicely, that I really needed to look at certain record books instead of the ones he brought, he suddenly became very busy with other library matters and patrons. After wasting an hour, I decided to move on to other places I wanted to visit. I planned to return the next day, hoping that someone else might be on duty, but other matters prevented my return. I don't know when I will be able to return to this locality.
     The ideal staff member--and I have met plenty in my travels--is a person who quickly assesses a patron's requests and needs. As a former head of a historical library myself, I know that a patron's skill level and need for assistance can be evaluated fairly quickly. Some people need additional help, and they usually ask for it. Most patrons are helped by a quick description of the holdings and their methods of access. Pertinent suggestions may be helpful. The occasional neophyte may need extensive help with research methods and direction. But few patrons need someone to conduct their research for them, and if they do, their need is obvious.
     Volunteers and professional staff members need to check their egos at the door. Patrons already assume that the people helping them have a vast and superior knowledge of the facility's holdings and of the local history. They are there to research, not to be impressed.
     I once had an experience with a volunteer at an LDS family history center that almost stopped me from researching my family history. This happened back in the 1980's, before genealogy really exploded on the Internet. I had heard that the family history center had records and resources that could help me begin my research. But, the man at the center insisted on doing my research. He took a few of my ancestors' names and searched for them in the collection of discs the center had. He found none. I asked him where I could search next. He told me that I would never find my ancestors because all my resources were exhausted. To this day, I can't figure out if this encounter was one of miscommunication or whether this man was the worst genealogical volunteer in history.
     Thankfully, I didn't believe him!