The Northeast Region (located in New York City) of National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) had an open house on October 13, 2009. For those who had never used the New York center of archives (covering NY, New Jersey, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands), it was a great opportunity to get acquainted with the resources of the facility. Though I was there on work-related business, it overlapped with my genealogy hobby. There were a number of genealogists there, too.
Dorothy Dougherty (NARA staff in charge of public programs) showed a video from their website and provided an overview of the history of the United States and its archives. The value in going through the institution’s history helped explain why certain materials are not there. Although everyone had a chuckle as she went through a history of the fires (there had been many), it was quite instructive in revealing why certain records no longer exist, and why others do exist even if you would expect them not to be around. That’s the reason the 1890 US census is mostly gone – it was consumed by fire because it was being stored at the Department of Commerce, rather than the area where the rest of the censuses were kept. She concluded her talk with a quick tour of how to navigate NARA’s website.
Staff showed us some interesting artifacts followed by a brief behind-the-scenes walking tour of their stack area. To say there is tons of material is an understatement. It seems as if the New York office is loaded with records of ship crews docking in New York for the past 200 years (ship captains had to keep inventories of crews to determine when any of them would stay behind). Virtually any federal activity that took place in the New York region (which includes New Jersey, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands) is kept mostly in the New York office (at 201Varick St. – literally at the Houston St. stop on the no. 1 train).
Of the 9 full-time staff members in the New York office, 2 of them are devoted to programming and outreach. If a group wants to meet in the archives and have (or customize) their own tour, Ms. Dougherty would be one of the people to arrange such things. Seems like a great opportunity to plan a visit for a group.
After the tour, the staff held a raffle of several copies of a newly published book of photographs from the archive. After the official end of the program, NARA staff was eager to answer questions from individual attendees.
So what is the connection between this nice NARA visit and the performing arts? There was a prominent display of materials documenting the copyright dispute concerning the song “Happy Birthday To You.” (Wikipedia has a summary of the legal entanglements involving this most familiar of songs in English, due to the belief that the song is still in copyright.)