Sunday, August 2, 2020

Do You Have a Secret Archive?

When biographer Gerald Martin was attempting to collect details to assemble the life story of Nobel laureate novelist Gabriel García Márquez, his reticent subject explained, "Everyone has three lives: a public life, a private life, and a secret life."

While many have seen truth in that statement, they might not claim any application in their own life. No matter which way you view the oft-repeated statement, for the family historian, I'd like to borrow that statement with one revision, and apply it thus: to the repositories in which your family's stories are hidden.

When we drill down through the prevalent documents we use to flesh out our family's stories, we are accustomed to accessing some public records, but I'd like to introduce the thought that there are not one, but three types of archives without which we won't fully be able to reconstruct the lives of our ancestors. Those three types are public archives, private archives, and secret archives.

We are quite familiar with public archives—the repositories where we go to receive copies of court records, for instance, or view national documents like census enumerations. While many of those documents are specific to individuals—such as death certificates or records of military service—a great many of them encompass collective information of a geographic vicinity, as well. Often, the data contained on these records are highly organized into specific categories based on the purpose of gathering and preserving them for future reference.

While not as many researchers access the second type of repositories—private archives—these are also a great source of information, if your ancestor is included in such a collection and if you are granted access by the private institution. There are finding aids to help answer questions concerning the former case, and lists of required credentials published for those who wish to access such records. Sometimes, the requirements for access are quite stringent. While you may not be aware of such private archives, they are definitely out there; I know, simply because our city has one such repository not far from where I live.

It's the third type of archives I wish to focus on today, though—the one which may be the hardest to find, and yet might be the one yielding the most coveted information to add to a family's story: the secret archives.

If you doubt there is such a repository, you need go no farther than the National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections (NUCMC) at the United States Library of Congress, where in the "about" page you can find this offer to facilities (emphasis added):
If a repository is interested in publicizing its hidden collections but does not feel that it has the resources at the present time....

Admitting this little detail outright may be an eye opener to some people, but when we assess all the possible places where we can go to gain a fuller picture of history—whether of a nation or of a family or individual—there are several resources out there which simply cannot be found without a persistent, diligent search.

Yet, we can drill down even farther in our quest to uncover hidden repositories. I'd like to suggest that in that unorganized conglomerate of hidden collections, we include a second type of secret archive: that of the stashes of heritage which families have secreted in attics, trunks, bottoms of desk drawers, and guest room closets filled with the family stuff. Those of us who have become, as Denise Levenick calls it, "keepers of the family stuff," are well aware of the treasures which may lie in such an uncharted stash. The only problem is that we don't really know what, exactly, is in that stash—just that we have it, safely tucked away until we get around to sorting through it.

Worse, those secret archives of family memorabilia may not even be in your attic—nor even the trunks or drawers of your parents or that maiden aunt. The keeper of the stuff about your family may turn out to be the third cousin you never met—maybe never even heard of. Only in learning to have a mindset of reaching out and collaborating with others researching the same surnames will you even have the chance to stumble across that third cousin. Witness the story shared last week by Miss Merry, where it was someone else in her town who turned out to have the only two pictures of her great-grandmother she had ever seen.

If we don't connect with our fellow researchers, we won't learn who else has the family treasures we'd so dearly love to see—nor will we, in turn, become the resource for someone else who'd love to see what we have in our secret archives.

It may seem, when we first receive it, that our secret archives is an avalanche of unlabeled trash. That may well be the reason people put off organizing it—we wait to "get a round tuit" simply because we have no idea what some of those papers actually represent. Afraid of making a mistake and tossing the valuable or, worse, rescuing only the trash, we defer and procrastinate.

Even if it turns out that a photo or record in that stash doesn't belong to our own family line, we can make someone else's day by connecting an interested researcher with the treasures of their own family. I did that once, years ago, when sorting through some very old photographs of a long-gone distant uncle, sending home a portrait of a young man who turned out to be just a family friend. To us, such items represent strangers. To that stranger's direct descendants, though, the hidden parts of our secret archives can become transformed into the gift of a family treasure.

To do that, though, requires the persistence to sort through and identify what we have in our own stash, our secret archives. Then, we need to discover how to connect with other researchers in that family line. It may seem daunting in the aggregate, but piece by piece, we can do our part to reconnect people with their family's heritage, a most rewarding outcome.


  1. I am still over the moon with my namesake ggramma's photos!!!

    1. Oh, I'm sure you are, Miss Merry! What an exciting--and totally unexpected--discovery. I love hearing stories like that.


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