A Tale of Two States

Yesterday I found myself emailing with two state archivists — the amazing Bette Epstein of the New Jersey State Archives, and a beleaguered manager at Pennsylvania’s Division of Vital Records.  Bette is a shining example of what an archivist should be — prompt, helpful, intuitive, and thorough.  The PA manager seems competent, but represents an organization so maddening that I almost got kicked out of a restaurant when I reacted to her latest missive.

I met Bette at a genealogy fair hosted by a Philadelphia society (noteably not attended by her PA counterpart).  Beyond merely locating the birth certificate I requested, she cross-referenced the address to federal and state censuses (the latter not yet online), deducing in one case that the family listed was mine despite numerous errors.  Though outside her purview, she even included a number of New York City vital records to fill in the details.  Within days I received the birth certificate I requested and the state censuses she brought to my attention.  Her helpfulness was no fluke.  Within hours of yesterday’s request, she provided me with the answer even though the index in question just came online, pointed out additional information of interest from this census, and again consulted the relevant NJ and NYC vital records for me.

Why am I so amazed by Bette’s helpfulness?  Because for the past two-and-a-half years I have been beaten down by her counterparts across the Delaware.  Through inaccurate instructions on their website, bureaucratic inflexibility, and long turn-around times, it took over a year and three sets of returned forms before I received even one record.  Shortly after I submitted my second set of requests, the state law changed to open up the records I needed, and thank goodness, because when I eventually received “No Record Certification” responses, I could go into the indexes to see for myself.  In the worst case the archivists were just plain wrong — a death they claimed they could not find between 1930 and 1940 was clearly listed in 1936.  Other cases — two people with rare last names, one whose first name was listed as “Male,” another whose death year I had slightly off — reflect the difference between a sharp archivist who aims to solve problems and an uninterested clerk who does not.  The worst part is that their turn-around time means I must wait another six months for the fixes.  And the reason why I’m now corresponding with a manager?  I demanded a refund.

To some extent, my experiences aren’t comparable.  Who knows if I would have gotten a personal touch had I gone through NJ’s usual channels, and maybe the PA archivists, when consulted directly, are helpful and fast.  But it just goes to show the difference a personal touch and service-oriented outlook make.  Here’s to the archivists who care as much about solving our problems as we do!  And three cheers for Tim Gruber, whose work opened up the PA records!  Come 2014, they’ll be indexed on Ancestry, and I won’t have to wait on the state ever again!!!

Who are the archivists who’ve helped you break through your brick walls?  Tell us about ’em here!

Update:  I have since learned that PA has a backlog of 10,000 requests!  They’re not helping themselves by fulfilling them incorrectly, that’s for sure.  I’m still haggling with them about a refund, and meanwhile, the NJ archivist is still emailing me records in response to my previous inquiry.

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