Only a genealogist thinks a step backward is progress

by Phil Burgess, Unabridged from the Life section of the Annapolis Capital, Sunday June 26, 2018

The Maryland State Archives, located on Rowe Blvd. just west of College Creek, is the central repository for what the law calls “state government records of permanent value….” including birth and death, marriage and divorce records, last wills and testaments and records of the history of Maryland – from the earliest times of Lord Baltimore and the first settlement in 1634 to the present.

The rest of us probably see the archives as the mother-lode for genealogy.  Indeed, creating a family tree – including ancestor occupations, hobbies, military service and other stories – is a popular pastime for Americans, especially those in their bonus years.

Why do we do it?  According to genealogist Katie Derby some seek to locate their story in the larger story of their extended family or ethnic group.  Others seek to connect with distant cousins or to prove a relationship to a famous historical figure. Still others are trying to solve family mysteries, find biological relatives or view history through the window of the everyday life or ordinary people.

Last week I had a new experience with genealogy when I learned that much of the work of recording is performed by volunteers.

My guide in learning about the importance of volunteers was Craig Taylor. In an email exchange, he said, “If you want to see volunteerism in high gear, come by the Maryland State Archives some morning and I will introduce some very dedicated people who help make the world go ‘round.”

Taylor met me at the entrance to the archives and with a couple of surprises.

First, I learned that Taylor is not from Annapolis or Anne Arundel County or even Maryland.  Taylor is from South Jordan, Utah.

That’s where he retired as an aerospace engineer from Orbital ATK (now Northrop Grumman) and worked on the Titan rocket that lifted the Cassini mission into space to explore the rings and atmosphere of Saturn and most recently on the heavy-lift Space Launch System that will support deep space exploration and manned missions to Mars.

Taylor also served as a Boy Scout leader for 35 years, has a life-long interest in woodworking and has practiced genealogy as hobby for the past 15 years.

Second, I discovered that Taylor is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and further, that the LDS Church has a 40-page list of volunteer opportunities for members in their bonus years.

They call it the Senior Missionaries Program where members – including married couples – make full-time commitments to serve for six to 18 months in one of many offerings.  Taylor and his wife Liz signed up for 18 months just one month after Craig’s retirement in October 2017.

The Taylors volunteered to serve with, the world’s largest genealogy organization – a non-profit operated by the LDS Church. FamilySearch in turn assigned them to work in the Maryland State Archives as Records Preservation Specialists.

Altogether, FamilySearch is providing 10 volunteers – five couples – on 12-18-month assignments to Annapolis. The volunteers cover their own expenses and have local apartments in Annapolis.

When they are not at the Archives, they visit historic sites, help people with family history, go to museums in the area or just relax – sometimes with one or more of the 30 additional LDS families who are serving in the Washington area, many in military installations.

When I asked Taylor why the LDS Church invests so much in genealogy, he said, “We research ancestry because we believe that families can be together forever and that getting to know your ancestors in this life will lead to stronger familial bonds and blessings in your life to come.”

In their job at the Archives, volunteers take photo images of probate records, using four of 318 high resolution cameras that are operating all over the world.  These images, which digitize the documents and make them more easily searchable, will include more than 1.5 million Maryland documents in 2018.

Once completed and indexed, the documents can be accessed online through both the Maryland State Archives and FamilySearch.

As we toured the operation, alive with many volunteers, Taylor introduced James Tanner, a former trial attorney from Mesa, Arizona and LDS volunteer who recently retired with his wife, Ann, to Provo, Utah.

Tanner said, “I have lived in libraries my whole life, including work as a reference librarian while in law school.  I also have a 36-year-old genealogy hobby, so I’m grateful for the opportunity to work in the Archives in Maryland and to be so close to the National Archives and the Library of Congress in Washington.  It also helps that our daughter lives in Virginia.  That’s a special bonus for our work in Annapolis.”

Then I met Annapolitan Tina Simmons, one of many local volunteers who has worked at the Archives for nearly five years.  Though Simmons has a broad interest in history, she has specialized in cemeteries and what gravestones might reveal about the buried.

Simmons has located more than 550 cemeteries in Maryland, including one preserved in the Home Depot parking lot in Annapolis.

Simmons says, “We are always looking for volunteers.  We have a ‘Thursday morning group’ at the archive, that includes local men and women, all retired, who come in and work together.  There is so much to do and it is important for our history to do it right.”

She added, with a twinkle, “And I’m always looking for cemeteries I don’t know about.”

On the way out, I asked Taylor about his stand-out experiences so far.

He said, “We recently found two different documents signed by George Washington and another signed by Francis Booth, the father of Lincoln-assassin John Wilkes Booth.  These were attention-getters.”

He added, “We also digitize the ‘inventories of assets’ filed with probate courts.  These are always fascinating, but those before the 1860s also bring home the sad reality of slavery.  These kinds of discoveries – the good, the bad and the ugly – make history come alive in all its dimensions.  It’s a special blessing to be able to preserve them for posterity.”

Reflecting on my visit, I was struck by the huge contributions of non-profits and volunteers to our culture and our well-being.  Think of service clubs, like Rotary, and its mission to eradicate polio worldwide.  Or the tens of thousands of volunteers that do the work of the Red Cross.  Or the mothers and fathers who home school or volunteer as teacher’s aides at our K-12 schools.  And, of course, our churches that underwrite education at every level from the Jesuits at Georgetown to the LDS at Brigham Young University…including genealogy, helping us to remember, in the words of “Roots” author Alex Haley, that “family is our link to the past and our bridge to the future.”

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