by James Rucker
Just a few minutes before I began writing, I reshelved a total of sixty-eight books in a locked room on the second floor at Linebaugh. Genealogy enthusiasts among you might already know the room in question, though it goes by multiple names. Some call it the Tennessee Room. Others call it the Historical Research room (or HR Room for short). Our more functionalist patrons call it the “Genealogy Room.” I’ve even heard some older patrons refer to it as “the Vault,” which was its nickname, according to one of them, at our former location at 110 W College Street. Way back when, Murfreesboro’s post office had a room with a locked, metal gateway where they stored valuables. When Linebaugh Library moved into the building, they repurposed this “Vault” into an archive of various official records and historical publications. We eventually moved to our current location and now the former post office houses the Murfreesboro Center for the Arts.
When our current building was under construction, the head librarian at the time, Briley Adcock, gave a tour to some reporters from the Daily News Journal. The interview ran on May 3rd, 1992.
Adcock was particularly enthusiastic about the new accommodations to local historians, both professional and casual. As the reporter wrote, “Also on the second floor is Adcock’s favorite room, a new improved version of the Tennessee Room./ ‘It’s about three times larger than what we have now,’ she said. / Stored in the Tennessee Room will be all the library’s geneological [sic] resources, she said, as well a copy machine, microfilm readers and a vault for storing rare volumes. / ‘The people who use this part of the building regularly will be really pleased,’ she said.”
Archival documents say both too much and too little at the same time. It can be overwhelming to think of the volume of material to comb through. Of course, the modern world is riddled with unchecked bureaucracies and their meticulous record-keeping, but we mustn’t mistake the chatter in the archives for a clear voice. In a way, these many words say nothing at all. Documents aren’t self-conscious and can’t interpret themselves. Therefore, the archive cannot speak for itself; the historian must speak for it. If I may repurpose an ironic quip from a 19th-century, German journalist, “They cannot represent themselves, they must be represented.”
For those who don’t know where to begin, I will recommend a book: The Allure of the Archives by Arlette Farge. Don’t judge the book by its call number (it is miscategorized); it may be shelved with books on the French Revolution (944.04), but it is actually about historical research methods and what to expect when you visit an archive. I found her prose not only instructive but also a pleasure to read. As Natalie Zemon Davis wrote in her introduction, “Arlette Farge takes us into archives and pulls us into the experience of research” (xi-xii). It isn’t a dry instructional manual, but a visceral and tactile read that aquaints you with the textures, discomforts, and pleasures one should expect.
However, more than anything, Farge wants us to prepare to be surprised. For example, when looking into the history of my mother’s family, I consulted census data from Dickson county in the 1800s. Strangely enough, during one decade’s census, the number of people in my family’s household spiked. There were unfamiliar people several different surnames between them. Clearly my family had taken in several, seemingly random, people, only for them to disappear a decade later. Perhaps they were refugees? Or maybe my family had hired some people to help out on the family farm? Had I investigated further, I might have found out more, but for the time being it is a mystery. To quote Davis again, “Arlette Farge is our guide — for the unexpected, the surprise. We rejoice when we make a find, even though the story or event itself may be sad, troubling, ghastly, baffling; even though it may oblige us to rethink our earlier understanding of our topic and restructure it” (xii).
We must be careful, however. Archives are, of course, products of institutions or governments which have objectives and desires. Therefore, archives, like all institutions, have biases. A census, like the one I consulted above, views its subjects as quantifiable entities, to be counted and categorized so officials can draw districts and collect taxes. The state collects this data in order to govern more easily and effectively. This state-bias is perhaps most clear in Farge’s own case, since she works with the records of arrests and interrogations kept by French police. As she puts it, “most of the dossiers ultimately put forward only one version of the events, that of public order and police authority. The questions that were asked have a policeman’s directness. Above all, the police were looking to identify the culprits” (87). The perspective of the judicial archives has an accusing eye, one that sees the population as a problem to be solved; “in a sense, they catch the city red-handed: craftily maneuvering around the rules, refusing outright to accept the policemen’s vision of order, choosing to acclaim or snub its kings, and rising up whenever it feels threatened. When reading the police records, you can see to what extent resistance, defiance, and even open revolt are social facts to which the city is accustomed. […] Deviance and marginality are powerfully indicative of political authority and of norms, and each type of crime reflects an aspect of the society in which it occurred” (25 & 27). Farge stresses how important it is to overcome this bias of an archive and capture the voices of those common people under their regime. “As historians, we must take into account the reflexes, habits, and weaknesses of the police” (88). As I mentioned above, a census doesn’t see people as concrete individuals but as abstract quantities without any qualities it considers irrelevant. To the eyes of the census, people only exist to be counted. And in the antebellum South, the census counted certain “properties” as only three-fifths of a whole person. I am, of course, referring to slaves.
In many cases, these biases are most visible where the archive falls silent. The census has nothing to say when it comes to the parts of life we care about most. For those moments, most people have birth and death certificates or records of marriage and divorce, but not everyone has those resources. African American genealogy illustrates this problem quite clearly. Precise records of the births, deaths, marriages, and divorces of slaves were rarely kept in much of the antebellum South. Alex Haley’s Roots and the miniseries of the same name might be the most famous genealogical work to date, but it was a remarkable achievement precisely because of the hurdles my people sometimes have to go through when finding out about our heritage. My father once told me about how hard it was to find information when trying to map out his paternal bloodline.
Daniel, my great-great-grandfather, was the last man in that part of my family to be born a slave; therefore, he had no birth certificate. The earliest record of him was when he was mentioned in a court case. When a plantation owner with our last name died, there was a lawsuit to determine who would inherit the estate. In court, they had to list every piece of property, slaves included. Among them, there was a single child of the correct age named Daniel who we assume must be our ancestor. But there is no way to be sure. This court case is as far back as our paternal bloodline goes. My paternal grandmother’s line, by contrast, can be traced all the way back to the auction block, where my ancestor and her mother were sold separately, cutting that tie forever. But it isn’t state documents that let us trace our family that far, but an oral tradition that was passed down every generation to us (similar to the one in Alex Haley’s family). Examples like those above show how creative a researcher has to be with archival evidence, since it is not always obvious where to find the needed information. They also show the importance of oral tradition for filling in gaps in the documentary record.
For those interested in researching their own families, now is the perfect time. October is Family History Month in the United States, and upstairs at Linebaugh is a book display by our own Lisa Ramsay, showing some of our available materials on genealogical research.
After that you can take a look at the HR room to your left, or walk down the non-fiction stacks to “929” where you can check out a book on genealogy to take home. If Linebaugh doesn’t have what you need, we also have an HR room at our Smyrna branch, and the Rutherford County Archives are at 423 Rice Street, northwest of the Murfreesboro town square. Perhaps you’ll find some answers, or even better, some questions. And next month, at the Thanksgiving table, you might be able to ask them of your grandparents (or whoever your oldest living relatives are). If all else fails, you can ask them to tell you about their own grandparents.
And when you get the chance, check out Allure of the Archives for yourself. I’ll close with another quote from Davis’s introduction: “Newcomers to historical studies will welcome Arlette Farge’s introduction to archival research. Amateur history enthusiasts will be fascinated by her insider’s account of how historians practice their craft. But old-timer’s like me will have their memories enriched and their understanding deepened by this book” (xiii).