Uncovering the Past at the National Archives

Archivist Ellen Mulligan

Story by: JOVAN LONGS-TUCKER / Central High School

Photo by: TANISHA LAMPART / Bok Technical High School

Imagine discovering that you are a descendant of royal lineage or that you are related to a prominent figure that helped shape the course of history. Tracing one’s genealogy can be a very enlightening experience because it provides missing clues about your family background.

Tracing one’s genealogy can be difficult however but with the aid of the National Archives this process can become much easier and more informative.

There is a National Archives branch in Center City Philadelphia near 9th and Chestnut Streets. This facility is formally known as the National Records and Records Administration Mid Atlantic Region branch, it services Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Virginia

A group of Philadelphia area high school students learned more about genealogy through their participation in The Family History Summer Institute at the Philadelphia branch. These students are encouraged to learn more about their family history by conducting in-depth guided genealogical historical research.

One participant in this Summer Institute, Dante, said the experience helped him “ know a chapter of my life and my role in history.”

Participants in this program get the opportunity to visit area libraries and archives learning about the holdings. The students said they really enjoyed the experience at this program directed by the Education Specialist at Philadelphia’s National Archives branch in partnership with the Genealogical Society of Pennsylvania.

“It makes me respect the people who come before me,” said participant Joy.

Tracing genealogy at the National Archives differs from researching on ancestry websites. For instance, ancestry.com requires a subscription fee while research at the National Archives is free. Also, at the National Archives, knowledgeable reference staff and community researchers are available to aid people with their research.

Helpful people at the Philadelphia branch include archivist Ellen Mulligan who’s worked there for two years after a career as a television producer assisting on history and science programs.

“I want to help preserve American History and help make it available to the public,” Mulligan said adding, “I wanted to help people discover history for themselves.”

Students who participated in the National Archives workshop discussed their experience with discovering their families’ histories.

The director of the NARA (Mid Atlantic region) is Leslie Smith and there are about ten staff members who assist her. The regional liaison is V. Chapman Smith. Ms. Smith is involved with preserving history and community relations.

NARA branches store a wide variety of federal documents including Revolutionary War records, marriage licenses, military records, birth records, death records, microfilm, census records, land records, ship passenger lists, naturalization orders and federal court records.

The Chinese Exclusion Act files, for example, are great resources for people of Chinese heritage because they contain interviews with very specific questions.

Congress established the NARA in 1934 requiring it to collect records from different U.S. government archives. These records date back to 1789, which was the year of the founding of the U.S. federal government.

All records held by the NARA are paper records that are stored in folders and placed in acid free-boxes in a room with climate control.  Records are rarely exposed to light when they are not in use because light can often fade the ink on the pages. So placing them in a box will help prevent that from occurring. In addition, there is pest-management within the room to ensure that pests do not destroy the records. These storage methods allow the records to be kept for such a long time.


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