September 22 – Noah’s Archivist

Today’s factismal: If you were to trace your family history back to 1800, you’d have about 1,024 direct ancestors. And if you trace it forward to 2200, you’ll have about 1,024 direct descendents.

One of the weirder things about geneology is that we are each of us at the center of a web of relations that expands enormously behind us and in front of us. If you are married and have two kids and each of your kids has two kids and so on, five generations later you’ll have sixteen great-great-grandchildren. And if you trace your family history back that same five generations, you’ll find that you have sixteen great-great-grandparents (unless you happen to be a Hapsburg). Go another five generations and you’ll have more than a thousand ancestors or descendents. In effect, you are the center of a genealogical universe.

But, if you are like the typical person, you probably can’t name your great-great-grandparents. (And if you are like the typical new parent, you may be hard-pressed to name your two kids…) Fortunately, the US National Archives can help you with that. They have records that stretch back to before the US was founded. Those records include census data (so you know where your kinfolk lived), military records (so you know where they served), and land records (so you know if they owned the Brooklyn Bridge). Best of all, using those records is free!

Of course, if you would like to pay for using the records, there is a way to do that. But the US National Archives doesn’t want your money; they want your help as a Citizen Archivist. They have far too many records to properly analyze, tag, and classify themselves. But they’ve opened up the records so that anyone (that means you!) can help. You can look over an old letter from George Washington (your great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather on your aunt’s uncle’s side) and transcribe what he wrote. Or you can sort through the papers of Abraham Lincoln (your great-great-great-really-great-uncle) and tag them for content. Or you can look over the weather logs of ships that sailed through the Arctic and Antarctic and puzzle out the changes in climate. If this sounds like your cup of tea, then send your browser to:

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