Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Self Serve

For the most part I have had few issues with repositories or staff. Before last week I only had minor issues such as:
  • Restrictions that made little sense at the time (and still do). For example, if a state's archives let's people view death certificates as late as the 1940s with no strings attached and offers copies for a dollar or less, why is it that a certain county charges $14 for a copy and will not allow the public to simply view the death register from 1902? I guess what bugged me the most is that the register/ledger format usually seems to have less details than a certificate would. So exactly why am I supposed to pay $14 for a lesser record sight unseen? I didn't need the record. It just would have been nice to have. Not $14 nice, though. I could have probably supplied the correct details for each column on the form without having to look at my notes. The person behind the counter was nice and understood my frustration, but it was out of their control.

  • The National Archives in D.C. makes everyone re-shelve the microfilm that they pull. It's not that I minded, because I didn't, but around here that sort of thing is not allowed and with good reason.

  • Flatbed scanners are not allowed in some places, but no one thinks twice about making photocopies. It can't be an issue with the light exposure then, right?

  • A place that houses public records and charges an entrance fee. Is that even legal when in other counties you just walk in, do you thing and pay for copies? I understand the need for donations and memberships to support an organization and their collection, but if a city's and/or county's material ends up in their control, aren't they obligated to have an open door policy just like if the records were where they should be, at the courthouse?

On the way back from Maryland last week I made sure we stopped to pick up some records in Virginia. It's not like the opportunity to research in Virginia comes along often, so this was something I was looking forward to since the trip was planned. At a Recorder's office I ran into two staffers that couldn't have been more stereotypical had they been trying. I walked into the office and had been there less than ten seconds when I approached the counter to ask where the older records (all before 1835) were kept. One of the two women sitting at desks looked up. The way she looked at me and the tone of her voice distinctly gave me the impression she really could not have cared less or that I was bothering her. Fine. Whatever. It's not brain surgery to lookup records and I didn't need any help once I found the books, but she didn't ask if I had ever been there before and was familiar with their rules or knew how to use the copier, things I've found are usually asked elsewhere.

So I made my way to the back room and found the records I needed; a handful of wills, a deed and a few marriage bonds. There were about a dozen people that afternoon looking up what I assumed were deeds, and a handful of them were constantly making copies. I got in line, made a copy, then went back to get the next record and got back in line. After a while the copier wouldn't work and it appeared that it was out of paper. I went to the front counter to ask for assistance. The lady that had "greeted" me upon my arrival walked out of the room. I'll give her the benefit of the doubt and assume she didn't see me approaching (even though I think she did) or that her shift was over (at 3 p.m.?) because she never returned.

The other woman that was present when I arrived was still at her desk, now on the phone. It became obvious within seconds that she was on a personal call, talking about how she had been under the weather and what her plans were for that night. I should have interrupted her, but I didn't. I stood there until she finished her call, at which time she asked me what I needed. I told her the copier might be out of paper because it stopped working. Without getting up, she explained where the supply room was and told me to find whatever size paper I needed and to re-stock the copier myself. If this is normal, it's new to me. Just like materials are not to be re-shelved around here, I wouldn't have dreamed of screwing around with city/county equipment. In fact, I can guarantee that some places here might kick you out for doing so or at least give a little lecture about what is off limits. I walked dumbfounded to the supply room, decided it wasn't worth the hassle and went back to make copies on a different paper size. I was in a hurry and this was already taking longer than I thought it would. A fellow researcher explained that the paper tray might be loose rather than being empty. It was loose.

I finished up my copies and went to the counter to pay. By this time there was a third woman behind the counter. I felt sorry for her because she was the only one there and now six or seven people were anxiously waiting in line. While the guy in front of me screwed around with a form and offered various excuses about why he couldn't do this or that, the clerk asked how many copies I had without counting. As much as the first two clerks had annoyed me, I should have given myself a discount and told her a lower number. I didn't. I paid in full and went down the street to the library where the staff was much more friendly.

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Chris said...

Ugh. I've run into incompetence and indifference in my genealogical travels, but never to this degree. I actually prefer to have the staff a little standoffish--it's better than having someone looking over my shoulder.

My personal pet peeve concerns a registry of deeds I visited last spring. They charged $3 per page for photocopies, and had a policy forbidding digital cameras. The professional title-searchers might be willing and able to pay that price, but not me. I settled for abstracts.

Dave said...

Three bucks per page?! That's insane. I'm so cheap, though, that a few weeks ago I was dreading having to pay $1/page for deeds using a copier that would not make a decent copy. I got so fed up I just transcribed the rest of the deeds on my list.

I don't get the whole anti-scanner, anti-camera philosophy. I hear it's about making money, which is fine, but they could still charge for those digital copies. Some of these places would be better off scanning everything and selling files rather than repeatedly handling and copying the records. What is going to shorten the document's life more, repeated handling or one scan/photo?

I get a kick out of The Genealogue. Keep up the good work.