Summer Internship at the New York Genealogical and Biographical Society | Alexandra Meyer

The New York Genealogical & Biographical Society is a 150-year-old institution that, in their own words, “preserves, documents, and shares the stories of families across the state of New York.” Their small midtown office is dedicated to such work, as well as their mission to understand New York in “broader contexts” and establish connections between history and the present day.  For the past two months, the Eugene Lang Opportunity Award has allowed me to assist in their mission as a summer intern.

This internship was special to me before it even began. In the weeks leading up to my start date, I became aware of the weight this opportunity held in terms of my education and career.  My internship at the NYG&B would be my first office job – the first time I’d come into work and sit at a desk as opposed to behind a counter. Even more novel (and, admittedly, intimidating) was the fact that it would be my first research job – the first time that I, a student of history, would be able to practice my craft outside of the classroom.

The most intense of my duties was digitization. The NYG&B provides its members with access to several genealogical databases.  Likewise, organizations often hire the NYG&B to assist in the development of their own databases, typically by digitizing their records and applications.  The last few weeks of my internship were spent digitizing member applications for another genealogical society in the city – a project so massive in scope that a month’s work hardly made a dent in overall progress.

Breaking up the digitization, however, was research at the New York Public Library.  Members of the NYG&B pay hourly rates for professional research.  We, as interns under the direction of NYG&B staff, carried out that research within the main branch’s manuscript division.  It was there that I got my first taste of physical archival research.  I held in my hands centuries-old documents that told more stories than I’d ever be able to comprehend.  I spent hours analyzing mid-century New York white pages on microform. I, for the first time, experienced the ups and downs of research – the search for a particular name or place of birth or date of marriage, the frustration of leaving the library empty handed and, most rewardingly, the sheer joy of walking away with exactly what I was looking for.

In addition to the experience I gained, I was also able to make several conclusions regarding the fields of genealogy and biography.  The most relevant stems from a question I had pondered over since the start of my internship: put simply, why? Why do people spend hours, days, months, decades researching the history of one particular family? The social historian in me was obsessed with answering this broad, untamable question and, one day out of my internship, I am somewhat proud to say I have one.

We, as I’ve come to realize now more than ever, are a species that thrives off of our ability to connect with others. We seek out cohesive bonds, trying desperately to tie ourselves to people, places and things. Genealogy is a method of forming such connections by engaging with the past. It’s the study of blood and adoption, of family ties and relationships, of origin countries and lost surnames.  To know one’s family history is to be a part of something greater than oneself.  It’s the ability to take ownership of one’s ancestry, form one’s identity, and adopt one’s culture.  Genealogy, essentially, provides us with the histories of the shared experiences that we so fervently crave.

Looking forward, however, there is more that I would like to see come out of the field of genealogy.  It was overly apparent to me that, especially when it comes to archival research, genealogy tends to focus on what is often called the great white man of history.  While I do see trends moving away from such institutionalized habits, there is an undeniable need for more family research and archival paper projects on women and people of color.  Genealogy has great potential when it comes to telling unheard stories and giving voices to the silenced.  These are the connections with the past that, when fostered properly, will have so much potential for the future of our society.  My only hope is that we see such efforts sooner rather than later.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed my time at the NYG&B. It challenged me to make conclusions and think critically and I am excited to see where the experience will take me in the future.  My goal is to apply my new knowledge of family history to my life both inside and outside my studies.  I very much believe that my internship wholly benefited me and I cannot thank the Eugene Lang Opportunity Award enough for their undeniable part in that.

A nineteenth-century family tree.

A nineteenth-century letter from grandfather to grandson.

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