family history and genealogy

The Nitty-Gritty of Historical Research

Archives entreprises
I went to Los Angeles recently on a family visit, and while I was there, I decided to do some research on an old family controversy. Around the time I was born, some of my forebears’ business affairs led them into a courtroom. I wanted to know more about this incident, so I requested the case file from the court system.

Dealing with the Archives and Records Center of the Los Angeles County Superior Court is not easy. The office has a web site, which contains a procedure for ordering files, but the procedure is impracticable on its face. Many of the important details—the number of pages in the file, the cost of photocopying, the weight of the file, and the postage required to ship it to Canada—are consigned to a fathomless void. All you can do is send your request, along with a $30 check and a self-addressed stamped envelope. Then you wait—oh, God, how you wait—and hope for the best.

Like any methodical researcher, I sought further information before committing myself to this procedure. The information was not easy to find. No one in this office answers a telephone. You can’t leave a message because the mailboxes are full. Emails go unanswered as well. Eventually I reached a woman who fed a microfiche into a viewer and assured me that a file existed. What documents it contained, she could not say. All she would do was urge me to follow that impracticable procedure, saying she would provide further detail on receipt of my $30 check and SASE.

So I followed the procedure. My sister sent me some U.S. postage, which I can’t buy in Canada.  I bought a gargantuan padded envelope and plastered it with about $30 worth of U.S. stamps, enough to send a 2 pound package. Then I sent the whole thing express, for another $20 or so, and settled into a mood of hopeful but wary anticipation.

Three months went by. I called the Archives and Records Center, which was not helpful. Then one day my gargantuan padded self-addressed envelope arrived with a single sheet of paper inside, which bore this cryptic handwritten message: This Case is Missing Please Check Back at Later Date.

By this time, I’d scheduled that family visit, so I telephoned my original contact, who assured me the microfiche was indeed present. (It was still on her desk because she had never refiled it.) When I told her of my impending arrival, she promised to copy the file and set it aside for me to pick up.

The Archives and Records Center occupies a basement underworld of entropy and gloom. The elevator you take to this catacomb is pure dilapidation, with every inch of its cab scratched, tagged, and covered with peeling stickers. The ceiling panels of these underground halls are dingy and deformed. The walls haven’t seen paint in years. Great holes have been bashed in the plaster. Every person who enters this purgatory—janitors, clerks, and fellow citizens, engaged in quixotic searches like my own—bears the haggard and spectral cast of a soul condemned to wander.

No one was visible behind the counter. Three different signs instructed me to take a number, sign a sheet, or fill out a form. I did all three, then lingered at the counter for good measure. A locked box was affixed to the wall by the door, bearing the inscription “Your opinion is important to us,” but no survey forms were available. After a few moments I stood on my toes and peered over the high counter. I spotted a woman at a desk. I asked for the clerk who promised to copy the case file, but she was not in the office that week. The woman behind the desk asked me to wait in the hall, saying she would search for the file.

She emerged a while later bearing a thin sheaf of papers and made out a bill: $24 for the 48 pages. I hurried upstairs—or was it downstairs?—to the cashier’s office, another void of peeling paint and ramshackle shelving, and paid the bill.

I returned to Archives and Records with quickening heart, where I presented my receipt and grasped this elusive file at last. I paged through the letters, reports, and transcript summaries, but my excitement was too great to take it all in at that moment, so I decided to walk to the Central Library several blocks away, one of my favorite haunts when I worked in the area twenty years ago.

Downtown Los Angeles has been remade in my absence. Gleaming skyscrapers have replaced dumpy old offices. A Metro whisks commuters across the city. The Disney Concert Hall stands as a monument to whimsy and fantasia. But the human element has not progressed that much. The working poor throng those streets, along with drunks, business people, bored cops, the homeless with their shopping carts, and the mentally ill muttering to themselves. A man lay passed out in a flower bed. A bike messenger hurtled by, bouncing over the curb. At the library, a movie production crew unloaded a truck.

Seated in a carrel, I paged through the file with greater concentration than I mustered earlier. One document was missing its first page. I wondered whether I should go back to the Archives and Records Center for that missing page or stay in the library to peruse microfilm for newspaper coverage of the case, two things I can only do in downtown Los Angeles. I decided to return to Archives and Records for the missing page.

I signed in again and resumed my loitering at the counter. A woman appeared and offered to help, but she changed her mind when I told her what I wanted. Another woman agreed to search the file for that missing page. I waited once more in the hallway. An hour passed, then another. The woman appeared with the missing page and wrote out a bill for fifty cents. Six months after it began, after hundreds of dollars in expenses and a journey of 1,500 miles, my quest reached its conclusion with the recovery of 49 pages from the county archive.

In his magnificent biography of Sir Isaac Newton, Richard S. Westfall cites freely from Newton’s private correspondence and gives the exact date—in 1693!—of Newton’s journey from Cambridge to London. This information is readily available to a prominent scholar with access to the British Museum and the archives at Trinity College. Of course, Isaac Newton was a world historical figure, greatly surpassing my ancestors in significance and renown.

It’s not the same, tracing the history of the common man or woman. You have to make do with the resources at hand.  You fight like hell for 49 pages and celebrate when you get them, grateful for the light they shed on your subject.

The search itself yields its own insights, which I also celebrate. The shabbiness and dysfunction of contemporary Los Angeles evoke the city of memory. The maddening difficulty of my errand recalls the obstacles my ancestors faced in getting their bread. We who engage in the nitty-gritty of historical research would do well to grasp the significance of these moments.

© 2013 – 2014, Andy Kubrin. All rights reserved.

2 Comments

  1. GaryMak

    This was very interesting. Very Kafka-esque. (I only stumbled upon it because you had put this in your post about a question concerning images in the forum.) You write very well. For a stranger, with no knowledge or interest in this subject, it read like a novel and was very compelling. Nicely done!

    • Andy Kubrin

      Hi, Gary. Glad you enjoyed the post. It’s a very funny situation in that office. They have been decimated by budget cuts and are having a difficult time. I have to go back soon for more info, and I hope it will go well. Thanks also for your info on the forum on how to handle the photos. I’ll give that a try.

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