The First-Person Project

Cate Brennan ’05

Laurel, MD

Archivist, National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, MD

History and American Studies

I’m from a small town in New Jersey. When I was in high school, I played flute in the band and I thought I was going to be a music major. I also liked the history classes I took, and then I took an American studies class – English and history back-to-back with collaborating teachers. I just thought that was really awesome. I loved that we read the literature that went along with a time period and it made sense in context. So when I started looking at colleges, I was hunting for places that had American studies programs. Keene State kept popping up. I was looking for a school where I would be comfortable and happy. I had applied to a couple of bigger schools but I was really looking for something small. When I visited Keene, I just fell in love with everything. I loved the town, I loved the artisans and the shops and the square at the top of Main Street. The campus was really nice and it all seemed accessible.

I loved Keene State. I took a lot of history and English and American studies classes, and then one of my professors sat me down and said, let’s talk about history. That’s how I ended up double majoring. I focused mostly on Colonial and Revolutionary history, and I took English classes and American studies classes that paired with that. I wrote papers on witchcraft for Professor John Lund and papers on women’s history for Professor Gregory Knouff; those papers got me into grad school.

I learned a lot. I was always learning at Keene State, no matter what I was doing. Through my involvement with honor societies and the honor council I got to see the bureaucratic side of an organization, too, which was just as helpful in real-life preparation as anything else. I was also program coordinator for Keene State Reads, a program out of the Community Service Office.

After college I took a year off and then enrolled in an MA/PhD combo program in history at the University of Maryland. I did my master’s work on early Atlantic history, taking that same interdisciplinary attitude that I’ve always had. I worked with my advisor and one of my classmates to develop a reading list for works that were Colonial in nature, but saw the touching of different empires throughout the Atlantic World. Not just the English coming to America, but the interplay of the English and the French and Native Americans going back to Europe and being treated as other and commodities and exotic.

I focused my work on culture and on religion. I’ve always been interested in witchcraft and the cultural questions around it. Where does the Enlightenment actually start in England, and how much does that influence what’s happening? So I started there with witches and then spun into vampires, werewolves, and mermaids – and my dissertation looks at how Enlightenment ideology both challenged and fueled discussions about each of those. For instance, there were reports that Columbus had encountered mermaids, and that John Smith had similar encounters. This all led to a cultural discussion that permeates pop culture and that, by the early 20th century, becomes American folklore. I’m trying to put this story together in a different way. It’s a work in progress.

While I was a full-time grad student, I needed a summer job. A professor who is an archivist helped me get part-time work in the National Archives in Washington, DC. I was still taking classes and working as an instructor at the university, but as my school commitments lessened, I began working more at the archives – and asking questions about the people I worked with: what did they do, did they like it, and was it a career? Eventually, I landed a full-time position in the National Archives facility in College Park, Maryland.

I like working with people and I also like working with records. I started as an archive technician and have worked my way up to an archivist job. It’s a career that I love. It’s rewarding and I’m supper happy to be here. We have a lot of people with library science degrees, but we also have a lot of people with history degrees – it helps to put things into context. People come in, they say, “I’m doing a research project on this topic; this is what I’ve already researched; how can you help me?” So I have to be able to understand what they’re talking about and put that into the broader context of how the federal government intersects with their project. That’s really what I do every day.

People come in with great projects. A lot of our researchers come from overseas, and they’re working on big projects on American foreign policy. It’s really exciting to see them work through their project until they find that we have exactly what they want. We also help them through the disappointment of learning that we only keep about one to three percent of federal government records that are designated as permanent. Sometimes what people are looking for just is not going to be here.

Finding what people are looking for is sometimes surprisingly easy. Some of it is just learning where things are and learning how to use our database effectively. Sometimes people do come in with really obscure requests, and sometimes I find the obscure things and it just blows my mind that we kept them and that someone created this document that I’m holding from 250 years ago. That’s really, really fun to do. A lot of people visit our downtown facility for military service and pension records from the Revolutionary War on. And a lot of it has been digitized – we have the muster roll from the Revolutionary War and all of the service records and pension records from the pension office from the Civil War – mothers and wives writing in that their sons and husbands have died in the war and they need payment.

Some of those files are really extensive – hundreds and hundreds of pages of correspondence plus original marriage certificates and birth certificates. One woman’s husband had sent home a dead critter that he caught in his tent, and she sent it back to the pension office as proof of her husband’s service. We still had it in the records!

Researchers have to go through security and an orientation, and then they drop their stuff in a locker before they are allowed to come upstairs to our research complex. We have hundreds of visitors every day, so we’re a well-oiled machine. They come and talk to me and my colleague in our consultation room, and then we have staff who go and get the records the visitors want. Most of our records are open and available, but we do keep some records and artifacts in a treasure vault – really old maps, really old documents, treaties, and important documents with presidential signatures. Not all the presidential signatures are in a special vault, though. I find FDR signatures all the time – all of the correspondence, everything that went across his desk, he’d initial or sign.

I think I’ve found my life’s work. What’s the career trajectory for someone at the National Archives? It varies, depending on what you do. It’s nice to know that I have opportunities and it’s also nice to know that I enjoy what I do every day. It is challenging. Sometimes people ask very hard questions, but trying to figure out how to help them is really great. Sometimes people will ask something really obscure, like “I’ve heard that on this particular date, someone from the Department of Treasury turned a document over to someone at the Department of State, and I want to know why that happened.” That’s where I would go to the finding aids that we’ve got to try and track down correspondence retired by the agencies.

Outside of work, I like to explore. My boyfriend and I are both history nerds, so we benefit from living in the DC area where there are always museums and historical sites to visit. We like setting out and finding new hiking trails, too. We both spend our work days inside, so it’s fun to get out and try something new.

One cool thing I did last year was serve as a judge in the national finals of National History Day, which the University of Maryland hosts. Middle and high school kids have a competition to put together a history project, and they compete at school, county, and state levels. I got to judge exhibits for middle school and high school, and they did such fantastic work. I was blown away. It was another one of those moments where I was really glad I do what I do. I’m going back for the 2017 round too!