Finding Your Story at the Library

by Bill Peak

We don't talk about it much, but the years my wife spent working toward her doctorate were some of the hardest of our life. When I think of that time, I think of the softness at the back of Melissa's neck, for in those days that was what I most often saw of her, the intensity of her concentration walling her off from me, her head bent over some book or other, some shoebox full of 3 X 5 cards. Still there is one story from that time that we sometimes tell. It took place in a reading room at the Library of Congress where Melissa had gone to look up some obscure piece of information for her dissertation. Now you have to understand, a hushed and scholarly atmosphere has prevailed in the Library of Congress ever since that institution was first created in 1800, and so it came as something of a shock to my wife when the woman sitting at the table next to her burst suddenly, and rather loudly, into tears.

Not sure what she should do, Melissa leaned over and asked the woman if she were all right, if, perhaps, she could get something for her. Tears streaming down her face, the lady smiled and said, “No, it's all right. It's just that ... in this journal? In this journal I've just found Arthur's wife's ... I'm sorry, I've just found my great, great grandmother. I mean I've found out what her name was. Ida. It was Ida. Ida's been missing all these years, completely gone, and for some reason now that I've found her, I don't know ....” The lady looked back down at the document, shook her head, then spoke a final time. “Ida. Her name was Ida.”

Finds like this are common in the genealogy collection of the Talbot County Free Library's Maryland Room. Ancestors are discovered, their names restored to them, their location in time and space fixed. However briefly, they re-enter human consciousness, become again part of the great flowing river of human thought and experience.

But there's more to the Maryland Room than just genealogy, the documents and materials stored here represent one of the country's foremost collections of Marylandia. Don't ask me to pronounce that last word, but trust me, the place has got some great stuff-everything from a 1785 inventory of Thomas Wilson's household goods to a biography of local baseball great Harold Baines. The other day in the Maryland Room, while wearing white cotton gloves, I held the following document in my hands:

Talbot County, Maryland. January 1st 1849. Agreement between Orson Gore and Sarah E. Trippe, the said Orson Gore is to have negro boy Frank, belonging to said Sarah E. Trippe, for the term of five years, provided he is well treated, and furnished with good food & clothing during the said term, & he is not to hire or put him out to any one else. The term commencing at the 1st day of January 1849, and ending the 31st of Dec 1853.

The words are written out in a fine copperplate aged to the color of old blood. At the bottom of the page, Trippe and Gore's signatures are stacked indifferently one atop the other. Frank's signature was, of course, not required.

Who knows what similar dramas you might discover, whose names you might resurrect, amid the venerable documents awaiting you in the Talbot County Free Library's Maryland Room?