Saturday, January 31, 2009

The Smell of Old Paper

Yes, online research is convenient and it gets better as more original source documents become available online every year--see my previous post for an example. But research conducted only with online resources or secondary documents is incomplete. Besides, researching original documents is just more fun and satisfying. First, there's the chase. You cannot flit around the world at the speed of Internet Protocol packets to find documents that exist only on paper--you must find them the old fashioned way, maybe by telephone, more likely by letter or personal travel. The most valuable documents, of course, are the ones no one else has studied because they are not indexed or even catalogued. Second, there is a pleasure in handling documents one, two, three centuries old. Their smell is unique, not musty--they've been in a climate controlled room--but pleasant. Then there is the penmanship. Few today can equal it, certainly not I. Third, there is that moment when you learn something that you're certain no one else in the world knows. Sure, maybe almost no one else cares, but someone does.

David Kokernot said, and many writers have repeated, that he served as an officer chasing smugglers in the Gulf of Mexico in the 1830s. He would have worked for the Collector of Customs in New Orleans who, in turn, worked for the Treasury Department in Washington. After a year spent searching for the federal documents that would be generated by that activity, I found correspondence between those two offices resting in a field office of the National Archives in Fort Worth, Texas. No amount of phone calls or emails had produced a catalog of the collection, which fills many boxes, until I walked into the archives on October 30, 2006. That catalog, which resided in the computer of one archivist at the time, nowhere else, saved me days of work.

David Kokernot did sail with the Revenue Cutter Service--once. The history of his service can be pieced together by careful examination of those correspondence files. Pictured here is just one letter between Washington and New Orleans that mentions charges against Kokernot and the officers of the Revenue Cutter Ingham. You'll have to go to Ft. Worth or buy my book to learn the rest of the story. Sorry, the book is not available yet, but here is a record of my progress on it.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Historical Research in Amsterdam

Here is an example of research, not frivolous, that can be done entirely online. It yields information, including photographs, providing color and context to light up descriptions of the Kokernot's family life in Amsterdam. It requires finding an address (in this case, of David Kokernot's mother's family), or at least a street; finding that location on an old map; and finding actual drawings from the time and photographs of the neighborhood with the original houses still standing.

An online source is the "name adoption registers." The Dutch were among the last western Europen countries to insist on hereditary surnames. Many used them already, but others, especially Jews, used a patronymic instead--their given name plus their father's given name. In 1812 all citizens were required to register their surnames. That document provides a snapshot of the family--parents, grandparents, children, even married daughters acquiring a maiden name--and included their address. An online database for Jewish Amsterdammers is here. Click "Search" at the top of the page and enter "Beugel" in the "New Adopted Name" box (David's mother's family adopted the name "van der Beugel"). A couple dozen names pop up, almost all kin to David's mother, who is "Beletje" on the last page, archive number 57C. Clicking on her shows her address as "lange Houtstraat," a street only two blocks long. The document for Betsy's (as we call Beletje) brother, Salomon, gives an actual address in archive number 81vB on the first page. He's at lange Houtstraat 8, which may be the same house or a different one, but in any case they are no more than two blocks apart.

Where was 8 lange Houtstraat? Modern maps are no help because the street no longer exists. A street map of Amsterdam from 1795 is available online at the city archives. Put 010094000928 into the search box and press "Zoek." Click on the only resulting map and zoom in to the small island at the coordinates between C and D and e and f. This is the Jewish Quarter. Lange Houtstraat bisects the small island and Korte Houtstraat (shown, but not named) bisects it again at right angles. A description of the Jewish Quarter around 1600 is here. Scroll down to "The First Meeting House."

What did the neighborhood and house look like? Again the Amsterdam Archives help. Enter 5221BT909307 into the search box for an architectural drawing of 8 Lange Houtstraat in 1885 and 010003012159 for a photograph of the street in 1930. Number 8 is the narrow building, two windows wide, on the near side of the large building on the corner. Zoom in if you are uncertain the building is over a century old and was the home of the van der Beugels in 1812.

This neighborhood was thoroughly cleared out during World War II and the city began tearing down the buildings in the 1950s. Amsterdam consumed two more decades deciding exactly what to place on the site. The canals on two sides of the island had been filled during the nineteenth century and have since been used as a popular flea market, the Waterlooplein. The streets Lange Houtstraat and Korte Houtstraat today underlay the city's new Opera House, visible on Google Earth at lat/lon 52.3674, 4.9015.

Countless hours can be squandered in the Amsterdam Archive's site searching for old photographs and sketches. High quality scans are available and they can be published with payment of a permissions fee.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Why this blog?

Technorati reported last summer that there were then 112 million blogs on the web. Surely we need one more, huh? Enough friends and strangers have asked when my biography of David Levi Kokernot will be available (bless 'em) that I hope this blog will help maintain their interest long enough to buy one when it's available. I'm also counting on my public exposure of my progress to temper my procrastination a little, thus improving that progress. It's here.

Still, I'm proud of my procrastination creativity, so I plan detail a few from time to time.

One of my favorite procrastinations is research. Not the serious, go-to-the-archives kind, but frivilous research. I easily spent twenty minutes trying to find a better number for the worlds' blogs to use in the opening sentence of this blog. That's frivilous. But I have learned a heck of a lot about historical research in my work on this biography, and I want to share some techniques and locations. I have more to learn, too. Please share yours with me, frivilous or otherwise.