At work today we had a group of fourth graders visiting from one of Hartford’s elementary schools. We had half an hour in which to introduce them to primary source materials. My supervisor, Brenda, and I created an exercise that included using city directories from the early 1900s.
If you are not familiar with city directories, you should be. They are awesome and we really need to bring them back. Similar to a phone book, they list residents of the city during a given year, along with their job, work location, and home address. The format of the directories would change from time to time, but the ones we were using today also have a street index, listing the head of household at each house number on the street.
The kids were supposed to look up a street, find the names of three residents, and then look up the residents in the main portion of the directory to learn more about them. One of the groups I was assisting looked up a man who was an “elev. op.” Uncertain what this stood for, they asked me for help. Although there are some definitions explained in the directory, this one was not. When I told them the man was an elevator operator, I received a bunch of puzzled looks. I continued to tell them that there used to be people who would press the elevator buttons for you. A boy in the group turned to me and said, “That sounds like a minimum wage job.” I had never thought about it that way.
Another fun moment was when Brenda introduced me as an archivist and asked if anyone knew what an archivist does. One very enthusiastic girl raised her hand, and when called upon, said that an archivist is someone who researches arcs. Have to give her points for trying!