Before he began volunteering at the National Archives II at College Park, Nate Reul pictured former President Franklin D. Roosevelt as a withered old man suffering from polio.
But the history graduate student has since learned that stashed away in rows upon rows of boxes are materials that can change his perspective on history.
“We came across some never-seen-before photos of FDR when he was assistant secretary of the Navy,” Reul said. “And he’s like, walking around. He looks very youthful.”
Discoveries like this keep volunteers at the National Archives II on their toes as they carry out their methodical, occasionally mundane duties, which range from annotating historical photos to scanning fragile historical documents with the utmost care. The Adelphi Road facility has about 100 volunteers, with between two to six students participating at any given time, said Judy Luis-Watson, the program coordinator.
“Most of the people involved here are, I would say, retired people,” Reul added.
While seasoned volunteers may have more experience, students are still entrusted with some of the most important projects, such as updating World War II finding aids — documents researchers use to look up the details of a specific collection of papers or records.
Volunteer Molly Marcusse, who is assigned to that project, recently made her own discovery. One day as the history and library science graduate student was sorting through a major project involving more than 19,000 boxes of materials, she learned Walt Disney animators who served in World War II documented their experiences with illustrations.
“I know a lot of people hear archives and historical material and just think that’s really boring,” Marcusse said. “But I really like work like this because you never know what you’re going to find.”
Much of the nation’s research materials, as well as a museum, are housed in National Archives in Washington. However, the facility near the campus contains a few exclusive collections, including Richard Nixon’s presidential materials and former President John F. Kennedy assassination records.
Having conducted research at both facilities, Reul found National Archives II to be newer and more modern. Some of the documents are, too — since many of the records are post-World War I, they require less preservation.
“I found that the staff at Archives II is more friendly and more open to you if you have questions,” Reul said. “Archives I, if you don’t do things the exact way that they want you to, they kind of flip out a little bit.”
Despite having their volunteer work in common, Reul and Marcusse are headed down two completely different routes. Reul set out for an archival experience, but said he’s learned that’s no longer the path he craves — though his volunteer work does provide a window into federal agencies and helps him build future contacts. Marcusse’s work at the archives directly relates to her future goals of working in archives or a museum after she graduates.
Although she didn’t enjoy history until graduate school, Marcusse said she’s since embraced learning about this country.
“It’s interesting for me to see the comparisons between what people were interested in in the past and what we’re still interested in now,” she said. “It seems like things have changed a lot, but when you look at the record, really, things aren’t all that different.”