Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Falling Backwards Into Research

Every face has a story

I don't know this person, and she is definitely not a part of my family history. But, as a dedicated and curious researcher who loves biography, I'm always on the lookout for new writing subjects, whether related to me, or not.

I came across this photograph while browsing the U.S. School Yearbooks collection at Ancestry.com. Originally, I had looked at a 1938 yearbook from Brainerd, Minnesota (just because), and was surprised to see the kids looking at lot older than their age, especially the girls with their intensely dark red lipstick. They seemed tired and worn, somehow. They didn't smile, and they just didn't look happy. I thought I'd look to see how high school seniors closer to home compared.

Turning to the Seattle yearbooks, I selected one from a school that my own daughter had attended briefly, and began viewing. Among the senior pages from decades ago, I came across this face. I continued on, but found myself intrigued and went back to look at her face a few more times. Why? Perhaps her smile was so different from all the rest: relaxed, composed, sweetly mature, intelligent, and confidently happy, or perhaps it was the graceful turn of her neck, or that perky hairdo so typical of the 1930s-1940s era. Perhaps it was something I discovered behind her eyes and felt intuitively.

I read the caption next to the photograph: "[Name] - Cabinet; Honor Society; Assistant Copy Editor, Messenger; Art Editor, Arrow; President, Stamp Club; Usherette, Quill and Scroll." With all of those activities on her agenda, I surmised that she must have also been a popular senior with a dedication to study, social activities, and perpetual learning. A rather artsy girl, in fact.

I tried to hunt down more information about her through the census, but lacked enough information to be certain who she was, or who her parents were. On a lark, I "Googled" her name along with the word "art," and was surprised when I discovered an obituary that told me her married name, occupation, and the fact that she had graduated with degrees in art from the University of Washington, and was well known as a Pacific Northwest painter. The UW was the logical place for a Seattle student to get higher education, so that in itself was not surprising. But, it was interesting that we both had walked along some of the same halls of learning: the same campus, and most likely, the same building. Then, when I searched the University Libraries catalog for any mention of her name, I found that before her death, she had donated her personal papers and correspondence to the archives--just one floor below the section of the library where I work!

That's what I mean about falling backwards into research: progressing from an interesting, but anonymous photograph found during directionless searching, to the discovery that the person's lifetime achievements are represented in files just yards away and waiting for perusal... now, what are the chances of THAT? I could have picked any one of dozens of photographs in that yearbook or any other, but it was hers that captured my interest.

Providence? Weird coincidence? Whatever the reason, it is exactly this type of hook that writers and researchers crave, whether it leads to a viable project, or not.

What's that?
Are you wanting me to reveal the identity of "The Face"?
That would spoil all the fun, now wouldn't it?

Try it for yourself... find an interesting face and bring someone's story to life, if only during a few moments of discovery. You might be surprised by what you find.