Continuing our staff profile series, we present Alex Christopher (Chris) Meekins, correspondence archivist in the Collection Services Section.
Describe your current job at the State Archives.
The main aspect of my job is managing the correspondence unit and answering patron inquiries from across North Carolina, the United States and internationally. From genealogical queries to questions from history students and professors, the correspondence unit handles the bulk of connecting off-site patrons with the collection. Correspondence is part of Public Services in the Collection Services Section and as a member of that team I also work the main reference desk assisting on-site patrons in connecting to the collection.
What project(s) are currently working on?
I have a number of projects that are ongoing – most recently I am completing a research project and subject finding aid for US Joint Resolutions (sent as amendments to the Constitution) in the Archives holdings – there have been 27 amendments and 6 additional proposed Joint Resolutions. It’s been interesting tracking those down and learning more about the amendment process.
How long have you worked at the State Archives?
I started work on January 1, 2001 – a holiday! I will have a dozen years in at the Archives in December which will also mark the end of my 25th year as a State employee. Prior to being the Correspondence archivist I was in the Public Services reference staff and was the person who managed the microfilm room.
Are you involved in any committees, special projects, DCR-wide programs, or professional organizations?
I am the symposium chairperson for the DCR Civil War Sesquicentennial Committee and am currently planning the Freedom Symposium which will be held in October 2013 at our co-host’s facilities in Winston-Salem. I am also on the State Archives Civil War Sesquicentennial committee contributing blog posts and speaking at some of our 2nd Mondays quarterly talks. I am also part of a DCR team working on a publication with a working title of “Witness to War” – concept architecture/Civil War cross-over.
Describe your educational or career background prior to working here.
I finished my undergraduate degree as a returning student at North Carolina State University. Originally an engineering major I transferred to History as a means to an end – a four year degree. Luckily I ran into a few professors who made me understand that History could be more than a means to end – it could be an end unto itself. After successfully completing my undergraduate degree I went to graduate school at NCSU in History and minored in Public History with an archives concentration. I finished classwork in December 2000 and wrote my thesis that summer and defended that fall.
What aspects of your job do you enjoy the most?
Working with the public is always the most rewarding part of my job – whether it is helping an historian track down a particular letter or diary or helping a genealogist find their ancestor’s will or other record. Connecting people with information is just a rush! I also enjoy speaking to groups about the Archives’ collections.
What skills or traits do you think are needed to be successful at your job?
Adaptability is a key skill when working reference either in person or through correspondence. As a staff member you must be able to switch gears seamlessly from working in Proprietary era documents to 20th century materials. One moment you are discussing the War of Jenkins Ear with a researcher and the next you are trying to find a World War II service record. A good dose of humility never hurts either.
Is there an aspect of your job that you never thought you would end up doing?
They never mentioned photocopying in grad school!
What work-related accomplishment are you most proud of?
I am proud of my work with the Archives Civil War 150th committee. I am also proud of my correspondence team – they do a bang up job day in and day out and always with a smile on their faces.
Have you received any specialized training, certifications, awards, or recognitions?
I have completed several supervisory workshop training classes and have recently completed the three year supervisor section of the DCR initiative to train future leaders in DCR (Leadership Development Program). My LDP group is the third group to complete the training. I have also had some advanced history training beyond my master’s degree.
What’s the most interesting or unusual thing you’ve come across in a collection?
It really is hard to say as there are many fascinating things in the Archives records. I guess tops would be the thing I found while processing in some Pasquotank County miscellaneous records. In the court material I found a packet of documents about a murder case. The packet was sealed in 1866 and had not been opened. Opening the packet, removing the string and paper, I came across a piece of cloth. Turned out that the piece of cloth was a mask with eye holes and a tie-string found near the murder victim. Wow, just wow!
Do you have a favorite collection or set of records?
I find the coroner’s inquest materials and the slave and free person of color papers to be interesting. Inquests can have all manner of interviews of people who were in the area of the dead body, etc. Often they give details of the social events of the period and so can be a window for social historians to use. The same for the series of papers that deal with slaves and free persons of color – the material is rich with social information.
What’s the most challenging reference question you’ve been asked?
Without a doubt it was a question associated with North Carolina’s declaration of secession – the Secession Ordinance. The document is not in the collection – I had to try and determine if it ever existed. I matched newspaper accounts with materials in the collection about the special convention held to secede. It was a difficult assignment but it taught me any number of good lessons. Although other resolutions from that convention are in the Archives holdings, the original Session Ordinance is not (although a record copy is).
What would you want people to know about our collections or services that may not be widely known?
We have a new online portal that allows out-of-state patrons to request materials and pay invoices electronically. It is still new but people are getting used to the service and taking advantage of it more and more. It saves the Archives postage and shaves time off the response time for inquiries – a win-win if ever there was one.
Do you have any special memories or anecdotes about working here?
When I first started working here in 2001 there were a group of dedicated temporary employees who worked on Saturdays. One of those told me, in response to my asking her to turn on the stacks lights, that she would be glad to do the first two levels but that she did not go on the third level by herself. She was sure one or more haints lived on that floor. Every now and then, when I am opening or closing the stacks and get to the third level the hair on my arms will stand straight up and goose-bumps pop-up all over. I think back to what that temporary employee told me and I just say – “it’s just me” and “goodnight” or “good morning,” as the case may be.