Above: Jennifer, who works in The Foundling’s records department, looks at microfiche film of documents.
Update December 2018: The Foundling is still in the process of digitizing its records archive and anticipates the project will be complete in late 2019. Until then, records requests may be slightly delayed due to lack of access to chunks of records. We appreciate your patience during this time!
Hand-written leger books with fading yellowed pages sit within The New York Foundling’s records room in Queens, New York. The pages are filled with the names of babies who were left in the care of three Sisters of Charity who would then establish The New York Foundling in the late 1800s. The walls of this same room are lined with filing cabinets of admissions cards and microfiche with date ranges from the early 1900s to the 1980s. Every day former “foundlings” and their families reach out in search of answers about their past. Their requests could be for anything from, “I’m seeking info on my great grandmother,” to, “Do you have my grandfather’s baptismal certificate?” Sometimes it’s relatives looking to piece together their family trees. What happens when such questions come to The Foundling in the form of letters, emails and phone calls? Take a closer look at the inner workings of our records department.
Sorting Through the Past
The New York Foundling has records dating back to its first days in 1869, and it’s Jennifer’s job to sort through it all. Jennifer, along with one other part-time employee, connects people with information about their lives and lineage. The role is a good fit for Jennifer, who also works in The Foundling’s adoption and legal department. Once the department receives the call for information, she might respond asking for additional details that may help in her search. Aside from a name, the most important detail is a rough 2-year date range so staff can begin narrowing the timeline. “We can’t help them if they don’t have a date,” she explains. Depending on the date, Jennifer looks in the ledger books, the admission cards, or the microfiche. Sometimes it can take weeks to process a request, and fragments of info may filter in over time. The records staff may even need to defer to the New York Historical Society for help. Overall, the process requires a lot of patience, but it’s something Jennifer finds rewarding. “I like puzzles,” she admits.
Because of varying state laws on the release of certain sensitive documents, staff has to be incredibly thorough and careful when processing a request. Sometimes, the challenges arise when there’s too little information available, which can result in disappointment for families. While some understand, others process the emotions differently, which at times makes Jennifer’s job heartbreaking. “I get a lot of tears,” she says. But she remains positive — even when the results aren’t what families hoped for. “The Foundling’s here for you regardless.”
Seeing the Future
Processing such old records at The Foundling comes with its own set of obstacles due to outdated tools. Records department staff looks at microfiche on a 20-year-old machine that prints poorly and takes several hours to print documents for just one case. What’s more: the records staff has decreased from seven to two employees in recent years — all while they’ve seen a huge increase in the number of information requests. Jennifer attributes the spike to the popularity of ancestry websites, the advent of Facebook, and the themes on TV. “It’s just going to keep on growing.” Luckily, in 2018, The Foundling’s records archives will take a much-needed leap into the digital era as all of its aging documents are scanned and transferred to a cloud-based archive. The process is expected to begin in December 2017, starting with scanning handwritten and typed cards. It will progress to microfiche last. The entire project should take about one year, at which point all documents will be infinitely more accessible and quicker to print, meaning the ability to help more families in the years to come. Until then, Jennifer continues to bring heart to her work, filtering through papers for hours and deciphering the Sisters of Charity’s perfect Palmer-print cursive handwriting. It’s all worth it when she gets thank-yous and happy tears from those delighted families who feel like a missing piece has been found. “At the end of the day,” she says, “The New York Foundling is your history.” To reach our records department, call 212-206-4171 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.