A Conversation between Barbara Hibbert, Reference Room Director and Ken Cobb, Assistant Commissioner, January 17, 2018

KRC:  Barbara, will we see you on Saturday morning?

BH: I’ll be here on the 20th, for our first Saturday—after that, once in a while. I think you’ll see some of our other archivists at the desk on Saturdays going forward.

KRC:  How long have you been doing this?

BH:  Former Commissioner Idilio Gracia-Pena hired me in February 1982, to design forms. I was finishing up at the New York School of Printing [a vocational high school]. I think they called it a work-study program—I would go to school until 1 p.m. and then head down to the Tweed Courthouse. When we moved to 31 Chambers, I also helped out in the darkroom printing pictures. I was hired full-time in 1984. One day around then I went into the reference room to help Carol with the genealogy work. And that was it. I never left.

The old research room at the Tweed Courthouse.

KRC:  Yes, Idilio Gracia-Pena was the Archives Director from 1976 to 1990, and he was great at finding all sorts of programs to get staff for the Archives. Mayor Dinkins appointed him Commissioner of DORIS in 1990. The Archives was located in Tweed from 1979 to 1984, and “Carol” is of course our Carolyn Dixon—she started around the same time as you did and retired in 2016.

KRC:  What’s the biggest change you’ve seen since you started?

BH:  The computer! Now you can search everything on-line. When I first started it was only microfilm.  And these were manual machines—you had to crank the rolls by hand!

KRC:  Yes, we do still have a lot of microfilm, but we’re planning to make the vital records we digitized available to our patrons in the reference room—so we’ll see fewer of the little reader machines and more computer terminals. And we’re just gearing-up to digitize the marriage license records (1908-1949).  

The 1905 marriage certificate of future president and first lady Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Eleanor Roosevelt (they were distant cousins) witnessed by then sitting president and first lady Teddy Roosevelt and Edith Kermit Roosevelt. NYC Municipal Archives.

BH:  Also, it seems to me that genealogy is a much bigger deal now than it was when I started in the 1980s.

The marriage certificate of the gangster Meyer Lansky, witnessed by his partner-in-crime Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel in 1929. NYC Municipal Archives

KRC:  I always say it’s the number one hobby in the U.S. And lately I’m noticing that we’re receiving many more requests for vital record search and copy service from the U.K., Australia, New Zealand and Europe.

KRC:  What are you looking forward to in 2018?

BH:  Digitized tax photos!  I’m told that we’ll have them in six months. We like helping people find their pictures, but the microfilm is so horrible.

KRC: Yes, we have contracted with a vendor to digitize all 720,000 1940 tax photos. That will be a big relief to all concerned.

KRC:  What advice do you have for a beginning family historian?

BH:  Start with what you know. Or start with a record that you do have; even if it’s just one ancestor’s birth certificate, or marriage certificate. We can use that to find other records. Also, I always recommend that you work backwards in time.

Chief Medical Examiner report for inventor Nikola Tesla, who died in the Hotel New Yorker in 1943. NYC Municipal Archives.

KRC:  What is the most satisfying part of the job?

BH:  Sometimes we can really make a difference. I helped a lady find a death record of a grandparent from our OCME collection [Office of the Chief Medical Examiner]. The lady had medical problems and she found out that the grandparent had the same condition. She cried. It was a big deal for her.

KRC:  I’ve received many letters of appreciation for your good service. And, yes, the OCME series which dates back to 1918 can provide useful details about a death. The death certificate will indicate whether the OCME examined the body or conducted an autopsy—generally only if the death was unattended by a physician, or if it was unusual or suspicious.  

KRC:  What are some common problems...  and what advice can you give?

BH:  When people cannot find a birth certificate of an ancestor they come to us and say, “I know she was born in NYC… She had a passport! …. She must have had a birth certificate! … Why can’t I find it?” And we have to say that sometimes the doctor or midwife did not report the birth to the Health Department and that lots of people never had a birth certificate. We tell them to try for another record, like a marriage, or a census to confirm the year of birth.

The 1925 death certificate of "Baseball Magnate" Charles Ebbets, owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers.

KRC:  The census will also list siblings, and their ages. And with luck one of the siblings might have had their birth reported and that will of course provide useful information about the parents.

KRC:  I am noticing in your monthly productivity report that you are sending out a lot more “letters of exemplification.” [The letter of exemplification certifies that the certificate copy is “true” copy of the original.] As far as I know they’re only necessary if a person is applying for dual citizenship. When did that start?

BH:  November 9, 2016.

KRC:  Okay, I get it.