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Advice for the Next USPS Historian

by Jenny Lynch on

Greetings! My name is Jenny Lynch, and I’m the historian of the United States Postal Service. I worked in the USPS Historian’s Office for twenty years before being promoted to the top job in 2012. My favorite thing about this job is that I get to learn something new, every day.

I’m not planning on retiring any time soon, and I don’t ride a motorcycle anymore, but you never know what life has in store. Last Tuesday, my seemingly perfectly healthy mother had a massive heart attack (grateful shout-out here to the ambulance crew and doctors who saved her life!).  Life is fleeting, and every new day is a gift.  One day, I will move on.

With these thoughts in mind, and in full acknowledgment that my mastery of the office is a work in progress, I’d like to give a few words of advice to my future replacement, the next USPS historian.

 Do’s and Don’ts

Do:

  •  Use qualifiers and hedge words to build factual statements when available records don’t support absolute statements. Some good ones are: known, apparently, according to, reportedly, as early as, by, and at least. For example, from our Women Mail Carriers papers: “The first known appointment of a woman to carry mail was on April 3, 1845. . . . At least 18 women reportedly carried mail on contract routes in the 1890s.”
  • Adopt a critical approach to published histories. Assume that most sources are not trustworthy. The most-repeated claims and “facts” are often the least likely to be true.
  • Cite your source when providing information to a customer. For example, “according to Hawaii, Its Stamps and Postal History (Meyer, 1948), Honolulu’s first Postmaster, Henry M. Whitney, was appointed in 1850.”
  • Strive to maintain the past tense when writing about history, and stick to the facts. In general, avoid speculating and making opinion statements.
  • Do the best you can with the resources on hand. You may have got the job partly because you’re a detail-oriented perfectionist. Don’t beat yourself up if you’re occasionally overwhelmed by competing priorities and half-done tasks. Just do the best you can.

Don’t:

  • Wear white, and wear beige or light gray only if you like taking risks. The day you wear white will be the day you receive a rusty circa 1900 cast-iron mailbox or a 19th century Post Office account book with a crumbling binding.  Dirt- or rust-colored clothing — with a pattern or print, if you can pull it off — is best at hiding stains. Stick to machine-washable clothing, if possible.
  • Wear skirts or dresses often, or at all. Pants are more practical. Efficiently managing artifacts and researching records in dusty archives at various shelf-heights may require bending and stooping.
  • Take notes only on where you find the answer to your research question. Also note down all the places you looked, but didn’t find the answer — otherwise you may turn over the same stone in the future, again and again.
  • Throw away your research notes. Save your notes. Even though 60% of your research results might not be immediately relevant, chances are they’ll come in handy someday.

From boxes to bicycles to buttons, this is just a sampling of postal artifacts.

 

That’s all I have for you, future me. Goodbye and good luck.

Jenny Lynch is the Historian and Corporate Information Services Manager for the United States Postal Service.

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