Ed. note: This post is part of the Spotlight on Commerce series highlighting the contributions of current and past members of the Department of Commerce during Women's History Month.
Guest blog post by Sharon Tosi Lacey, Ph.D., Chief Historian, U.S. Census Bureau
“The farther backward you can look, the farther forward you can see.”
As a historian, I spend much of my time buried in long-forgotten documents of the past. It can be tedious work—hours of scanning endless pages of small type and scrawling handwriting while searching for a single name, date, or sentence. It is always satisfying to find that one elusive item that allows me to declare, “Yes, this is absolutely a fact!” However, there is no guarantee this discovery even exists. As our predecessors tended to be less meticulous in matters of records keeping, archival storage, and even basic spelling, there is always the possibility that an answer lies tantalizingly just out of reach. Historical research is like working a large, never-ending puzzle with ever-changing rules. Consequentially, hours of research may turn up nothing.
It is tempting, and all too easy, to get lost in the ephemera. When scanning old newspapers, my eyes often drift to the surrounding articles. These lures sidetrack me into wasting precious moments reading reports of social events, local scandals, and long-forgotten political debates. Because of my natural nosiness – my inquisitiveness, rather – I crave learning about these strangers’ lives, even if only in tidbits. Suddenly, I am lost in a different world – one that is foreign, yet completely familiar. It is comforting to realize that the world has always been chaotic, scary, and unpredictable. Yet, throughout time, civilization has survived, never halting its forward march. It is important to remember that history is larger than a single person or event and that everything is a part of our larger, shared story.
I did not plan to be a historian. In fact, I wish I could say that I mapped out the plan for my life and followed it. Instead, I just learned to say “yes” to whatever opportunity came my way and followed where it took me. I would never have predicted my path would lead to the U.S. Census Bureau.
As an eight-year-old, I decided I would go to West Point. My two oldest brothers had gone there and I had to prove that I could do it too. While I was there, my major was definitely not history. After achieving this first goal, I was off to the U.S. Army where I expected to have a long, unbroken career and travel around the world. Well, I got to travel, but then kids happened (four of them). I realized that I wanted to be home with them more than I wanted the Army career, so I transferred to the Army Reserves. I settled in to be a wife and mom (with one weekend a month to be with “grown-ups” at my Reserve unit). Eventually, I obtained a Master’s Degree in Education and planned to start teaching when the kids were older.
After 9/11 happened, the Army mobilized me back onto active duty for what was supposed to be six months. It turned into 13 years. Every time I got to the end of one tour, they offered me something else that sounded interesting. Time after time, I would say “yes,” and before I knew it, another year had passed. We were able to stay in the Washington, DC area, despite my occasional overseas deployments, and I saw no reason to uproot my kids again. Along the way, I had the chance to get a Ph.D. in History from the University of Leeds in my spare time (yes, with four kids and a full-time job – clearly I hated having any free time).
When my Army commitment finally ended, I realized that it was time to find my grown-up job and maybe justify the time and money I had spent on acquiring my history degrees. Fortunately, the Census Bureau had an opening for a Chief Historian and I was lucky enough to get the position. I can honestly say that I wake up every morning excited to go to work and dive into the puzzles of the past. I have a great team and supportive leadership that encourages us to explore new ways to tell the story of the Census Bureau, its people, and, of course, the United States of America.
I have been lucky in that I have had many people to inspire and guide me along the way – some men, some women, some who are in my life directly, and some of whom I only know through studying their lives.
I wish I had some definitive words of wisdom to share, but everyone must find their own path in their own way. All I can advise is to jump in with both feet, learn the power of saying ”yes,” and do not be afraid to head into the unknown sometimes. As that master of succinctness, General George S. Patton, declared, “Accept the challenges so that you can feel the exhilaration of victory!”