genealogy

Why libraries matter

I admit it: I am not objective when it comes to libraries. In my opinion, libraries are awesome. They’re great resources of information and very democratic resources (anyone can access them).

They have provided hours of entertainment (and sometimes, refuge) for me. And I love books and information – learning, reading and growing.

So I found it very sad recently when I heard that the main library in Gary, Indiana is closing. It’s sad on multiple levels.

After all, Gary is an area that’s struggling in a way that’s unparalleled in this country (outside of perhaps Detroit). They’ve lost over 50% of their residents and a huge chunk of available work. For them to lose their main library? Is knocking a man when he’s down.

I can understand why they have to – the money simply isn’t there, and Indiana’s current state government is yanking nearly all remaining funding. And you have to see Gary to understand the level of decay – in some sections of town, it looks positively post-apocalyptic.

But I want to tell you why having a library matters. It’s a part of a community’s identity. It’s a source of pride.

That’s not just empty lecturing. I can tell you, in a very genuine way, that libraries can make a difference. I can say that about the Gary Public Library. It was where I found some incredibly helpful information.

I’ve been doing my family tree research for about a year now. And I’d been researching my grandparents’ lives and tracing their family – their parents (my great grandparents) and their siblings. Between my maternal grandmother and my paternal grandfather, there were 25 siblings, so it’s been a big project!

I’d figured out where most of my gram’s siblings had ended up, and even connected with some of their descendants – my mom’s cousins and their children, from my generation.

But one great-aunt remained mysterious. I knew little about her. My grandmother and mom are both gone, so I couldn’t ask them, and my aunt was helpful, but I still had some gaps in information. None of her information was coming up online.

Online records indicated she was living in California, and I happened to be in California this past winter, so I checked in the local library for her obituary. No luck.

What we did determine, from the obituaries of my great-grandmother and great-grandfather, was that at the time of their deaths, she’d been living in Gary.

So it was decided that on our next trip to Michigan City, we’d stop in Gary. And one rainy, bleary day this past winter, we did.

The library was dark and clearly had seen better days. The staff was incredibly helpful – they’d verified ahead of time that they held the newspaper from 1981 that I’d wanted to check. We went to the Indiana Room – a bit chaotic and disorganized, but filled with information. The appropriate microfilm cartridge was located.

I only had the month, not the day. So I searched an entire month’s film. And there, on the very last day, was my great aunt. She’d gone by her middle name (I’d been looking for Myrtle, but she’d been known as Ann) but it was definitely her.

It may not seem like a big deal, but it was to me. I’d found a huge branch of the family tree less than an hour from where I lived. I learned that great-aunt Ann had 10 children, including a multi-award winning high school football coach in Indiana. I was able to solve the mystery of a few photos in our family photo collection with no names or only nicknames written.

And best of all, I’ve connected with several members of my family and gotten to know them. And that’s a really nice feeling to bring that full circle. I think my mom, my grandma, and especially my great grandparents would be proud.

And of course, none of that would have been possible without the library – a library that is closing at years’ end.

For many of us, libraries have always been there. But in this evolving information age, we can’t assume they still will be.

Don’t take your local library for granted. Support them with your money* or your time. Let your local and state governments know how important they are.

You may not need a library every day. But invest in it and all of the information it holds. You never know when you’ll need it, or what door it will open.

*NOTE: I did donate money to the Gary Library for their help on my project. 

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The eccentric genealogist?

This tree is only going as far back as great grandparents? Sheesh. Amatuers!

I’ve been working on my family tree for close to a year now, and as you can tell by my previous entries (or my Facebook photo and news feed) I’ve really taken an interest in genealogy.

It’s a really fun, interesting project for me and I am glad for all it’s brought me: connections to some new-to-me family members, a better understanding of where we came from, and a peek into life as it was years ago.

But if you’re researching your family tree? Prepare to become a bit of an oddball….or at least be perceived as one.

This hit me as I was reading a newsletter for a genealogical society I belong to. One of the board members described a mentor who inspired her to do research: “All we knew was that my uncle was an oddball who took photos at cemeteries.”

I mean, it IS kinda weird if you think about it, if you’re looking from the outside in. (Now I understand those odd looks my family’s given me!)

Some things must look odd to non-genealogical types:

Obituaries. I don’t know how to say this any plainer: I collect obituaries.

Why? Well, obituaries are (outside of the Census) the easiest documentation to get regarding a relative or ancestor. With some research and a little knowledge about where to look, you can find obituaries dating back to the mid-1800s. (More official documents, like birth and death certificates, require more substantial proof from you that you’re related….which is often what you’re looking to prove with the document you’re ordering!)

They’re not always 100% accurate – it’s only as accurate as the source that provided the information – but it’s often a great place to start building a framework.

I am totally NOT doing this.

I’m certainly not celebrating anyone’s death, and I wish I would have met or been able to talk to these folks. But I’m really happy when I find this information.

I recently found an obituary on a great-aunt that I’d spent months trying to locate. That ONE obit literally brought down an entire brick wall to reveal the names of her children, and I learned about an entire family I didn’t even know existed before. Two libraries helped me find that obituary and other related articles to complete the picture.

NOTE: That’s one of a million reasons that all of us should support our local libraries – not just with dusty old books from your basement, but some cash dollars to help sustain them and all of the wonderful work they do for the WHOLE community!

Graveyards. Yeah, cemeteries are certainly not Party Central. Most people want to stay away from them (we’re all headed there someday) and only go when needed or obligated.

I’m a bit queasy about it myself. But I have to admit: Sites like FindAGrave.com have been really valuable in helping me bridge a gap when obituaries haven’t been available or easy to find. Knowing a date of death or where someone died is really helpful – to find out about them, as well as finding out more about their ancestors or descendants.

Also not doing this.

History geek. I admit it; I’ve become more of a history geek than I ever was before. I used to roll my eyes at those people who would do Civil War reenactments. But truth be told, I’m only a few degrees away from there!

I did well enough in my History classes at high school and in college. But I was always the 70s and 80s pop culture kid; out with the old and in with the new. So this is quite a 180 for me in my thinking. I’ve become interested not only in my own history and my family history, but also about how that fits into a bigger context (our state and our country).

I’ve posted before about the working conditions that my ancestors lived through. Enough men on both sides of my family died in the mills and mines to have started their own union. One man had his head crushed by the claws on a crane. That’s enough to put your stuck-in-traffic, bad Monday morning into some SERIOUS perspective.

So, yeah, OK. I get it. It’s all a bit odd. But only just a little bit. There are far stranger and more socially awkward things to do. You’ve seen Hoarders, right?

Ancestors and Family Trees, Part Four: Advice for beginners

This is the final post in a four part series. You can also click these links to see Part One, Part Two and Part Three.

For the final post in this series, I wanted to share some great advice I got from members of the Cambria County Genealogy Project mailing list. They were kind enough to share their ideas with me, and now I’ll share them with you.

SOLVING MYSTERIES

Forget everything you ever learned about spelling, because even if “my family always spelled our surname this way” it doesn’t mean that’s how it appears in the records.  The Irishman speaking to the German wrote down what he thought you said and may not have asked for a clarification of information.

If you can’t find someone by their last name but believe they lived in the area, try searching by the first names of different family members, hopefully there will be at least one person not named John, Joseph, Catherine or Mary.  On the other hand, the fact that a family had a son named Edward J., age 2; John E., age 9; Teddy, age 21; and E.J., age 33; appearing on four decades of census records doesn’t mean there were four sons, it may be one son going through name changes, the dates the census was taken, and who was providing the information to the census takers.  On the other hand, if you wonder why the family moved every few years, maybe they didn’t, and it was the county or township lines being redrawn.

Question authority.  I’ve transcribed thousands of headstones, census and church records, wills, and obituaries. And no matter how careful I’ve been, mistakes have occurred.  I’ve had to resurrect the dead (hey, I’m alive, that’s my birthdate on my parents headstone), move graves, perform sex changes, divorce siblings, add second and third marriages, and collapse down 3 generations of a family to 1 (father, son, grandfather all the same person in different time periods).

Don’t believe everything you read on the internet.  “Wow, this family research is easy, I found my family in just 3 weeks, I’m related to six different people on the Mayflower and we also appear in the Domesday Book.”  (Editor’s note: Not quite that easy!)  None of my families came through Ellis Island, it wasn’t opened until 1892.  Mine arrived between 1830 and 1870.  Several came through the Port of Baltimore, but not all the records are there.  And no, the immigration official didn’t force your great-grandfather to change the spelling of the family name, time and local speaking patterns probably had a hand in that.

Join the mailing lists for the county(s) where your family lived.  Yes, some barely generate any traffic and others slam you with emails, none that are about your families.  Remember, the delete key is your friend.  But it only takes one email to help you scale that brick wall.  If at all possible, document where you obtained the information, even if it’s you personally adding your parents, siblings, grandparents, etc.  Add more than just a name, birth and death date, add color to your family.  Dad was in the army during WWII and fought in the African and Italian campaigns and received the EMCO and Bronze star; great-uncle George was gassed in WWI, he died at the dinner table because he choked to death on a biscuit; great-uncle Joe and aunt Anna eloped to Maryland, they had 3 children and he died in a mining cave-in in 1931.  (Lisa)

CHECK YOUR SOURCES

(As a journalist, I can relate to this one – there’s a saying for journalists that goes “if your mother says it’s sunny, go outside and check!”)

Just because it’s ‘carved in stone,’ don’t stop there. Get another source.

For example, tombstones. Sometimes they are purchased years later, when the family has the money to get one. And along those same lines – just because it’s an official document doesn’t make it true. My great grandfather’s official date of death was 27 May 1937. However, his obituary appeared in the newspaper printed the day before. (Editor’s note: I can testify to this one; my great grandfather’s first and middle names were reversed on his obituary and, I believe, on his gravestone as well.)  (Diann)

THE CENSUS

When viewing available records, it’s important to understand the environment in which the records were created.

Think about the census takers walking around the town carrying this oversized book, knocking on doors, asking people when they were born, how many children are still alive (at a time where many children born to a family did not survive). Factor in it’s a hot June day or a cold January, or while you’re traveling on horseback into the hills of Cambria County. (Editor’s note: Johnstown is in the Allegheny Mountains, and is filled with steep hills and valleys.)

Talking to people who don’t speak English or not the same language as the census taker, have a fear of government from their home country and for all this you get paid a penny per household.  I’m surprised anyone got counted correctly. I try to remember what the information gathering process must have been like back then when I review census information or any old documents. My hats off to the census takers for what they did accomplish. 

A REAL PAGETURNER

(For anyone who thinks this can be boring and dry….)

Researching family history is better than any murder mystery book I have ever read. Keep your mind open and just remember some things were treated differently then. I remember a fellow researcher once mentioned that her grandmother told her that the first child could come at any time, the rest took 9 months! People who married outside of their religion sometimes were shunned from their family – even when they lived next door!  (Mary)

Be prepared for some great juicy stories. Some of the family legends might NOT be true, but you will find other stories, completely unexpected, that ARE true. In our tree we have found more alcoholics than I ever suspected, a polygamist with 7 wives (a Mormon in 1880), a murder/suicide (a farmer husband killing wife and self in 1928 as the economic depression was hitting farmers), an assassination of a man on his own front porch, a young woman in a Union area who was a Confederate spy, a brother who died en route to the funeral of his sister; and three State Representatives. Oh, and a woman who was descended from the illegitimate daughter of my great-grandfather’s second wife (and unknown in all our censuses)!  (Carolyn)

MAKE A LIST AND CHECK IT TWICE

Document.  Document.  DOCUMENT.

Source.  Source.  SOURCE.

BACK UP YOUR FILES!  Include your source documents.

Don’t assume, because it’s on the internet or in a book, that it’s 100% accurate.  Try to get your hands on a copy of the original source AND KEEP THE COPY.  A document may be on the Internet today, but it doesn’t mean it will be on there tomorrow.   Print it off.  Save a copy to your computer.  Either is fine, but both is better.

Protect your sources by printing them on acid-free paper (most printer paper is acid free now), and keeping the papers in page protectors.

Realize that your filing methods may change a dozen times as your collection grows.

Keep a record of what you have, where you’ve looked, and what you want.  It will keep you from wasting precious time and money in the future.

My personal preference is to check all the “free” places before spending money on the “pay per view” places. Join mailing lists for the surnames you’re researching and the locations.  Sit back a few days to get a “feel” for the list, then ask any questions you might have. (Lynne)

AND MY TWO CENTS…..

A few final thoughts from my own experience:

Create a “may be related” folder, either a paper folder or a virtual one on your computer. When you’re doing research and stumble across someone who has the same last name in the same area, you may not find an immediate connection to the person. But those connections are sometimes revealed if you go a few generations back, and you’ll find that someone who wasn’t connected to your immediate ancestry line may be a distant cousin. This has happened to me several times.

Be open minded. You may find out about things that may change how you see a parent, grandparent or ancestor. Take a deep breath before you dive in and remember that this will provide you a fuller picture of that person’s life. Be prepared for surprises, both good and bad.

If you’ve got more suggestions and advice, please share it in the comments!

Ancestors and Family Trees, Part One: Laying the foundations

Over the next several days, I’ll be featuring a series of posts here in this blog that are all about genealogy and family tree research. I’ve got a lot of information to share and will hopefully create an interesting space for discussion.

But before I explore those details, I wanted to start at square one: Why are we searching? How are we searching in today’s social media landscape? And what is Ancestry.com, anyway?

As people, we’ve been creating family histories and genealogies for centuries. Families in China and in some European countries regularly have genealogies dating back to the 12th century, while some date back even farther.

But there’s no doubt that researching your family tree has become a popular trend over the last few years. That’s probably due to one of several shows on television raising people’s awareness of the art of genealogy.

This year, there was NBC’s Who Do You Think You Are, an adaptation of a successful British series that’s been running for a few years. That show profiles notable public figures and traces their family histories. This past season profiled Susan Sarandon and Lisa Kudrow, among others.

There’s also several shows that have been done for PBS by Professor Henry Louis Gates. He’s done a series on African-American family histories, and in this past year, also profiled (in the show Faces of America) notable figures – Meryl Streep, Stephen Colbert and American-born Queen Noor of Jordan among them – tracing their histories back centuries.

But if you didn’t see either of those shows, it’s almost impossible to have missed the commercials for the primary Web site for genealogists: Ancestry.com. In the last year, commercials for Ancestry.com have been a constant fixture on TV.

I’ve seen a lot of material for beginning genealogists that teach you some of the traditional methods and try to give you tips on how to search online. But I wanted to discuss what people’s expectations are when they begin searching – and whether Ancestry.com is a good tool for everyone.

What is Ancestry.com?

Ancestry.com has been around in one form or another for about 30 years. They’ve become more visible on the Web, and evolved into the site we see today, in the last five to ten years.

In its current state, it’s pretty user friendly, especially for beginners. (I briefly tried the site in 2005, and it didn’t seem to have nearly as much information nor was it as user friendly.)

There are mixed opinions about some information on Ancestry.com, particularly the information that draws from other users. (While a substantial amount of Ancestry’s information comes from the Census as well as death indexes and other government databases, a significant portion also draws from the family trees of other users.)

I draw the comparison to Wikipedia: Wikipedia is a wonderful project, and it’s got a great deal of information that’s really, really useful. But it’s best used as a starting point – if you’re a kid doing a book report, it would be unwise to use Wikipedia as your only source.

Ancestry.com is a little different than Wikipedia in that it’s also a repository for information. So you really have to be careful what you save to your tree – and verify those details. (We’ll get into that in greater detail in another post.)

I don’t want to discourage anyone from using Ancestry.com – I’ve made some really great finds on it and have probably saved hours of time I might have otherwise needed to spend sifting through microfilm in a library.

How Serious is Your Search?

Another thing you should really think about before jumping into a search is what you’d like to accomplish.

Why? Well, Ancestry.com is a useful site, but it’s also about a dollar a day to use and access all of its resources as a paid member. Information from other sources can also cost money as well. It’s not always terribly expensive – I’ve ordered obituaries from libraries for $3 a piece – but if you’re searching for hundreds of people on your tree, those costs can add up.

Some people just want to be “casual” genealogists. They might just want to go a generation or two back in their own immediate family. Maybe they’re trying to find Grandpa’s WWII service information, or want to see grandma’s name in the census. In that case, it would probably be easier to go to a local library. Many libraries have free access to Ancestry.com. Libraries also have other resources that come with a library card, like access to HeritageQuest.

You can also use (from home) FamilySearch.org, which is a database used by Ancestry.com and that was created (and is maintained) by the Church of Latter-Day Saints.

Local libraries might also have a yearbook with pictures of your parents or grandparents.

But if you get the “bug” to do a more serious search – and it’s pretty contagious – you’re going to want to go farther back. Just understand a few things:

  • It’s an investment – of time, of money, of a lot of reading and analyzing.
  • If you’re looking for a project with a definitive flow, or a definitive ending, this one is NOT IT.

When I really jumped into this project five months ago, I knew I would be immersed in research and putting the pieces together. I had no idea that only five months later, I would have almost eleven hundred names on my tree!

For me, though, what I get in return is worth the effort. I’m learning more about my family every day, and seeing and understanding new things about my parents. I’ve learned of the existence of family members that prior to this year, I didn’t even know existed!

And I’m creating something that my siblings, their children, and all of my extended family can draw from.

At the end of the day, understanding and learning about other members of my family also makes me understand a bit more about myself. And that’s a great gift, too.