Remembering Granny: When Secondary Sources Become Primary

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of guest posts highlighting the ways in which intergenerational connections have inspired young genealogists. To learn more about how the NextGen Genealogy Network encourages young genealogists to build connections between all generations, see the NextGen Connection Challenge


Often in family history research, we get caught up in names, dates, and places of people we never knew, but this time in my searching I found more about a connection I had to someone I knew well.

I remember growing up that my Granny, Dorothy Marie (Verbeke) Smith, was into genealogy. Unfortunately, she had died before I became deeply involved in the field myself. We never really got the chance to talk about our shared family history while she was alive. I do recall her occasionally telling stories around the dinner table about the struggles her father (my great grandfather) went through as a recent Belgian immigrant trying to start a new life in America. I was young, so I listened intently, but I never thought to write any of these stories down. I did eventually get a copy of her genealogy binder after her death, but it was mostly filled with names and dates and didn’t have any deeper details of our ancestor’s lives.

Recently, I was looking up her obituary, and when I typed her name into Google, I noticed among the search results a page that is very familiar to me from working on genealogy for others: Ancestry.com’s RootsWeb mailing list archiver. These pages are collections of mailing lists and exchanges between researchers working on particular surnames and family lines. They often provide hints, though some more useful than others, about shared ancestors and family legends. Typically, when coming across these pages through frantic Google searching of surnames and their spelling variations, I am very cautious about the information found within. These are, after all, secondary sources, and most things don’t usually provide citations other than an occasional reference to a vital record or paper tucked away in a courthouse. In fact, I spend a lot of time trying to debunk the family myths that these sites can perpetuate.

This time, however, on my screen, I saw my own granny’s old email address associated with many of these posts on RootsWeb. While her married name was common, her maiden name, Verbeke, revealed her Belgian heritage and she posted frequently looking for leads on this family in Watervliet, Belgium.

Reading through these posts, I learned about alleged family rivals between my Verbeke ancestors and the family my great grandmother eventually married into. She recounts her successes in borrowing microfilm from the Family History Library and struggles with ordering a vital record from Springfield, Illinois. From these secondary sources, I was able to learn firsthand about her quest to trace her Belgian roots. I am thankful I can now have this insight about her research even though we can never talk about it in person. These pages became primary sources that document her life and her hobby that also help me connect with her after her death through our shared enthusiasm for genealogy.

This experience was also a good reminder of how important it is to connect with older family members and document their stories the next time you see them. Something as simple as making a recording on your smartphone while talking to relatives can create new primary sources about your family’s past to preserve for future generations.


Kristin Britanik is a genealogist and digitization professional based out of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. At her day job, she is in charge of digitization at the Andy Warhol Museum. Previously, she worked in archival digitization for Ancestry.com and was a researcher at the New England Historic Genealogical Society. She writes on her blog at deepgenes.com.

Faces of NextGen LIVE! Meet Melanie McComb

The NextGen Genealogy Network’s Faces of NextGen LIVE! is a new feature hosted by Education Coordinator Eric Wells. In its first recorded interview, get to know Melanie McComb, a young genealogist from New York:

Want to say hello to your fellow young genealogists during a fun and informal interview with Eric? Let us know at info@tnggn.org. Don’t forget to bookmark our YouTube Channel to keep up with the latest on Faces of NextGen LIVE!

Faces of NextGen: Meet Becky Zoglmann

Becky Zoglmann, 27, Georgia

Why genealogy? I have always been interested in history–my grandad lived through World War II and has always told me stories that fascinated me. I was also lucky enough to attend a school with a long, rich history and beautiful old buildings. My interest in genealogy started in one of the history classes I took at this school. I started to research my family tree in my spare time as a teenager, but only began to take it seriously as a future career a couple of years ago. The sense of satisfaction I get when I help other people find ancestors they knew nothing about, makes it all worth it.

What are you working on this week? This week, I am working on a side project that I have been researching for the last few months entitled “The Donoghues of East London.”  My great-great-grandparents were Irish immigrants living in the East End of London in the late 1800s. In an attempt to differentiate between my ancestors and other families who share the same name, I decided to research all the different Donoghue families who lived in the same area and time period. It has been fascinating discovering how they are all connected.

What’s the number one secret to your success in genealogy? Consistency and determination have been key in my genealogy journey. It can be very frustrating hitting brick walls in your research, but consistently revisiting your research and reevaluating it can uncover things you have overlooked before.

What superpower would you want to help you uncover your family history? The ability to time travel! Then I would be able to go back and see for myself how my ancestors lived, what they looked like and hear their stories.

What are we most likely to find you doing when you’re not researching family history? When I am not researching, I am taking of my two young children who are my whole world, spending time with my husband of seven years and our four cats and binge watching Netflix shows!

Anything else you’d like to share? Take advantage of social networking! There are hundreds of genealogy groups on Facebook that specialize in all different areas–DNA, photo recognition, etc. I have found so much great information from these groups.


The NextGen Genealogy Network is made up of young genealogists with diverse backgrounds, interests, and experiences. Faces of NextGen showcases a different member of our community each month. If you would like to be considered for an upcoming feature, simply complete our questionnaire and submit a selfie.

Introducing the NextGen Connection Challenge

The NextGen Genealogy Network encourages genealogists to build connections between all generations. Now, we introduce the NextGen Connection Challenge to inspire genealogists worldwide to put this idea into action.

What is the NextGen Connection Challenge? It is a opportunity for genealogists of different generations to meet one-on-one, mentor each other, and become friends. It is suggested that these meetings—led by YOU!—take place on the second Saturday of each month, but you can connect anytime, anywhere.

How can you meet another genealogist outside of your age demographic? Attend a local society meeting, conference, or workshop to become acquainted with genealogists of all ages, or search the NextGen Genealogy Network’s Community Directory to locate a young genealogist near you. Even cousins count—you never know when you might encounter another genealogist in your extended family. Consider meeting for coffee to bounce ideas off each other regarding your latest research, or get together for a research adventure. What could be better than having a genealogy buddy along as you explore a local library, archive, museum, or cemetery?

After you meet, share with us on Facebook or Twitter. Who did you meet? What did you learn from each other? What was the best part about getting to know a genealogist of a different generation? Did you take a selfie together? Feel free to share that, too.

The NextGen Connection Challenge is an initiative launched to encourage genealogists of all generations to build connections with one another. We hope you will join the NextGen Genealogy Network in making the NextGen Connection Challenge one of your most important—and fun—resolutions for the new year!