Remembering Granny: When Secondary Sources Become Primary
February 28, 2017
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.
5 Reasons Why Podcasts are Great Learning Tools for Genealogists
November 21, 2016
As I sit on my living room couch underneath my favorite blanket, I listen to genealogical experts share their insights. With podcasts, we have the ability to listen to these experts comfortably at home, in our cars on our way to various places, and even at work. Podcasts are extremely beneficial for genealogy researchers to improve their skills for five reasons.
1. Podcasts allow you to learn information quickly. Last year, I taught a genealogy course at my local family history center. I had a good command of much of the content I planned to explore, but not all of it. Listening to podcasts on focused subjects allowed me to fill gaps in my understanding quickly, so I could pass the information on to other researchers. Further, because podcasts are available any time or day, I did not have to wait to go to a conference or meeting to hear the content.
2. Podcasts can be listened to when you cannot read materials. Listening to content via a podcast can be more accessible than reading in many situations. I listen to genealogy podcasts while I do chores and when I go running. In situations where you cannot read a book, you can still absorb genealogy material through listening. Reading genealogy and family history books are a must, but listening to content can be an important way to learn as well. With that, there is something special about hearing how someone speaks about a topic. We have all heard speakers that get us excited about a topic in large part due to their own enthusiasm on a subject.
3. Podcasts cover diverse genealogy subjects. Interested in lineage societies? Interested in how to write for a genealogy journal or newsletter? There’s a podcast for all of the above. From how-tos to information on particular research systems, podcasts allow people to explore whatever they would like to know. iTunes and other services allow you to customize what shows you subscribe to. Blogtalk Radio offers several genealogy-related shows, including “Research at the National Archives and Beyond” and “The Forget-Me-Not Hour.”
4. Podcasts offer a depth of subject matter. Podcasts are long enough to cover material in good detail. They can offer the right balance of depth and introductory information. Genealogy podcasts commonly last forty minutes to one and half hours. This length usually affords speakers enough time to delve into a subject.
5. Podcasts direct you to other resources to explore. Effective podcast speakers explain what they know and where listeners can find more information. My favorite podcasts regularly direct me to more genealogy references online and in print.
What are your favorite genealogy podcasts?
Shelby Ward is from Kansas and lives in Knoxville, Tennessee. She has taught on the subject of African Diaspora genealogy, history, and culture at the Knoxville Family History Center and started the Beck Cultural Exchange Center Genealogical Society. She is the creator of Millie’s Porch, a family history start-up, and participates in several Facebook genealogy groups.
Caring for a Family Collection
September 19, 2016
Many of us caught the genealogy bug when we were children. I find this is especially true with the current generation of NextGen genealogists. As a child, I was well versed in my family’s deep and varied history. I credit those stories with my burgeoning passion for genealogy in my twenties. One such intriguing story was my grandfather’s service during World War II. As a medical doctor, he served in the South Pacific for over eighteen months, and shortly after my grandfather shipped out, my father was born. They did not meet until my father was a toddler, almost two years later. Another facet of this story is any historian’s or genealogist’s dream: My grandparents wrote to each other every day during my grandfather’s deployment. Better yet, the majority of the letters survived. Originally preserved by my grandparents, the letters eventually came under the care of my father who passed them along to me.
Becoming the caretaker of my family’s historical past is a great responsibility, and it does feel overwhelming at times. There are many aspects of care to consider: how should the letters be preserved, who is allowed access, privacy concerns, what happens after I am done with them, and so on. The following is a narrative of my journey as the family archivist. Nowadays, there are many options available as well as many tools. In my case, this collection of letters, documents, and photographs is huge. In fact, there are over 1,300 letters! Did I mention how overwhelming taking care of a sizable collection can be?
My first thought when I acquired the letters was that I wanted to read them all to glean any genealogical information I could. In retrospect, this sounds wonderful, but at the same time, very naïve. I found reading one letter or two at a time to be fun, but I missed out on the bigger picture of the narrative—similar to picking up a book and reading a chapter in the middle. I knew what happened on one day, but I did not know how or why those events occurred at that particular time.
Organization became the key first step. In the beginning, I separated my grandfather’s and grandmother’s letters and arranged them chronologically. I was able to see the gaps in the narrative more easily. I opened each letter, removing rusted staples and paperclips and flattening folds. While not the best preservation technique, I saved each letter in a plastic sheet protector and organized them in binders. For me, this was the easiest and cheapest method. There are drawbacks to using plastic sheet protectors, especially in places where water damage is likely to occur.
Transcribing and scanning the letters came next. In the beginning, it was difficult to read my grandfather’s handwriting, but I improved over time. Transcribing the letters forced me to actually read what was written, instead of skimming over the words. Once I finished transcribing each letter, I scanned it. All my scans are .TIFF, not .JPEG, which are the better file for preservation. Having a backup copy or a digital image to share with family members is important. What if my house was damaged and the letters with it? I feel much happier knowing I have backups! And always remember to save a set of backups off-site.
Sharing the letters with family was a priority to me. My father had never actually read the letters, even though he had kept them safe for many years. The letters tell his story, although he was too young to remember any of it. With digital copies of the letters, I could have shared them with family through email, or shared sites like Dropbox or Google Drive, but I didn’t. I chose blogging instead. Very early in the project, I decided to post one letter a day on a blog. For me, blogging established a routine as well as a disciplined way to keep myself on task. By posting the letters, I created some lovely “cousin bait.” I have connected with distant cousins as well as descendants of my grandparent’s FAN club. In return, I have acquired new stories and photographs.
Since privacy may be an issue for some readers, always consider the information you might be sharing. In my case, the vast majority of people involved in the letters are deceased; the only person who might object to the content of the letters is my father, and he has given me his wholehearted support for this undertaking. I also feel strongly against redacting history. I may not agree with the opinions or attitudes of the past, but I feel it is my duty to preserve the past, not rewrite it.
After blogging “a letter a day” for a few years, I decided I wanted to reach a different audience as well as preserve the letters in a more concrete way. Self-publishing books has become exceedingly easy over the last few years. Companies like CreateSpace and Blurb produce high quality products, as well as the ability to sell the books through Amazon. I published the first volume of letters last year and am currently working on the second. By having a physical book to share, donations to libraries and genealogical societies are now possible. Books are also great for older relatives who shy away from the Internet.
While I may be finished transcribing the letters, the collection still takes up a lot of my time. I continue to prepare the letters for publication as well as plan for their future. My preservation techniques have improved over the years. Currently, I am phasing out the plastic sheets and binders and am in the process of moving the letters into Hollinger boxes and archival folders. I plan to create a finding aid and catalog the collection. Eventually, I want to find a repository or library willing to house the collection. While I enjoy caring for the letters, I am not sure my children would want the responsibility, so it’s wise to think ahead to the next next generation!
Deborah Sweeney is a genealogist, author, and blogger based in Northern California. A former theatrical costumer and a fourth grade teacher, she holds a Certificate in Genealogical Research from Boston University and has completed the ProGen Study Group. Dear Mother, Love Daddy is the first published volume of letters written by her grandparents during World War II, and a second volume, Lots of Love, Daddy, will be published in the fall of 2016.
How to Achieve Genealogy Success with Archival Research
July 25, 2016
While the next generation of genealogists may not have to travel to archives, libraries, or courthouses as often to do research as in previous decades, visiting repositories for genealogy is far from outdated. No one has been able to actually measure the percentage of records that are accessible online, but it’s clear that for those who focus simply on researching from their computer, they are missing a lot of information. While I personally have an affinity for researching with original records and spend a good amount of time volunteering at the National Archives, I know that when I walk through the stacks and gaze upon miles of endless shelving that it is far from being all online.
If you are thinking that you want to do some genealogical research at a local repository, you should look forward to the opportunity. There are a few steps you can take to prepare for your visit. Ultimately, you want to structure your visit around your research goals. Is there a specific record or file you want to retrieve and have reproduced? Are you looking for sources that will allow you to go deeper with your research questions? Having a plan is key and the best way to follow a plan is to spend some time doing reconnaissance work about the repository.
There are several methods for scouting out the holdings and collections of a particular repository. Be sure to always check out the website. Most repositories will have a catalog or a variety of guides (finding aids) to their specific collections that will help in becoming familiar with their holdings. The website is also likely to have a page dedicated to policies and procedures, so you can plan what you need to bring or leave behind. A great way to survey materials throughout multiple repositories would be to use large catalogs like WorldCat and ArchiveGrid. You can enter in different subjects, family names, and keywords to locate possible resources. Other resources include genealogy guides that are in print and online for different jurisdictions including counties, states, and countries, even as specific as large cities or college towns where a lot of repositories are in one place. Whatever you find that is of interest, write it down and make it a part of your research plan. You will greatly increase your chance for research success if you go in knowing what you want to look at.
Don’t be afraid to introduce yourself to the staff ahead of time. Even if an appointment is not required, it’s good to make contact before your visit. You can explain your research interests to them and they might have some knowledge that will shed light on your query. I think it’s important to prepare how you present your questions. Tell the staff exactly how you are stuck in your research and what you are looking to find out from their collections. They can save you some time and pull files for you, so you’re ready to go right from the minute you walk in.
You might be asking, “Can I save myself a trip and have the archivist carry out research for me?” Yes, but only in a limited number of circumstances. If you have a specific reference to a document and need it reproduced or if there is a name index associated with that collection, then yes, the archivist can do a look-up for you. But I’d say for anything that would take more than fifteen or twenty minutes, you are probably going to be politely let down in that regard.
You are more likely to get extra help and tips for your genealogy work if you carry a good demeanor. You will not be treated differently based on your expertise with archives or microfilm readers, but your overall attitude. Being courteous to the staff goes a long way and it’s important to understand that they have to serve the needs of a variety of patrons who are using the archives for different purposes. It wouldn’t hurt to dress with some class when you go to visit, as it’s good to make the impression that you care about you do. The facility and it’s staff care very much and take pride in their collections, so they want to feel that their files are in good hands when they leave the shelves.
Most of all, enjoy your time there and the fact that you are on a research trip. You experience your research differently because you’re not working on genealogy at home. A bonus of spending time at the archives is you become acquainted with so many different types of documents and sources. This knowledge allows you to think beyond the standard array of must-use genealogical sources and perhaps will encourage you to approach a brickwall problem in a creative way.
Jake Fletcher is a professional genealogist, educator, and blogger. He has been researching and writing about his ancestors since 2008 on his research blog. Jake currently volunteers as a research assistant at the National Archives in Waltham, Massachusetts and is Vice President of the New England Association of Professional Genealogists (NEAPG).