Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Aunt Trails

By Janet Brigham

On my father's side of the family, several aunts invariably made sure that we children got Christmas and birthday presents. Two of these aunts -- Joyce and Ruth -- were married to two of my father's brothers. They wrote friendly letters, keeping us updated and trying steadily to heal a longstanding rift between their husbands and my father. Neither aunt had children of their own, so they spoiled us.

Both of them died within the last few decades, along with their husbands. I hadn't spent much time with either aunt, but their existence was a constant in my young life. I always knew that I had aunts who seemed to relished sending us trinkets, goodies, and cheerful notes. I still have the congratulatory notes they sent my parents when I was born.

So imagine my horror when I was looking through my genealogy database and found that I had never recorded more about either aunt than their given names. No surnames. No birthdates, no parents, no birthplaces, no notations of their education or religion. What's worse, when Aunt Ruth died a decade ago, she left her small estate to her husband's son from a previous marriage, and her handful of nieces. She gave the executor our names. He found us all and dispersed her gifts.

Aunt Ruth had remembered me as she approached her death, but I had never done more than cash the check. I knew considerably more about immigrant ancestors from the 1600s than about these women who enriched my childhood.

We decided to rectify this oversight. After seven hours of brute-force searching last weekend, however, we had learned little. Our relatives have no information at hand. None of our accessible newspaper archive services listed their obituaries. The next step was to call specific newspaper libraries and ask for copies of the obituaries (not free, but cheaper than driving to Texas or Washington). We'll soon know if this has worked. Then we will take what I expect will be bare-bones obituaries and begin to reconstruct their lives.

It's the least we can do.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Eureka! Lessons from a gold mine

By Patricia Burrow


Did you hear my whoop? It had to have been loud enough to hear all across Silicon Valley. I was doing some mundane census work on Ancestry.com when some incredible pictures showed up. My second-great-grandparents!!!! Oh, and my great-grandfather!!!!

I don't usually do a generic search on my surnames but was looking for census people with nicknames. I just put in Stallings, born in Georgia. About 30 hits down were these pictures--two family photos, one taken about 1895 and the other probably 30 years later. This grandmother was married to a man who was killed in the Civil War and then married Nathan Stallings. She had four children by the first husband and then five more with Nathan.

When I did my initial census work on them, I had to do a spreadsheet because the ages of the kids did not make sense, and I knew that there was something off. She was 11 years older than Nathan, and the kids were too old to be his (it is usually the other way around, the woman is too young to have the kids). It took some time to sort them all out, as they all took the name Stallings on the 1870 Census. Anyway, now I have some faces to add to these kids, too.

My genealogy high was just too much to contain. So I looked for the person who had submitted and posted the photos. Turns out he is actually from another "branch," but he told me he got the pictures from a lady on another website, findagrave.com. I had not been on Find-a-Grave in a while, so I trotted right on over to it and found my ancestors just waiting for me. Judy Brantley/Wilson has submitted more than 18,000 postings to Find-A-Grave.

In reading her bio, I found out that, in addition to posting photos and writing short bios on each of her own ancestors and their families, she is documenting a cemetery that is all but abandoned. It is on the outskirts of Atlanta, Georgia, all covered in weeds and kudzu to the point that it is almost impossible to see the markers; many markers are buried in the undergrowth. The owners are not interested in doing anything about it, so it is listed as "non-perpetual care" (oh, REALLY?).

Judy is not only indexing each headstone but getting the death certificate of each person and researching each family enough to do a write-up on Find-A-Grave. It is a mammoth project, but she enjoys it so much. Her email address was in her bio, so I clicked on it and sent her an email asking if she were related to my family. We figured out that we are second cousins. She is a fount of information. She has sent me more than 30 photographs of family members that I have never seen before.

Several lessons can be learned here, but mainly the classic lessons can be relearned:

  1. Even though you did a Google search several years ago, repeat it every now and then. Go back to sites you searched last year and search them again.

  2. Do a generic search on your favorite sites every now and then to see if there is something new from the last time you looked.

  3. When you find the name of one of your ancestors posted on a website, click on the submitter's email address and email to ask the submitter if he or she is a family member and where he or she got the information. I don't like user submitted-family trees that I find online, as they often are from a name collector or are junk genealogy. But every once in a while, it will be a distant family member who has done some very good research. It is easy to upload a GEDCOM; it is difficult to find and document quality evidence.

  4. Get and maintain the best quality photos you can. I downloaded the photos I found from both Ancestry.com and findagrave.com, but they were very low resolution. If I had tried to print them, they would have been grainy. I asked Judy to rescan the best photos so that I would have a good quality digital copy. Remember to scan your photos to TIFF with at least 300 dpi. Label them on your computer as well as on any printouts you make. You don't want your great-grandchildren to say, "Who was that funny-looking lady with the big hair?" Also, back up your photos and genealogy files!
It has been more than a week since my wonderful find, and I am still on a high. It will take me a while to sort through all of the things I have learned and apply them to my other surnames. Meanwhile, I have these wonderful pictures to look at: Nathan and Sarah and a family photo that was taken more than 100 years ago, before I was born, before my mom was here, before my grandmother had a name. But, this is my family.

I share this as a lesson to remember. When you are doing your own research, keep in mind that this is your family history, and that you may be the only family member who gathers and organizes the stories and pictures of four or five generations. You are, or will be, the oldest member of your own line and, by virtue of that position, you have the responsibility to ensure that the family history does not get lost, and does get passed down to future generations.


Photo caption: Nathan Vinson Stallings and Sarah Ann Frances Cochran Sykes Stallings and family. Front Row L to R: Nathan Vinson Stallings, Sarah Ann Frances Cochran Sykes Stallings. Back Row L to R: Francis M. Chambers, Mary Rosanna Sykes Chambers, Sara Margaret Sykes Green, Harriet Ellen Sykes Cobb, Eliza Adeline Stallings Conner, Charley E. Stallings. L to R, the three girls are by Sarah's first marriage to Darling Sykes. Eliza and Charlie are Nathan's and Sarah's children. Francis M. Chambers is the husband of Mary Rosanna Sykes. From photo collection of Judy Brantley Wilson, http://www.FindAGrave.com.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Save the Library of Michigan

By Janet Brigham Rands

It’s 2,003 miles, or 3,224 kilometers, from here to Lansing, Michigan. When we flew there a few years ago on a genealogy research trip, we stayed in a Lansing motel. Ate in Lansing restaurants. And spent a couple of days at an amazing facility—the Library of Michigan.

A library is more than books, manuscripts, documents, photographs, microfilms, and photocopiers. Even a library with a priceless collection such as the Library of Michigan is more than its holdings: It is librarians and volunteers, and an attitude of reaching out to the broad community of those millions of us who have ties to the Midwest— even those of us in California.

Staff and volunteers at the Library of Michigan have earned a reputation as being unusually responsive and helpful. Before we visited Lansing and spent two days at the library, I visited its Web site to search for information about my Michigan ancestors. The site featured an online chat with a librarian. I used the chat feature to ask about an article that I thought might have been published in a small Michigan newspaper in the 1800s. The librarian turned my inquiry over to the library’s volunteers, who not only found the article but tracked down the other articles in the series.

They soon sent me photocopies of articles recounting the life of my second-great-grandfather. I learned that as a 14-year-old, he served on a privateer ship in the War of 1812. He was nearly killed one night by prisoners he was guarding on the ship, before one of the prisoners took pity on him because the frail, bespectacled boy reminded the prisoner of his own children.

The newspaper was obscure, published only for a short time and not included in any online newspaper archives. I asked the volunteers how to repay their kindness, and they suggested a donation to the library.

Donations weren’t enough, evidently. We were unprepared for the recent news that the governor of Michigan had ordered the library closed, to be replaced by a non-library facility that might bring more traffic to downtown Lansing. This is part of a supposedly budget-cutting move that eliminates the state’s entire Department of History, Arts, and Libraries.

The only group who can save the library from this absurdly draconian fate is the Michigan legislature, which convenes August 5. That morning, genealogy enthusiasts inspired by the Michigan Genealogical Council will stand outside the library and encircle it by holding hands. We wish we could join them.

My second-great grandfather survived the War of 1812 and later moved to Michigan. He never forgot that even as a youngster, he faced imminent death. As the hands of the living encircle the library, we can imagine another circle nearby—a circle of the millions of ancestors whose stories come alive in the Library of Michigan.

The content of this blog post does not necessarily reflect the views of the Silicon Valley Computer Genealogy Group or its members.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

LDS history library: Something old, something new

By Janet Brigham Rands

Something bright and new adorns the crossroads of the West in the shadow of the everlasting hills.

In June 2009, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), or Mormons, opened a new historical library and archive in Salt Lake City, Utah, replacing the facility's cramped quarters in the church’s headquarters building for decades. The new Church History Library and Archive is climate-controlled, “green” in design, and accessible. And, for many family history researchers, it is entirely unfamiliar.

This building is separate from the familiar Family History Library – which is nearby – in several regards. First, its collection is completely separate from the holdings of the Family History Library, and covers LDS history and the locales where LDS history has been recorded. Note that this coverage extends far beyond Utah.

Second, its online system is totally separate from that of the Family History Library. In fact, neither catalog is accessible from the other library’s building, which should be an obvious service useful to patrons of both libraries. Even though the two libraries are run by separate departments, their mutual ownership by the LDS Church should mandate some degree of cross-pollination.

Both buildings are near Temple Square in Salt Lake City, although not on the same street. The new Church History Library is on North Temple Street, northeast of Temple Square, and near the church’s relatively new Conference Center. It's also possible that some possible patrons will go to the Museum of Church History and Art instead of the library, and vice versa. Some good signage would address this confusion.

The new facility is friendlier than the old, and research is easier to conduct there. In the old facility, library patrons had to stand in what was sometimes a long line to receive an ID badge, which had to be created anew every day. This was because the headquarters facility had become a secure facility over the years. The new library does not require a badge, and is designed to be welcoming. Although knowledgeable staff are available, patrons are assisted by numerous missionaries whose calling is to make patrons’ library visits productive.

Although patron accessibility is an obvious priority, some materials are housed rather mysteriously. A periodical listed in the catalog as being in the “periodical index” (which translates into “arranged alphabetically by title on the shelves with other periodicals”) was housed not with the periodicals, but with books. This was a conscious decision by library staff “because it’s bound,” we were told by a staff member, although many other periodicals also were bound. It was shelved with a call number that was not listed in the catalog. We assume that these idiosyncratic practices will diminish as patrons require staff help to find the few inscrutably placed items.

Accessing materials in the Reading Room of the library is still awkward, and the library management needs to rethink the process of ordering and distributing materials. In our visits to numerous libraries’ special collections reading rooms, this is the only one that requires staff to peer under a desk and paw manually through rows of retrieved items. Several materials we ordered in our recent visit never were delivered to us, even after we ordered them multiple times. (These were not sensitive materials; one was a history of lace-making in England.) The problem was not in the stacks; it was in the ordering and distribution system.

Also, the facility boasts public access to about $50,000 worth of digital microfilm scanners that purposefully and sadly are being underutilized because of concerns about patrons electronically copying sensitive and copyrighted material. Surely the library management can come up with a way to distribute materials readily, and to send patrons to a reading machine appropriate for the materials. These are issues that should be addressed swiftly, before patrons lose faith and interest in the facility.

Another glitch is the slowness of copying. Many materials not housed in the open stacks are neither rare nor sensitive, but simply are not in much demand. These materials are accessed the same as the rare and sensitive materials, and can be copied only by staff. The wait time for such copies can be as long as a month. We were told this by a staff person who was sitting perhaps 10 feet from several unused copiers. (Think: triage. Or how about, just think!)

We requested that several pages of a book on the history of the Comstock Lode be copied by staff (since the book came from closed stacks, and we could not make copies ourselves). The book is inexpensively available in used book stores and online. Again, the slowness of providing photocopies of such materials is an issue management should address quickly, before the backlog grows even longer and patrons lose patience.

Overall, we were impressed with the facility and with the breadth of its holdings. Clearly, it is a resource that those visiting the Family History Library should visit. Its new online catalog interface is a major improvement, and we were impressed that the system’s architect was openly asking for suggestions. As the new library’s minor bugs are worked out, visiting this facility will be a worthwhile stop on nearly any research trip to Salt Lake City.


Information: http://www.lds.org/churchhistory/library/0,15484,3939-1-2050,00.html

The content of this blog post does not necessarily reflect the views of the Silicon Valley Computer Genealogy Group or its members.