The Blog

Planning Your Genealogical Research Trip

We, as genealogists and family historians, are willing to go to some lengths to find information on our family lines.  When we have exhausted the available resources online or on microfilm through LDS family history centers, occasionally we need to take an on-site research trip.  It is an inescapable fact that some of the things we need are only available in person. These one-of-a-kind documents may be crucial to our research. You might be asking yourself, “How do I take a successful trip to conduct family history research?”

One of the keys to success in any research is planning.  If you need to visit a courthouse, county clerk’s office, research library, historical society, or archive, here are eight important steps to complete before you go.

  1. Review the 0nline catalogs.  Find out what their holdings are and make a list of what you want to see, in order of its priority.  Often you can search by a location or surname.  Watch out, many of these have listings for different types of records in separate online catalogs.  Keep looking.
  2. Make a To-do List.  In your list, remind yourself WHAT book, microfilm, or record series you are looking for, WHY you are looking for it (searching for Aunt Mildred’s husband’s name), and WHERE in the building it may be.  Many places have multiple levels or specialized rooms for separate collections.
  3. Check the key info. Check online for hours, fees, parking, lockers, where to eat, and especially closing dates for holidays.  Don’t get stuck at a locked building or spending all day trying to park your car.  I got stuck once because I thought Memorial Day was a perfect time for me to go, but it was apparently a perfect time for the staff to close up too.
  4. Read the Records structure.  Every archive arranges their information differently.  Take time to check the location’s website for an online tutorial, or user guidelines. Ask friends if they’ve had experience there or check the Wiki at FamilySearch, and input the name of the place you are going.  Researchers from all over have shared their experience about places to research, and so much more.
  5. Gather supplies.  What can you take into the building?  Can you take your laptop, scanner, or camera?  What are the photocopying policies?  How much?  Many places will not allow you to use their copier, or do not have open shelves.  Allow for the extra time for staff to help you or records to be pulled.  Are you taking lunch, or packing a small snack?  Make sure you take extra batteries or the charger for your camera.  Not every place has internet access, so don’t rely on getting your information from the cloud. Have a paper copy or information on your laptop or tablet.
  6. Plan for more than one day. If this is your first time at a certain place and you have a lot you need to search, do not expect to get it done in one day.  In all likelihood, you may take a significant amount of time just getting settled and getting used to the facility.  Be realistic about what you can find, and if possible plan for more than one day of research.
  7. Make a Plan B.  Things never work out the way you plan, so plan some more.  If somewhere is unexpectedly closed (power outage or other emergency), where else can you go in the area?  Cemeteries are rarely closed.  The main county library often has a historical or genealogical collection for the area.
  8. Be open to happy accidents.  On my first baby-genealogist research trip I made a lot of mistakes, but I also planned well and it benefitted me every time. On a five-day trip to Genesee County, New York, I found that I was finished at the historical society early one afternoon.  I hated to waste any time, so I pulled out my Plan B.  In Genesee, the county courthouse and county clerk are in separate buildings.  I went to the county clerk’s office because my Plan B was to re-visit the town clerk, but for some reason I couldn’t find the phone number to see if they were still open.  As I walked into the office I stood in line patiently, and an older man walked up to ask if I needed any help.  I told him my problem and he said he thought he had the number in his office.  It turned out that he was the County Clerk himself.  We got to talking and he showed me the deed records.  He was kind, but a little skeptical that I knew what I wanted.  I whipped out my binder with my plan, copies of censuses, and other information and showed him that I knew exactly when my ancestors came into the county.  He was amazed at the organization and looked over at a near-by secretary saying, “Okay, she’s hired.” Needless to say, as I worked he looked over my shoulder from time to time, and would say things like, “I know I have a map for that area over here, would you like to see it?”  There was my ancestor, named on the map.  I love happy accidents!

The more planning that goes into your trip ahead of time, the more you will get out of your research. Why waste time during your trip when you can plot your course before you go?

Tell us your success stories with on-site research, we’d love to hear from you!

Educators and Entrepreneurs: Moving History Forward (guest post)

 

The terms “historian” and “entrepreneur” are not often mentioned in the same sentence.  The historian studies and writes about the past, while an entrepreneur is focused on innovating for the future and taking risks—and in many instances ends up being the one making history.  Historians are not traditionally taught to be entrepreneurs.  In the age of new media, however, this is starting to change.

Changing Curriculums

Students aspiring to careers in Public History are facing unique challenges. In the wake of budget cuts and a lagging economy, jobs are often tough to find in traditional public sectors (museums, preservation, government agencies or archives).  Academia is responding.  At Boise State University in Idaho, Professor Leslie Madsen-Brooks is incorporating entrepreneurship modules into her graduate seminar in applied history, “History 502:  Applied Historical Research.”  The course is about methods, controversies, ideas and ideologies, and the way history gets deployed in everyday life in the United States. The course addresses important questions such as:

  • What is public history, and in what ways does it differ from academic history?
  • Should “the public” be the audience for, participants in, or creators of programs and projects that fall under the banner of “public history”?
  • What role should—and do—professional historians take in public history?
  • How do historians working outside the academy make a living?

The syllabus for the course includes traditional topics such as historic preservation, museums and libraries, ethical dilemmas, and public history careers, but also explores ideas such as reinventing the museum, and the public’s practice of history, analog and digital.  Students are required to purchase or borrow an iPad or similar mobile device, and are encouraged to use them in class to explore digital history and for other course-related activities.  There is a Blog for the course encouraging posts not just from participants but from anyone who wants to share comments. Assignments include a Public History Career Introduction, a Wiki assignment, and an App development plan.

One entire section of the course is dedicated to entrepreneurialism.  Madsen-Brooks believes that being entrepreneurial is a “very useful skill for humanists, along with digital fluency and savvy,” and encourages her students to think outside the traditional career box. A number websites are suggested, including the Association of Personal Historians, Museumpreneurs, and Reel Tributes.

Reel Tributes’ Role

Madsen-Brooks includes Reel Tributes as a link in the “Entrepreneurialism” section of the HIST 502 course because she found that many of her students expressed an interest in documentary film production and lists Reel Tributes as: “One example of a way that a company is promoting history in a way that is useful and personally meaningful to individuals in a public audience.”

Reel Tributes aims to give families the opportunity to preserve the stories (and histories) of loved ones in a timeless film tribute.  Reel Tributes Founder and CEO David Adelman is delighted that his site is being used to inspire students and to educate them on the importance of technology in preserving history.

“It’s amazing to see our company being used to teach grad students about history in a fun and interactive way,” Adelman says. “In the digital age, it’s no longer just about the textbooks and lectures.”

There’s no doubt that 21st century historians face new challenges and that innovative thinking is critical to ensure that future generations continue to learn and link to the past. With so many digital tools available to novices and professionals alike, collaborations between historians and entrepreneurs are likely to keep increasing. We can only hope that this dynamic will promote the study of history in meaningful ways, and help preserve the world’s most cherished moments for years to come.

Lisa A. Alzo is a freelance writer, instructor, and lecturer with over 22 years’ experience in the field of genealogy. She earned a Master of Fine Arts degree in Nonfiction Writing from the University of Pittsburgh, and is the author of nine books.  Lisa has written hundreds of articles, and chronicles her adventures in family history on her blog, The Accidental Genealogist.

[Image credit: Library of Congress]

Confessions of a Census Enumerator

Have you ever searched for family in any of the Federal Censuses and been tear-your-hair-out-frustrated?  People’s places of birth, ages, relationships, and naturalization dates fluctuate from one census to another.  You can’t find someone you know is in that city, no matter how you try.  The handwriting is atrocious and the spelling is worse!

In 2010 a friend told me that the US Census Bureau was hiring in our town, and I thought that this might be an opportunity to understand a little more about what went into enumerating the census.  Some of the things I learned even as modern-day census enumerator gave me a deeper appreciation of the struggles a census taker in earlier times may have.  Some lessons were eye-opening. Others were simply scary.

  • It’s the law. In the modern census, you are enumerated by mail.  If you do not fill in your form and return it in time, that is when your friendly neighborhood enumerator comes to call.  Most people just forgot and often had the paperwork somewhere nearby.  Quite a number of homes had to be qualified as unlived in.  Many people were extremely argumentative, and did not believe the census to be really legal.  Rarely do people realize that the law directing enumeration of the populous is a provision in the Constitution, Article 1, Section 2.
  • Try, and try again. As an enumerator, we were required to try a home a minimum of three times, even if we had been rebuffed the first time.  If there were no results, we were to ask the neighbors.
  • Listen to the kids. The law today directs that a resident of the home as young as age 14 could answer questions about the household if no other adult was available.  I would try and go back to the home when an adult was home, but I did have to ask a child more than once about the household.
  • Gender rules. It was interesting to see which enumerators in our group had the most success.  We met together for training and to turn in our results weekly.  The tall, strong-looking men were answered the least by residents.  The women came in with the most results.  Why?  Having a stranger at your door today is no more scary than at any other time.  People are wary of opening the door to strange men.  Strange women (especially very short women with bright smiling faces like mine) are not intimidating.  People wanted to talk to us, give us something to drink, and have us sit and rest.
  • Keep it local. The Census Bureau purposefully has enumerators work within their own neighborhoods.  First, we already know our way around.  Second, the idea is that we are comfortable where we lived.  I rarely enumerated more than four miles from my home.  Even so, I ran into many situations where people spoke languages I did not understand, and they could not understand me.  How likely was that to happen to an immigrant ancestor of yours?
  • I wasn’t scary, but… People who were naturalized citizens were the most anxious to talk to me.  They wanted me to know they were legal citizens and proud of it.  Others would not believe that we weren’t secret agents of the INS, FBI, or CIA.
  • There are some dangers. There were a lot more dogs in my neighborhood than I realized.  Big ones.  It was intimidating to enter a yard that was clearly protected by Kujo’s cousin.
  • Don’t assume anything. It was the rule that we had to ask the householder to pronounce their race, not assume it by observation.  My favorite answer to the question from a determined looking man was “human race.”
  • It’s huge. I had not realized how many people lived in my neighborhood, and was awed by the scale of the census project.
  • I saw some things I’d rather soon forget. Yes, people do answer the door in their underwear.  Enough said.

So, before you curse the name of the 1880 enumerator who came to your ancestor’s door, try to imagine it from the other side.  For more information on the history of census enumeration and its impact on genealogical research today, try “Chapter 13: Census Returns” in Val D. Greenwood’s book, The Researcher’s Guide to American Genealogy.  Another favorite is Kathleen Hinkley’s well-written Your Guide to the American Census.

Remember the old saying, “With information comes inspiration.”

11 Creative Ways to Preserve Your Family’s History

 

Have you been thinking about preserving your family’s history, but aren’t sure where to start? Here are 11 fun and creative ideas that will motivate you to kick the project off today:

  1. Turn Photo Albums Into Memory Books. Instead of simply slapping your photographs into an album, create a memory book by including a brief story about each picture and identifying everyone in it. Viewers, especially future family members, will be grateful for the explanations of who’s who and what they’re doing. Be sure to use acid-free products so that your memory book will endure for many years to come.
  2. Create Heirloom Jewelry. Jewelry doesn’t have to be expensive to be meaningful. You can turn everyday pieces into heirlooms by linking each to a specific interest, moment, or event in your life. Think about collecting charms for a bracelet or adding a photo of a special relative to a locket.
  3.  Grow Family Memories. Are you an avid gardener?  Whether you grow prize-winning American Beauty roses or the ubiquitous zucchini, you can encourage and pass the love of gardening on to the next generation. Share some seeds or a cutting from a plant with a family member. Bake or cook with a young relative, using the bounty of your garden.
  4. Share the Love of Food. Write out favorite family recipes—Grandma Sarah’s corn bread, Aunt Mary’s turkey stuffing, your mother’s prize-winning strawberry shortcake—on pretty recipe cards. Or collect them in a book.  Add your memories of the times these dishes were served and savored and what made them so special to you and your family. The collected recipes and stories would make a wonderful gift for a newly married relative or young adult setting up a new home.
  5. Document Family Heirlooms. Do you own something that once belonged to an ancestor? Does that item hold great meaning to you? Ensure that future generations know its history by documenting it. Write down everything you know about the piece, including how it came into the family and who has owned it over the years. This is a great way to connect your descendants with the past. Be sure to keep the written record with the item. Check out the Heirloom Registry for an easy way to record the items.
  6. Set up a Family Photo Gallery. Are vintage photographs of your ancestors lying in dusty shoeboxes or hiding in old photo albums? Bring them out into the open. Local craft shops sell a variety of frames at a reasonable cost, and for just a little investment of time and money your gallery will generate interest, curiosity, and pleasure for your family members. Be sure to use acid-free matting and hang pictures away from the sun’s destructive light.
  7. Craft a Comforting Memorial. If you can thread a needle you can create a beautiful tribute to a deceased family member by making a teddy bear or quilt from a shirt or other item of clothing that they wore. This can provide great comfort and solace to others following the loss of a loved one. And the newly crafted item becomes a family heirloom that continues to tell the story of that family member’s life.
  8. Use Technology to Tell Your Story. Using video or audio recording equipment to preserve stories and memories is easier than you might think. First, make a list of stories you would like to talk about. Then set up the video or audio recorder, make sure to eliminate any competing sounds (e.g., ticking clocks, humming refrigerator), and tell your stories. If you prefer to focus on pictures, there are plenty of computer programs that can help you easily create a slide show from your family photos. Looking for some help? The friendly staff at Reel Tributes is just a phone call away.
  9. Proudly Display Family Documents. My husband’s great-great-grandfather was the justice of the peace in Hardin County, Kentucky, after the Civil War. Fortunately, his Official Certification from the state of Kentucky was passed on to my husband. I had it framed, and this bit of my husband’s family history is now displayed on a wall in our home—next to my husband’s honorary discharge papers from the U.S. Army.
  10. Write an Ethical Will. Just as a Last Will and Testament is a tool to pass on the “stuff” of life, an ethical will is a tool to pass on personal beliefs, values, life lessons, and blessings. Ethical wills have been with us for more than 2,000 years; authentic and readable ethical wills dating back to 1200 A.D. are still valuable for their literary content. This document has been found to be a tremendous blessing to family and friends.  Check out www.ethicalwill.com for information on how to write your own ethical will.
  11. Engage the Younger Generation. Kids have stories to tell as well. Ask your children or grandchildren what is important in their lives right now and record what they say, either with pen and paper or with an audio or video recorder. Not only will you learn a lot, but future generations will also be interested in what they have to say.

However you choose to preserve your family’s history, begin now.  Don’t let good intentions be just that. Cherish the role of preserver of memories for your family. You won’t regret it for a second.

Do you have other creative ideas to share? We, at Reel Tributes, would love to hear them.

More Than 500 Letters Later, A Granddaughter Is Born (Part 2)

 

Note: This is the 2nd part of a post from Bob Brody’s Letters to My Kids, which featured Lin Joyce’s letter to her daughter Annie. Visit the website at www.letterstomykids.org.

Dear Annie,

As you well know, your dad and I love to travel. But I had no idea just how much traveling I’d be doing when I married your father 37 years ago. I have the U.S. federal government to thank for 18 moves in 21 years, 12 being international relocations.

I gave birth to you during our second overseas assignment in Amman, Jordan — a great memory, of course. You are already aware of some of the unusual details of your birth. For example, very few Americans citizens have a birth certificate written in Arabic that is signed by an official representative of King Hussein of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. But you do.

You were supposed to have been born in Bangkok, Thailand. That’s where we were living when the nurse at the American Embassy Medical Unit told us that we were going to become parents. But when the office in Washington DC called with travel orders, we always said, “Yes.” And so we were transferred to Amman when I was five months pregnant.

Because your dad had to leave right away, I decided to go stateside to visit family and then fly to Amman by myself. What a long trip that was for me! My belly had gotten uncomfortably big, my moo-moo styled dresses were getting tighter and my ankles swelled if I stood for too long.

Your dad met me at Amman’s airport and soon I was walking into our new home. The American Embassy provided us with a spacious home only ten minutes from the embassy. The house had three floors and we were to occupy only the top two floors.We had three bedrooms, three bathrooms, a washer and drier but no disposal or dishwasher. The floors were all marble and the walls were wallpapered or covered with dark wood paneling. The house came fully furnished with Drexel Heritage furniture. We had many lemon and blood orange trees growing in our backyard.

On the morning you were born your dad spilled his coffee all over the kitchen table. It was raining outside and because of the Arabic Summit that was going on in the city, security was very tight on the main streets of Amman.

Still, all we could think of was: today we would become parents.

Your birth was helped along with a pitocin drip. During the birthing process, my Lebanese-trained obstetrician told me to stop making so much noise. You were born at 5:00 p.m. on the afternoon of November 21, 1980 at the Al Khalidi Hospital in Amman, the only light-haired baby to be found in the nursery.

 

You developed an elevated bilirubin level, which scared us. It was necessary for us to leave you in the hospital for a few extra days, but soon that situation resolved itself.

We got to bring you home on Thanksgiving Day, 1980.That was a Thanksgiving I will never forget. Your dad and I were so tired. We found two Swanson turkey TV dinners in the freezer that I had purchased at the Embassy Commissary and that’s what we had for dinner. We were very thankful to be celebrating Thanksgiving at home together.

Love always,

Mom