Rooted in Research | Genealogy

On Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates Jr., a PBS program that’s a must for those interested in family history, viewers watch as Harvard professor Gates reveals to famous people information about their ancestors, some of them recent forebears and others from many generations ago. TLC’s Who Do You Think You Are? (WDYTYA), based on a BBC series of the same name, is now in its eighth season and offers a similar chronicling of the search for a famous person’s roots.

Popular culture, advances in DNA testing, and digital resources enhance the family search, but help from human experts is still crucial


ljx160501webGenealogySlugOn Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates Jr., a PBS program that’s a must for those interested in family history, viewers watch as Harvard professor Gates reveals to famous people information about their ancestors, some of them recent forebears and others from many generations ago. (See LJ's interview with Gates.) TLC’s Who Do You Think You Are? (WDYTYA), based on a BBC series of the same name, is now in its eighth season and offers a similar chronicling of the search for a famous person’s roots.

“[WDYTYA]...was a watershed moment that changed ­genealogy from being something that was for professional genealogists or serious hobbyists to being accessible to the general public,” says Tina Beaird, genealogy and local history librarian at the Plainfield Public Library, IL. The show makes research look deceptively quick, though, she says, and librarians should remember that patrons’ expectations might have to be brought down to earth.

The surprising, sometimes scandalous, or sad revelations on these shows are the glamorous face of the work done in libraries every day. The shows portray research happening instantly and information being readily available. What’s the real situation for genealogy librarians and family history seeking patrons? What resources are available, and how are they used? Are some ethnicities or places more difficult to find background on in archives?

One-on-one, hands-on, in-depth

Librarians report using an amazing array of genealogy tools, but patrons still value time with a librarian, and they often get a surprising amount. In recognition of the in-depth research required in a family history search, some of the libraries LJ contacted offer patrons extended one-on-one sessions with genealogy experts. For example, Debra Dudek, head of adult and teen services at the Fountaindale Public Library District (FPLD) in Bolingbrook, IL, who also specializes in British genealogy, explains that “with a Fountaindale library card, patrons can check out two hours with me.” She says that “anybody who works in genealogy knows that sometimes what someone is working on takes an investment [of time]. People bring a lot of great, really complex questions, and it’s really hard to do that at a service desk.”

During the session (which doesn’t always take the full two hours), “I always make a to-do list for people. We look at their goals, some of the things they’ve already researched. I show them websites that maybe they haven’t looked at before,” says Dudek. Extended help boosts the library’s usage statistics, too. “It empowers [patrons] to use our databases,” Dudek notes. “They’ll also come to our programs. They’ll refer people to our library. And I always learn something new.”

Not all requests for assistance are from locals; far-off researchers who learn that they have ancestors from a given place will often contact the library there. Beaird says that she got 56 out-of-state requests for genealogical assistance last year, and many of those researchers ended up visiting her library in person to find out more about their local relatives. She was also recently contacted by a researcher in Scandinavia who was looking for an obituary for a Plainfield resident. Most researchers who contact librarians outside their home area are fairly far along in their genealogy work, says Beaird, but she also gets visits from people who are just passing through the area and drop in.

COUNTRY OF ORIGIN At the Darien Library, CT, Joseph Lieby (l., near podium) leads a program on Researching Your German Ancestors (inset). Photos courtesy of Darien Library

COUNTRY OF ORIGIN At the Darien Library, CT, Joseph Lieby (l., near podium) leads a program on Researching Your German Ancestors (inset). Photos courtesy of Darien Library

Some researchers, says Beaird, come in with very specific requests, but the vast majority “want everything…even if they’ve already got a copy of something, they’ll just sort it out later.” The work continues when patrons leave—she often follows up with them repeatedly over the years as she finds more material relevant to their search. Beaird keeps digital and paper copies of whatever she provides to genealogy researchers and has in that way grown a large archive of material on local families to which she can now refer.

Patrons who decide to go on the journey are enthusiastic (in fact, Beaird warns them up front that they may become addicted), and she recommends sitting through tales about their work or their family, as they might mention a resource or a collection or a document that you don’t know about.

Need-driven curriculum

Libraries are also offering a robust menu of genealogy classes and events both online and in person—some through vendors, such as Gale’s genealogy basics course. A good starting point would be to offer beginner classes such as those conducted by Jean Fisher and Bob Pankl at Tacoma Public Library (TPL). Librarian and archivist Fisher explains that the library offers two kinds of sessions: an introduction to genealogy—describing what it is, how to get started, what kinds of records are available, and how to organize your research, ending with a short exercise on how to build a family tree—and a more advanced class that covers Internet resources and the databases Ancestry Library Edition and HeritageQuest. The education continues at the reference desk, where Fisher offers patrons a brochure she created on how to get started on a family search, focusing on how to use TPL’s collection.

At New York Public Library (NYPL), most public classes are for genealogists, says librarian Katherine Cordes, though some are for undergraduate and graduate students (including library school students). Cordes is the manager at the Irma and Paul Milstein Division of United States History, Local History and Genealogy. The division is a hub not only for New Yorkers researching genealogy but for librarians at NYPL’s other branches who are seeking tips on this area of library work, which is rarely covered in library school. Cordes and her colleagues offer a beginner class that they recommend patrons take ahead of instruction on resource-specific and ethnic-specific genealogy, or the library’s other curricula such as how to write family history and how to interview family members. The topics, says Cordes, are chosen based upon patron questions—many ask how to research the history of their home, so there is a related session.

Partner participation

Darcy Brixey, young adult and genealogy librarian at the Bellevue branch of King County Library System, WA, explains that her library system has strong partnerships with local genealogy groups such as Eastside Genealogical Society, which offers two-hour volunteer drop-in-assistance sessions at Bellevue. (How long each patron gets depends upon how many patrons show up.) The volunteers often work with those new to genealogy who are overwhelmed by the amount of material available and need some advice. Eastside also donates books.

Bellevue Library’s Friends group funds genealogy classes, says Brixey, and, in partnership with Eastside, the librarian does a “Genealogy Bootcamp,” an all-day event with workshops and lectures that are applicable to a broad range of patrons. Genealogy, she adds, is not only about finding dead relatives—sometimes, Brixey says, genealogy tools are used to find “that long-lost cousin.” She’s also had a call from a U.S. Navy genealogist who is tasked with finding living relatives of deceased servicemen for the purpose of benefits payments.

Genealogical work at Darien Library, CT, is “closely partnered with the Middlesex Genealogical Society,” says UX librarian Amanda L. Goodman, who also works on genealogy. Five times a year, the society holds a daylong genealogy program at Darien, for which the library provides publicity. Goodman is the library’s liaison to the society, and she attends its meetings and maintains its Facebook page. Before each meeting, there is an hourlong social event that is meant to get the genealogists working together. Middlesex also offers monthly family history research appointments at Darien, and the library hosts special-interest genealogy groups, for those seeking German family history, for example, says Goodman. Darien plans its genealogy work in concert with other library programs; for instance, around the recent Civil War anniversaries, the library’s book club read a Civil War–related title, and Goodman offered a class on military history for genealogists.

Moving outside

Not all genealogical work is done in libraries or archives. Vendors now commonly offer mobile versions of their data­bases—Gale’s Genealogy Connect, explains the company’s spokesperson Kristina Massari, is now on a mobile-responsive platform.

Fountaindale’s patrons use mobile resources on genealogy field trips. “We’ll all meet at a cemetery with the BillionGraves app,” says Dudek, referring to a tool that allows users to contribute to a database of graves worldwide by taking photographs of headstones and transcribing the information found on them. (Volunteers can work at home transcribing existing images.) Dudek hopes to expand her library’s BillionGraves program this year by using MeetUp to find and connect with nonpatrons who are using the app.

Brian Palmer, a journalism professor at the University of Richmond and documentarian (Make the Ground Talk), and his wife, Erin Hollaway, are working to restore the historically black East End Cemetery in Richmond. East End, where thousands of black citizens, many of them veterans, are interred, is not maintained by any government agency and is in complete disrepair. The many volunteers working there may never be able to restore East End completely, said Palmer, but they can document the graves in order to salvage “these browner strands of history that have been purposely erased, ignored, destroyed.”

“Once you start physically reclaiming headstones, you need to learn more about these people,” says Palmer, and the couple have done that using, Fold3, historically black newspapers from the area, and court records. Hollaway posts graves she photographs to Find a Grave, and she often blogs about them and posts them on Insta­gram as well. Work on this cemetery sprang from Palmer’s search for his African American family’s past. The effort has also involved Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests made to the navy and the Department of Defense so that Palmer can find out about land taken from his family and others that now houses a navy and a CIA base.

A network of knowledge

The librarians interviewed for this piece invariably mentioned other professionals as crucial to their work. Certain librarians, they say, become the go-to for records of a particular type or from a particular geographic area. Librarians also say they lean heavily on local history clubs and genealogy societies; those organizations in turn refer family historians to the library when that’s the best place to find the information they’re looking for, or when the librarian is known locally as an expert in the type of records the person needs.

TPL’s Fisher is in regular contact with organizations doing similar work, such as a local genealogical society, the history museum, and the historical preservation office. “Even if your resources are large, but especially if you’re small, collaboration is a huge benefit,” she notes. “We all know each other and can call each other. We all really love a good mystery, and we love history, so it’s really fun for us.” Fisher even took part in a far-flung collaboration, when a German genealogy show came to the library as part of an episode in which a German family found that their ancestor moved to the Tacoma area.

Librarians help each other online, too. One of a genealogy professional’s greatest tools is the University of South Florida’s Genealib Listserv—in fact, ProQuest’s genealogy product manager William Forsyth recommends signing up for this Listserv as his top tip for LJ readers who want to improve their genealogy work. Plainfield’s Beaird uses and contributes to a website called Random Acts of Genealogy Kindness, on which volunteers sign up and say what they’re willing to look up or where they’re willing to go to do research on someone else’s behalf—to a cemetery or a courthouse, perhaps.

On trend

Says Fountaindale’s Dudek, paper-based genealogy is becoming a lost art, and people need to remember that there isn’t one online place where they can find everything. A tech trend that’s upsetting some genealogists for privacy reasons, says Darien’s Goodman, is that various genealogy companies are moving away from services that allow users to create and store information on their desktops and toward everything being online.

As in all areas of library service, changes in what patrons want and expect and changes in what vendors offer are a two-way street. The major databases offered by vendors that are in the genealogy business reflect patrons’ increasing expectations of genealogy products; they also help create those expectations. Increased interest and competition spur vendors to add material and features to their offerings.

EBSCO Information Services, for example, which distributes databases such as MyHeritage to libraries, notes that it has seen an increased interest in genealogy since the PBS and TLC shows have created such buzz. In the week he was in touch for this article, Ross Bloom, global marketing manager at MyHeritage, says the size of his database more than doubled to more than 90 million pages with the addition of more than 54 million pages of content, including “directories, local newspapers, government documents and registers, published genealogies and books, and many more sources.” MyHeritage features Global Name Translation, a feature that automatically translates names from historical records and family trees from one language into another, “at very high accuracy, generating all plausible translations,” making it much easier to search, say, Greek or Arabic genealogical sources.

UNEARTHING HISTORY (At l.): Filmmaker and professor Brian Palmer and his wife hope to restore Richmond’s historic East End Cemetery by documenting the sadly neglected gravestones. (Right): Fountaindale Public Library District Genealogy Club members take field trips that use the BillionGraves app to assist in research and discovery. Left photo courtesy of Erin Hollaway Palmer; right photo courtesy of Fountaindale Public Library District

UNEARTHING HISTORY (At l.): Filmmaker and professor Brian Palmer and his wife hope to restore Richmond’s historic East End Cemetery by documenting the sadly neglected gravestones. (Right): Fountaindale Public Library District Genealogy Club members take field trips that use the BillionGraves app to assist in research and discovery. Left photo courtesy of Erin Hollaway Palmer; right photo courtesy of Fountaindale Public Library District

Technological enhancements to traditional materials are a trend. As illustration, ProQuest has long offered a digital version of Sanborn Maps, detailed U.S. city maps that were created by fire insurance company Sanborn and are a valuable source of data for genealogists. The legacy version is a browse-only product that allows users to view the maps as they were originally found in Sanborn’s atlases, but ProQuest now also offers a geocoded version that allows users to type in a particular address and go directly to that map.

Demographic trends in the United States mean shifts in who is seeking genealogical data. If a given ethnicity has a large number of retirees with time to spend on research, interest will grow on those records—lately, Forsyth says, this and an increased availability of records on Jewish history have meant a boom in Jewish genealogy. Similarly, “As each generation gets further away from the homeland, you see a growing interest in finding out more about their family history,” says Forsyth. When ProQuest offered a class on Hispanic family research at the American Library Association annual conference in Orlando, FL, in 2004, the turnout was poor. However, “when Ancestry [ProQuest offers a library version of] added many birth, marriage, and death records and census records from Mexico [in October 2015], it is probably the content that has generated the most emails and phone calls from librarians, asking if it was going to be made available in the library edition.” (There’s no definitive answer to that question yet.)

DNA analysis is the newest frontier and a big trend both for researchers to try and companies to offer. While they’re always informative, DNA results can sometimes be surprising or disappointing—imagine finding out that a famous family connection is not connected at all. Privacy concerns are a major factor when it comes to DNA records—Forsyth notes that DNA information is akin to medical data, and he foresees laws such as HIPAA (which protects medical privacy) coming into effect.

Hidden history

When information is just not cropping up on a given person at all, it’s worth switching to a different database or other resource, as even though various vendors often offer access to the same material—such as census records—indexing is done by the vendor. Still, work on some groups can pose challenges. FPLD’s Dudek says that she notices difficulties when researching women, African Americans, and American Indians. Resources that Dudek has used for patrons researching African American family history include freedmen’s records and records of former slaves who contracted to work as share­croppers on plantations. Historic Chicago newspapers have been a valuable source of information, says Dudek, as the Southern papers that sprung up during and after Reconstruction lack the prewar information that the Chicago papers offer. Similarly helpful, she says, are newspapers that documented the abolitionist movement.

Plainfield’s Beaird recommends the website Afrogenesis as “a great starting point”; records of former slaves signing up for bank accounts can also be fruitful, she says. Slave owners would place ads looking for runaways, and those are now available as well and sometimes list names. Invoices or indenture paperwork will show where the slave or servant came from. Oral history can also be very important in cultures in which written records are lacking. When information is missing it’s time to get creative, emphasizes Beaird.

Sensitivity and confidence

King County’s Brixey advises sensitivity when things get emotional. “I did have one patron whose family lore said that their great uncle was a war hero,” she said, “but he was on a deserter list. Just like in any other reference work, you have to be sensitive in challenging somebody’s reality.” What if the emotion is on the librarian’s part? Several we spoke with mentioned the need to be confident. “Don’t get intimidated by genealogists,” says NYPL’s Cordes. “They want to get together and share their stories—channel it some way, and you’ll have a ­really great resource.” Cordes recommends that librarians new to genealogy should work on their own family history first, in order to become familiar with the available resources and learn how to search. Those who are still overwhelmed by this particularly informed patron group should remember Brixey’s maxim: “They know more about genealogy. But I know more about the library.”

Theory—and Practice—of Relativity

Librarians looking to develop their genealogy collection should read Jean Fisher’s “All in the Family,” (, which lists the best related books, databases, and websites. As well as Fisher’s resources, it’s worth exploring other items from publisher, a great source of reference and other materials for family history.

Free Roots MOOC—the MOOC is not currently running, but its materials are very useful to beginning genealogists.

Boston University’s semesterlong, stringent Online Genealogical Research Certificate Program.

 Vendor and library blogs; for example, Gale’s blog and NYPL’s list of blogs.

Salt Lake City’s annual RootsTech conference and the city’s LDS-owned Family History Library, which also runs

 ALA’s RUSA preconferences at each ALA annual and Midwinter Meeting, and organizations such as the National Genealogical Society and the Federation of Genealogical Societies’ professional development workshops for librarians at their annual conferences.

The Digital Public Library of America’s (DPLA) many holdings—a collection of family-tree inscribed family Bibles, for example—that researchers might find useful (in fact, DPLA is an exhibitor at RootsTech). Read about what the library has to offer genealogists.

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