23 and We: Contemporary Genealogy Services

Libraries and archive genealogy services are adapting to widespread DNA testing and pandemic challenges.

Libraries and archive genealogy services are adapting to widespread DNA testing and pandemic challenges.

These days anyone can buy a DNA test—in theory, completely bypassing the genealogy research process. But in practice, such tests are just as likely to feed curiosity about what else can be learned. While services such as 23 and Me produce quick results using science as an aggregator, in libraries and archives genealogical histories unfold through books, manuscripts, archives, and preserved heirlooms. And while the pandemic pressed pause on much in-person travel to ancestral homes, librarians, archivists, and researchers across the country are providing new ways for their patrons to access genealogical services during the pandemic.


COMMUNITY CONNECTIONS Austin Public Library’s Asian American Community Archivist Ayshea Khan performing community outreach at the Thinkery Community Night. Photo courtesy of Austin Public Library


The Cincinnati & Hamilton County Public Library (CHPL), OH, hosts an array of events available to all patrons virtually. Larry Richmond, manager of the Genealogy and Local History Department, says the library does not receive specific DNA inquiries. However, it does have in its stacks a copy of Libby Copeland’s The Lost Family: How DNA Testing Is Upending Who We Are, an exceptional book about DNA genealogy that is a guide into “traditional genealogy research,” he notes.

The department works to make sure its local resources and collections represent the diversity of the community. Richmond shares background history about their local African American community genealogy collection. “I’m most proud of what we’ve called the African American Society Columns, which were published weekly in three local papers from 1884 to 1896,” says Richmond. “Written by and for the Black community, they are a fascinating look at individuals, businesses, church and social events, as well as the commentary on the issues of the day.” The columns now are searchable in CHPL’s digital library. (Editor’s note: A resource like this is particularly valuable because researching Black genealogy can often lead to missing information or traumatic events; a feature article on Black genealogy will appear in the reference supplement mailed with the November issue of LJ.)

Through the department’s digitization efforts, they were prepared for the pandemic by “allowing customers to access popular resources like our city directories,” Richmond says. CHPL’s Genealogy and Local History Department is on its way to partnering with Newspaper Archive to digitize its local newspaper microfilm collection and make it available to cardholders outside the library.



When researching Hispanic genealogy from afar, the Hispanic Genealogical Research Center (HGRC) of New Mexico, located in the Research and Literary Arts Building at the National Hispanic Cultural Center, Albuquerque, is an excellent resource for genealogy experts. The research center provides patrons with a free online database, titled the Great New Mexico Pedigree Database Project. (Pedigree, in this context, refers to documentation that is often used for tracking specific traits and disease inheritence.) According to HGRC, “It is an ambitious project to organize immense amounts of research into one connected genealogical chart of New Mexico’s Hispanic ancestry. It is the result of combining many different GEDCOM files (computer genealogy data format) as well as information from various published sources into one unified database…and combined research of dozens of New Mexico’s foremost Hispanic genealogists.” The center offers free registration to access the online database that features more than 100,000 individuals and 60,000 families.

The web platform also features an array of resources like the New Mexico DNA Project (hosted on FamilyTreeDNA), which has close to 4,000 members. According to administrator Angel Cervantes, the project “seeks to better understand the history of New Mexico and its descendants within the last 420 years.” For individuals to participate in the project they must have their DNA evaluated and virtually connected to the FamilyTreeDNA platform.



When the Kentucky Department for Libraries and Archives is fully open, Archival Services Branch Manager Jennifer Patterson says, special genealogy programs are very much on the agenda. One such program is the annual Kentucky State Archives Institute, for which staff contacted FamilySearch and Ancestry to speak about their DNA collections. “Obviously, DNA-related topics are a big draw these days, but you have to make sure that your speaker is knowledgeable,” says Patterson. “Educating folks about the resources available and where to find them can be important for both beginners and experienced researchers. We try to collaborate with presenters who have also used our resources so that we can really show folks how others have used the materials at KDLA to further their research, whether it be on genealogy or other historical or governmental topics.”

The physical library and archives, which reopened on June 13, had been closed since March 2019. Nonetheless, Patterson emphasizes that while in-person programs may be on hold—at press time, the libraries and archives were open to the public by appointment only—the library’s services to family seekers are not. The libraries and archives “hold many records that can be of genealogical importance. We have birth and death records, as well as local records such as deeds, wills, marriages, tax lists, and others. We also store civil and criminal case files from most counties in Kentucky that can also serve as important sources of family history.” Even before it reopened, the department provided access to those resources via its virtual platform, which offers a free online database, Indexes to Kentucky Births, Marriages, and Deaths - (1911-1999). “We are working on digitizing more of the items that we have within our collection,” Patterson adds, “but there are a lot of records, and again, COVID-19 has impacted our ability to have folks in the building to digitize the records. Moving forward, we would like to investigate additional ways to provide off-site access, but with such a small staff and such a large workload, it is difficult to focus on new and innovative outreach programs.”



Ayshea Khan is the Asian American Community Archivist at the Austin History Center, Austin Public Library, TX. She talks about her work in the Asian Pacific American Community and how genealogy plays a role in the archives profession. “I do believe that genealogy is a separate, rich, and complex field that requires a skill set you may not always acquire when pursuing a career in archival management and preservation,” she says “To be honest, when I first started in my role at the Austin History Center, I did not initially consider how much genealogy connects to community archives.” However, she learned on the job. As the community archivist, she works to “collect, preserve, provide access to, and advocate for the diverse histories of Asian Americans living in Austin and Travis County. Genealogy intersects with these responsibilities all the time.” Due to the lack of archives related to Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) families resulting from “neglect or misrepresentation by our predominantly white archival institutions,” Khan says, she has to do additional work to “identify people, dates, and the larger immigration stories connected to the archival collections in our care.”

Recently given the opportunity to develop documentation about an Asian American family, Khan says of her current work, “I have been working alongside my volunteer researcher, April Gao, who is developing an interactive map of Austin’s early AAPI businesses and people who worked there. According to the 1875 Census, there were 20 Chinese families living in Austin,” including bachelors working in grocery stores, laundromats, and small restaurants in the downtown area. While working on the project, she stumbled upon what is possibly Austin’s first Chinese-owned grocery. “Wa Haing & Mercer Grocery was open from 1882 to 1886 and was a well-respected Austin establishment,” she says. “Haing was even exempt from the 1885 boycott enacted by the Knights of Labor, a national labor union, on all Chinese-owned businesses in Austin. Documentation about Haing after 1886 has been difficult to track down, but I would love to know more about his family and life after Austin.”

Says Khan, “While Austin’s Asian American population is currently the fastest growing demographic in the city, the history of our communities is often overlooked and under,represented. Prioritizing AAPI genealogy can show how we have always been here, thriving and helping shape Austin into the city it is today.”



Though libraries and archives across the country are offering limited in-person services during the ongoing pandemic, they all have, to the best of their ability, continued to provide information, assistance, and special resources like genealogy, in a time when lives are being lost at an alarming rate. Missing those family members may send even more patrons in search of memories and connection. DNA tests now cost under $100 and are returned within a matter of weeks, but interest in researching family history through libraries and archives continues unabated, and possibly even increased. While DNA science provides quick go-to answers, libraries and archives complement those findings with the intricate details, stories, and histories that science cannot uncover on its own.



Librarians and archivists are also researchers who seek out their own family histories. Elizabeth Brumfield, distance services librarian and head at Prairie View A&M University’s Northwest Houston Center Library, is the author of An Ordinary Man: Black Power in Overalls. Brumfield’s journey began with wanting to write about historical genealogy, “the study of ordinary people’s lives in their immediate relationships and wider impact on society,” she says. “This book chronicles the life of an ordinary man who lived through unique times in American history, Jim Crow, World War II, and Civil Rights.” That man is her stepfather, Dudley Brumfield, who has two streets named after him in the East Liberty Gardens area of Pittsburgh, PA. He fought for 20 years to be admitted into the Plumbers Union, and was responsible for hiring more than 200 Black plumbers.

Brumfield says that in researching his history, which begins in Mississippi, she discovered the importance of recording “life stories.” Everyone is a part of the memory process, Brumfield believes. As a librarian at a Historically Black College or University (HBCU), she says, “We have access to resources that many don’t know about regarding how to find genealogical information.” She used physical and online resources including newspapers, maps, and help from researchers and librarians. Authoring the book and then self-publishing it took time. Initially, the author tells LJ, she did not think about marketing, but when she got wind of what it could do for her work, she jumped at the opportunities.

To get the word out, she attended conferences before the pandemic, including the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, meetings of the Black Caucus of the American Library Association (BCALA) at the ALA Annual Conference, and the HBCU Library Alliance. Today, the book is in its fourth printing. Brumfield recently purchased a copy of her own book from a rare book dealer. She explains, “The seller had an autographed copy signed by my mother, who was my coauthor. I realized I did not have an autographed copy and my mother passed away a few years ago. So I purchased a copy of my own book at four times the cost.” Librarians should share the value of listening to family stories and taking notes, she says. “One of the things I discovered…is that you think it is all about your family, but it is really about the times and circumstances they lived in. You, your family, are part of a larger story that you learn about through researching.”


kYmberly Keeton is a native Texan, nationally published writer, art librarian and archivist, and genealogy curator. The ALA Emerging Leader and Library Journal 2020 Mover & Shaker is Chief Artistic Officer of NOVELLA MEDIA LLC and founder of ART | library deco, a virtual African American Art Library. She is pursuing a PhD in Information Science, Interdisciplinary Studies at the University of North Texas.

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