In the Genealogical Treasure Hunt,
Librarians Read the Map
By Sasha Nyary, Dean’s Editorial Fellow
Once the exclusive purview of the wealthy and royalty, genealogy exploded with the 1976 publication and subsequent broadcast of Alex Haley’s Roots. The advent of the internet has revolutionized the field by making genealogical resources and community vastly more accessible to professionals and amateurs. And with their local collections, access to the Web, and extensive research skills, both print and electronic, librarians are on the front lines. A quarter of social and recreational public library users, some 11.8 million people, used library computers to research family history in the past year, according to a study published in March by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
It’s a busy Wednesday night in October at the Forbes Library in Northampton, Mass. All the public computers are in use and there’s a waitlist. The circulation desk is doing a brisk business. Up the magnificent oak staircase, a concert of the vibes and ukulele is about to begin the Calvin Coolidge Presidential Library and Museum — Forbes, the only public library in the country with a presidential collection, holds the largest amount of primary materials on the former president — and while the audience gathers, they study the portraits and peruse the collection that’s mostly in glass cabinets lining the walls.
Forbes archivist Julie Bartlett ’02LS wanders among them, answering questions, until a patron approaches her. She needs help finding information about Private Gordon Loomis, who died in 1944, for an article she is writing for her church’s newsletter about her church’s families. In addition to being the Coolidge archivist, Bartlett also oversees the library’s local history collection. She works just 27 hours a week at the Forbes, so she picks up a few hours doing archives, reference, and user instruction at nearby Holyoke Community College. While the skills needed to answer genealogy questions are similar to reference skills, they aren’t quite the same, she says.
“Detective skills are crucial,” says Bartlett. “Persistence. Knowing the collection — your own, and also what you don’t have, and where it is. We don’t own the vital records, for instance; the City Clerk does. And then to be able to rattle off that email address, phone number, and hours off the top of your head.”
That’s the kind of information Bartlett has picked up since she started at the Forbes in 2004. Genealogy is not offered in library schools (although GSLIS offers it as a CE class; see Snapshot), so Bartlett, like genealogist-librarians everywhere, learned on the job. She studied Northampton history, took online courses, such as the free webinars offered by Ancestry.com, toured the National Archives and Records Administration facilities in Pittsfield, Mass., and attended the Librarian Day workshop offered by the New England Historic Genealogical Society (a.k.a. HistGen) at their 2006 conference held in conjunction with the Federation of Genealogical Societies.
A nonprofit private library, HistGen, is among the places Bartlett might send a patron when she’s stumped. Founded in 1845, it’s the oldest genealogical society in the country, and as such has more than 20 million documents, artifacts, records, diaries, journals, books, photographs, family papers, bibles, and other items dating back more than 400 years. Visitors to the elegant eight-story building on Newbury Street in Boston’s Back Bay are likely to be assisted there by genealogist David Dearborn ’82LS, who has worked at HistGen since 1976.
While the library is open to the public, its research staff does focus on its 25,000 members, who come from across the U.S. — about twothirds from outside New England — and beyond. The annual membership dues, which start at a modest $75, allow members to use the facilities, as well as all of the organization’s databases. HistGen offers classes, workshops, and weeklong field trips for research. Like Bartlett, Dearborn and his colleagues don’t have any formal genealogical training. “It’s an apprentice system,” he says. “We all grew up loving history, and most of us developed our own personal interest early on,” noting that he landed his job in part because of his master’s in history.
“If I were working in a public library and wanted to be the go-to person there,” says Dearborn, “I’d join a local genealogy group, and go to their meetings. They meet in church halls and grange halls, and they share an interest in genealogy or history. There’s a Polish group based in Northampton, for instance, that meets regularly. Then, there are two national organizations that hold annual conferences, the Federation of Genealogical Societies, and the National Genealogical Society, and I’d try to get to one of those. They are great for networking. You meet a lot of people, not only speakers and exhibitors, but other people in the same boat as you.”
Not every public library has the resources to provide local history to its patrons, Dearborn points out — nor do they all have a collection. But the Forbes, a mid-sized library in the heart of the state’s Pioneer Valley, not only has the skilled Bartlett on staff, along with a retired genealogist-librarian who works five hours a week, it also owns an extensive local-history collection, going back to the city’s founding in 1654. Bartlett and her colleague are not always there during open hours, so everyone on the library’s staff needs enough genealogy training to answer basic questions.
Tonight, serenaded by the sounds of the vibes concert, Bartlett guides the patron through the art and music stacks into the Hampshire Room, about 2,400 square feet, with 15-foot ceilings that dwarf the 12-foot glass and oak cabinets full of leatherbound volumes that line the walls.
Thanks to Joseph L. Harrison, the Forbes director from 1912 to 1950, the library owns folders for 3,000 area soldiers from World Wars I and II. The folders, indexed by town and name, include a form, sent by the library and completed, typically, by the soldiers’ families, listing basic demographic data, including schools attended and military service dates. Two-thirds of the folders have photos.
The librarians had also compiled and indexed some two dozen massive scrapbooks of newspaper clippings from the local paper, the Daily Hampshire Gazette. The index tells Bartlett the volume and page numbers where she can find clippings about Pvt. Loomis, all brief: a story about him on furlough visiting his family, another about his transfer, and finally, a story about his funeral service. Bartlett scans the pages the patron wants, puts the files on a flash drive, and heads back to her office, where she emails the files to the woman.
“Some people want you to open a file cabinet, pull out a folder, and hand you the completed chart,” Bartlett says. Sometimes they hand her a chart with spaces for the missing names highlighted. “It’s not uncommon to get a phone call saying, ‘I just discovered my person lived in Northampton. Give me everything you have.’ Or, a patron might say, ‘How come there’s not a book about my family, they’ve been here since 16- whatever.’” The Forbes, not surprisingly, doesn’t have the staff to answer general questions. Queries have to be specific, and some work engenders a fee. Bartlett usually responds to phone calls by asking for the query in email, if possible. When she gets it, she prints it out and highlights the requests.
“I spend a lot of time figuring out what they want,” she says. “We need specific questions, so ‘anything you have on . . .’ is not sufficient. We do have a list of researchers for hire. We try to help.” When patrons are local, Bartlett asks them to schedule an hour when she can teach them how to get started, especially on the databases. The library also holds classes on using websites and searching census records. Sometimes these are tied to a holiday, such as an Irish genealogical focus timed around St. Patrick’s Day.
New England was the jumping-off place for millions of American families, so the queries come from all over the country. Bartlett is often contacted by people who want to join the Daughters or Sons of the American Revolution, or the Mayflower Society, and those organizations all need certified proof that the claim is legitimate; the process can take years.
“Some people come in their motor home and they pull out their folder and their box and they expect to spend the afternoon. Others come in and want it like that,” Bartlett says, snapping her fingers. “The majority are over 50, but there’s also a lot of younger people who are helping parents and grandparents do research. We do see more women than men.”
Not everything patrons might learn will be positive, Bartlett says. “I tell them, ‘you need to be prepared not to like what you’ll find. You’re going to find the black sheep in the family, the one who ran off. If you were adopted and want to trace your family, you might be disappointed.’ A lot of people are adamant, ‘There’s no way that could be my relative.’”
It helps that, like Dearborn — and most genealogists — Bartlett has traced her own family history and dug up her own black sheep, including a great-great uncle no one knew about who had left his family to start a new one in Connecticut.
“It’s definitely a treasure hunt,” Bartlett says after the woman she was helping has departed. “Some people leave here with tears of joy. That patron was so disappointed there wasn’t an index of the local paper downstairs. But then she came up here and said, ‘Wow, look at all the stuff you have here!’”
Genealogist-librarian Irene Hansen has lots of suggestions for print and electronic resources, suitable for librarians looking to supplement their collections, as well as people seeking to get started in genealogy.
Anyone interested in genealogy, and genealogist-librarians in particular, should subscribe to “Genealib — Librarians Serving Genealogists.” This listserv connects librarians and genealogists across the country and around the world. To subscribe or unsubscribe via the Web, visit http://mailman.acomp.usf.edu/mailman/listinfo/genealib,
or send an email with “help” in the subject or body to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Offers links to online resources by topic.
Digital images and databases; individual and library
Resources of LDS Family History Library. Click on “Library”
followed by “Library Catalog.” Also click on “See prototype for
searching millions of records”: http://pilot.familysearch.org/recordsearch/start.html#start.
Volunteer-based resources, organized by state.
Rootsweb Genealogical Data Cooperative.
These programs can help organize information and research:
Family Tree Maker
Personal Ancestral File
For additional resources from Hansen, including a list of how-to manuals and reference books, visit the InfoLink Online: gslis.simmons.edu/infolink. You’ll also find a list of the major regional and national genealogy collections.