Golden Rules of Genealogy

If you are familiar with the world of Social Media, then you know there are various avenues in which to share ideas with the world.  One of these venues is Pintrest.  Simply speaking, it is a virtual bulletin board that you can pin recipes, ideas, quotes, and pictures to for a later date.  While perusing my account the other night, I came across this “Pin”, which was posted by a friend of mine.  It is from a website called: gotgenealogy.com, based out of Oakland, California.  My additions are italicized.  Just a little rules to remember.

Golden Rules of Genealogy

In no particular order

1.  Spelling Doesn’t Count – Back in the day folks couldn’t spell and many could barely write, so how a name sounds is more important than how it’s spelled.  Use wild card or Soundex Searches to help find variant spellings of names.  Remember…when researching in Berks County there is the added variant of multiple spellings of an ancestor’s name in German and how English speakers heard and spelled those German names.

 2.  Assume Nothing – Check all your facts, don’t assume that any particular document is right or wrong, and always try to find other independent sources to corroborate your facts as much as possible.  Verify, verify, verify.  For instance don’t assume that:

  1. your ancestors were married
  2. census information is accurate
  3. vital (or other) records were correct
  4. your ancestor’s life events were recorded
  5. ancestors had the same name as their enslaver
  6. that official documents (i.e. birth certificates, marriage certificates, death certificates) have always been in existence
  7. that our ancestors recorded the same kind of information we do today
  8. that life events and customs we celebrate today, were as important to our ancestors

3.  Use Discretion – NEVER LIE in your genealogy reports, but use discretion when reporting family information, especially when it involves living relatives.

4.  Always Document Your Sources, No Matter How Much They Contradict One Another – Over time, you will compile more data and those once seemingly contradictory pieces of evidence may prove to be just the pieces of the puzzle you need to prove or disprove your theory.  Be consistent as you cite your sources.  There are standard citation formats, but even if you just make up your own format for listing your sources, be consistent with it.  You want your descendants to be able to retrace your steps, so you always cite your sources.

5.  Most Dates Are Approximate – It’s okay to state that someone was born “abt. 1845,” or died “May 1915” if you don’t have an exact date or where various documents have different dates.  Which date is correct?”  They all are.

6.  If Unsure, Say So – Future researchers will thank you for being honest if you simply say that you cannot prove a specific fact, yet you “suspect” such and such is true.  Don’t fudge the facts.  EVER.

7.  You CANNOT Do it All Online – Yes, we love doing research online and there’s nothing better than using the computer to find new sources, view digital images of original documents and even connect with relatives.  For genealogists, the internet will never replace the wonderful work of libraries, county courthouses, archives, and historical societies.  Do as much as you can online, then turn off your computer and hit the bricks!  And, if you think it is so cool seeing that digital image of an original document, imagine what it would be like to hold it in your hands!

8.  Just Because It’s Online Doesn’t Mean It’s True – The internet is a wonderful thing but it’s filled with oodles of bad information.  Don’t make the mistake of believing anything you find online at face value.  Verify against other sources, even if you paid for the information you found online.  Consult the original source whenever possible.  This includes Ancestry.com.  They are an excellent place to start, but there is a lot of bad information floating around.  Never trust a source that doesn’t provide their citations.  If you can’t go back to the original, don’t believe the information.

9.  Pass Along Your Research – No matter how many decades you spend researching your family, your research will never be done.  Plan on passing along your research to the next generation of researchers.  Leave excellent notes, cite all your sources, explain your shorthand…in essence, leave your research the way you’d have liked to have found it.  Try not to abbreviate.  If you do abbreviate, write down the code and leave it where it can be found by researchers.  Abbreviations used today, did not mean the same today as they did in the past and vice versa; and they will not mean the same in 50 years.  Taking the time to write something completely, than abbreviating, will save future generations time in trying to decipher your work.

10.  Don’t Die With Your Stories Still In You – Diving credit to Dr. Wayne Dyer for his “Don’t die with your music still in you,” we want to remind you to tell the stories as completely and as accurately as possible.  Genealogy isn’t about just doing research.  Genealogy is about telling the stories and ensuring that your ancestor’s legacies live on for generations to come.  Without the stories, the research won’t do anyone much good.  The legacy of your ancestors rests in your capable hands.  Doing the research is fine, but always remember that you have been chosen to tell their stories.

11.  DNA Is Not A Trump Card – DNA is just one of many possible sources of information you can use to verify of deny a relationship.  Human error occurs when the results are transcribed, thereby providing false information.  DNA results should always be used in concert with other sources.

12.  Anything You Post Online Will Be “Borrowed” – You need to accept the fact that any family information you post online will be “borrowed” or outright stolen, and you will probably not get credit for all your hard work.  This is the nature of the beast…the internet.  Get over it.

13.  Don’t Assume Research is Free – Research takes time and money.  It is an investment, just like any hobby.  When contacting research institutions, don’t assume they will provide you with all the information you want for free.  These institutions have research fees.  These fees are used to keep the collections safe, the lights on and the doors open.  If you don’t want to pay the fees, visit the institution.  Most institutions have websites and research fees will be posted.  DO NOT mail in a request, without appropriate fees.

14.  Be As Specific As Possible – Know what you are searching for before calling or visiting a research institution.  Libraries, courthouses, archives and historical societies are keepers of original documents.  They provide these documents to assist with your research.  If your questions are too vague, information cannot be found or will be overlooked.  Also, remember to provide the research institution with the variation of spellings your ancestors used to help locate all appropriate information.

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Library Etiquette, Part 2

As the summer research season starts kicking up into full swing, I thought I would first, refer you to my Post entitled Library Etiquette, on “pre-visitation” to an archival facility; and second prepare you for what is in store for when you get here.

PLEASE NOTE: If you will be visiting us briefly, please call ahead.  We can have your material pulled and ready for your arrival, which will cut down on time spent pulling your information.  In addition, never assume that your research will only take 10 minutes and bring your pets with you.  Our parking lot is not shaded, and we understand how quickly researchers can lose track of time.  We do not want anything to happen to your furry friend, while you are visiting us.  (And yes, this did happen on multiple occasions last year).  One last thing, many facilities, including ours will not allow new researchers in 30-45 minutes prior to closing.  We are not trying to be mean, it is a tool used to help the researchers currently at the facility check-out of the research room on time, with copies and research material in hand.

Visiting an archival facility is like visiting a grocery store; you need a plan of attack.  If you are like me, you can spend minutes, hours, or days developing your grocery list.  If you are also like me, you also forget to get about a quarter of what is on the list and end up with items that you did not need.  Regardless, planning, especially with the Weekly Advertisements, helps save money and time at the store.  Having a plan of attack for research is also a good idea.  Researchers LOVE to research.  How many times have you been sidetracked onto whole other topic because you read about something interesting? Next thing you know, it is Saturday at 4:00 and we are closing and you did not even find half of what you were really looking for.  It happens to the best of us…including me.  Remember: No, we will not give you just five more minutes, because we spend the remaining half hour of our day, preparing for the next, even if it is a Saturday.

By doing some “pre-research” before your visit, you can plan your attack, find the information you are looking for and hopefully leave enough time to research the stuff that catches your eye.  Pre-research beings on an archival website; where some institutions include finding guides to their collections.  Finding guides come in a variety of programs, from a Microsoft or PDF document to a keyword searchable database.  Whatever the format, these guides are designed to show you what is in the collection, and provide you with enough information for you to decide if the information will benefit your research.  These guides or indexes will not give you digital access to the actual document.  For that, you will need to visit the facility.  Some institutions, bigger institutions with a lot of financial support, will often post a collection online and in full.  The reality is this is only a small percentage, the rest of us do not have the financial backing or the labor to digitize our collections.  Personally, the fun is not in the clicking of a mouse, it is in the hunt through real paper.  It is also, why you can be sidetracked.

Doing pre-research will also familiarize yourself with your own research.  This will assist you in asking us what you specifically need for your research.  I cannot stress this enough: Please do not visit an archival facility and ask them for everything they have on such and such a topic.  For example: “I would like everything you have on Oley, PA” or I would like everything you know on the Weiser Family.”  It is much better for your research, and to receive material appropriate for your research to ask specific questions, such as: “When was Oley, PA founded” or do you have any genealogical materials specific to the Weiser Family that will help identify a date of birth for my family member?”  By asking a specific question, we can better target the information you need, so we are not wasting your time with something that is not helpful for what you are looking for.  In addition, be prepared to answer follow-up questions regarding your research.  Staff and volunteers will often ask questions to help narrow down the possibilities of reference material to better target the information.  If you are unclear in what you are looking for, these questions will help guide you and extract the information we need to provide you with the proper material.  Know what you want before arriving, it will cut out a lot of aggravation and speed up your researching process.

This also applies to email requests.  Believe it or not, most institutions will not answer research requests sent through email.  The standard response from us is, yes we have the information but you must submit an official request with the appropriate fees.  Rule of thumb, if it took you longer than 5 minutes to write your email and send it…it is most likely a request that you will be asked to pay for.  Please do not email an institution your entire life story to only ask if they can help find the date of your great-great-grandfather’s birth.  Email is a good communication tool for asking about hours of operation, or confusion regarding a finding guide, it is not a venue for original research.

Archival institutions are the keepers of primary documents.  And while we appreciate the vote of confidence, we are not experts on all things history or Berks related.  It is our job to provide you with the information you need to make your own conclusions.  We cannot perform original research.  We provide you with the tools you need to complete your own research.  We want you to have a fun and productive experience while visiting us.  We hope to see you all at some point over the summer!

Happy Researching!

Catch Up

I admit it, I have been a bit neglectful of my blog lately.  So let’s catch up.

We have seen an undocumented number of researchers visiting the HJL this spring.  We have had triple digit numbers in February, March and April and are currently on track for triple digits in May.  In fact, with the two Archival workshops we hosted in February and March, we saw almost 200 people…both months!

We instituted an Archival Workshop series.  January, believe it or not, was snowed out.  It was pretty much the only snow we had this year.  In February, we hosted a Photograph Preservation Workshop.  The 59 attendees learned some basic photograph preservation techniques for their personal collections.  In March, yours truly hosted “Why Archives Matter”.  This was a look at the history of archival institutions and a look at the history of the Historical Society leading to a discussion on why we are focused on preserving our history.  Following that discussion, was an introduction into researching at the HJL, how to locate and request material and the resources we have available.  We are currently planning out next year’s series, which will hopefully be run every year between January and April (with snow dates).  Possible topics of discussion: Funeral Homes, Pennsylvania Governor John Frederick Hartranft (who served over the trial and execution of the Lincoln Conspirators) given by a descendant and possibly a “Tracing Your Roots” a look at some aspect on Genealogical research.

In April, we hosted members of the Berks County Heritage Council and individuals responsible for their organization’s archives.  The workshop was a basic introduction to archives and how to go about organizing, arranging and describing your collections.  We also looked at Collections Management, Disaster Preparedness and How to Create Databases.  We are looking into the possibility of hosting this workshop again in the fall.

In between assisting researchers and running workshops, we have been busily processing collections and have shortened our backlog significantly.  Currently, almost all of the 2011 donations have been processed.  Now, I stress almost, due to budget cuts and time constraints, we have left the bigger multi-cubic feet collections until such time as we have the resources to process them.  Regardless, when we started 2012 we were still processing 2010 donations.  Through a stroke of luck, everything clicked and we are shelving new material as we speak and updating our online databases to reflect these new additions.  I will, at some point, release the donation lists on our website and Facebook page for all to see what has come in since the last update.  While our bigger collections are not processed, they still are available for research.

For some exciting upcoming news…the HSBC and the Kutztown Folk Festival will be hosting the Pennsylvania Civil War Road Show.  This is a multidimensional traveling exhibition in a 53 foot tractor trailer that is traveling the state.  The interactive exhibits help to draw and engage the audience into the Pennsylvania experience during the war.  You are even asked to participate through an online scrapbook and by leaving your story through their video oral history booth.  We ask everyone to tell us your “historic” connection to the Civil War and leave your mark on history.  To learn more about the Road Show please visit www.PACivilWar150.com.  We here at the HSBC are excited to be hosting this exhibit at the Kutztown Folk Festival, where on average 140,000 people come and visit Berks County over the course of two weeks.  In addition to the Road Show, we will be opening our new Civil War Exhibit and hosting a walking tour of Charles Evans Cemetery.

So, while I have missed talking to you all, and I hope you’ve missed me in return, we have been busily working preparing for the summer months ahead.  We here at the HJL hope to see all of you at some point during the summer, while you are in researching.  Don’t forget to stop by and check out our new exhibit and who can resist the Folk Festival?

First Impressions

From the Collection of the Henry Janssen Library, Historical Society of Berks County

 

When I first started at the Historical Society, the curator was working on the World War I & World War II exhibit.  Even though the archives was not asked to participate, curiosity got the best of me and I went in search of images that could have been used for the exhibit.  The one above has been and still remains today to be one of my favorite images in our collection.

The Henry Janssen Library has over 20,000 images in its collection (probably more) and we have started the monumental task of digitizing all of the images for preservation and accessibility.  This project, like most of our inventorying projects, will take years to do because we can only work on the photographs when time, volunteers and money for supplies permit it.  There are other rare gems in our collection and I cannot wait to see them.

Regardless, choosing this picture is not why I am blogging about it.  In a few weeks, the library will be hosting a Senior Seminar from Albright College.  During their time here, I have to teach Seniors in the History Department the difference between primary and secondary resources.  When I first hosted this professor and she explained the premiss of the visit, I asked myself…”Shouldn’t they already know the difference?”  Apparently not.  Instead of concentrating on the differences, I focus on their uses.  It’s the Who, What, Where, When, Why and How of History.  How would you use a letter, map, deed, a newspaper or a photograph to interpret or enhance your history?  Better yet…what is the story these items tell you?

Every time I look at this image, which up until six months ago was hanging on my door, I keep getting different answers.  I originally hung the copy up to try and scare people off from constantly parading through my office.  During World War I, this image probably did illicit fear, fear of poison gas, death in the trenches, or about war in general.  It mostly gave people a chuckle as the entered or left my office.  Today, looking at this image, I imagine what those men were thinking.  “This is the only photograph I’ve ever had and no one is going to see my face.”  “You want us to do what, pose with our gear on?  Why?”  “UGH!  This is so hot when will this be done?”  I like the soldier on the far left, who seems to be slouched like “maybe if I make myself smaller, no one will notice?”

Photographs tell stories as well as document a moment in time.  Looking back through your photographs, what do those images tell you?  What stories can you see, envision, or relate?  Most importantly, how does that image tell your history?

Note: The US National Archives Facebook pages host a weekly caption contest.  They post a unique image from their collection and ask their “friends” to come up with the best caption to describe that image.  My personal favorite was a group on men kneeling by beavers, that were on leashes.  Look for it, they might have it archived on their site.  It is a fun and interesting way to look at the photographs.  If you had to pick a caption for the above image, what would it be?