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FAMILY TIES: Tracing your ancestry
by Dan Burrows

 Visiting genealogical and historical libraries.
     Once you have done the preliminary work of gathering up all the genealogical material around the house from family bibles, address books, old letters, photographs, and interviews of the more elderly relatives, you are ready to venture out to libraries, town halls, county records centers, cemeteries, and more.  (For more information on how to get started, see "Family Ties" article 2)  We are now going to discuss research libraries and what you might expect to find. 

     It is very important to remember that you should always research and do your detective work close to the source of the problem you are trying to solve.  If Grandma was born in Horseheads, NY, that is where you want to look for information.  You might find a tidbit of information in a local library, but to get the most benefit of your time, it always pays to go close to the source.  Your second best source would be your State Library which usually houses information from all areas of the state.  The first thing to do in this instance,  would be to locate Horseheads.  An atlas or even better yet, a New York State gazetteer is a great starting point.  French's 1860 Gazetteer and Spafford's 1824 Gazetteer are the most useful for NYS research.  These are available in most libraries.  You would find out that Horseheads is in Chemung County, except that prior to the county line changes in May of 1823, it was in Tioga County.  Knowing the county is important when looking for wills and deeds to aid in your research.

     The next step is to locate research facilities near Horseheads.  Your local library or genealogical society can help you.  You would discover that the Steele Memorial Library in Elmira, NY has an excellent genealogical collection as does the Chemung County Historical Society.  There are directories to these libraries and the Genealogical Helper Magazine published by Everton Publishers (available at many libraries) publishes a list once a year of most places to do your research -- listed first by country, then state, and then alphabetically. 

     Suppose you cannot travel to where Grandma was born.  The US postal service is one of the great genealogical tools at your disposal.  Simply write a one paragraph letter outlining your problem.   Example:  I wish to learn the parents of my great grandmother Mary Smith who married John Jones.  She was born in Horseheads 25 Nov 1866.  Can you help me or direct to where I might find information.   Keep it short and sweet, send them a SASE (stamped self-addressed envelope) and a couple of bucks to cover copying costs or donation.  Keep track of who you have written to and whether or not you received a response.  I wrote a letter to a
Genealogical Society in Ontario, Canada and the volunteer who was assigned to my letter happened to have written a book on the family I was researching and she copied many cemetery records that were of great help to me.  She also sold me one of her books.  I once visited the State Vital Records Department in Concord, New Hampshire only to find a distant cousin with whom I had corresponded with for 2 years was in charge that day and she let me look at what ever records I wanted without restraint.  I later discovered she had been to a seminar where I was a speaker and she had sat in the front row.  No wonder she looked familiar.  You will soon discover that the Genealogical World is very small and that all these "nice genealogists" will cross your path over and over again. 

     Assuming that you are able to travel, bear in mind that every research facility is unique.  The scope and focus of materials they house will vary greatly in addition to the amount of resources, their form, and their availability.  The worst type of facility has "closed stacks" where you must request books, files,  and other materials and wait for someone to retrieve them for you.  Places where you have access to the materials yourself will reap you the most benefits and give you the most research for your time. 

Examples of types of libraries are:

Town/village or other municipal Libraries
Genealogical or Historical Societies *
Family History Libraries  (Mormon Church)
State Libraries and archives
Library of Congress and National Archives
I. Family Organizations or Private Collections

* Some Societies do not have their own libraries and house their collections within other libraries.

     Before visiting a library or research facility for the first time, talk to someone who has been there or better yet go with them. Call for a general idea of the type of collection they have. Ask for directions, hours of operation and fees (some historical societies do charge a small fee to use their library), parking accommodations, photocopy policies and prices, places to purchase meals or to eat your brown bag lunch, other nearby places to research, and by all means ask if they have open or closed stacks.

     As stated before, the closer to the source or problem, the better chance of finding something.  Have a specific research plan and stick to it.  Plan which families and what problems your are trying to solve.  If you strike out, have some ideas jotted down for alternative research.

     When you first arrive at a research facility, find a knowledgeable staff member to give you a tour of the collection and how to retrieve it. Let them show you the card catalogue, use of the computer, specialty files and extra projects and resources.   Whenever photocopying materials at a far away library be sure to get the title page, name of library and call number.  Suppose you get home and discover you are missing page 23 of a book and it just happens to contain the information you wanted.  You can write the library, send them a dollar and an SASE, give them the information about the book, and ask them to send you the copy of the page you missed.

     Before going to a far away library or other research facility, visit your local Genealogical Society research room.  Learn what types of resources are out there and get a general idea of what you might find at a genealogical library.  You will usually find town, county, and state histories, family genealogies in book form or files, microfilms of census and other records, church records, cemetery transcriptions, maps, will abstracts, military information, and newspapers on microfilm just to mention a few.  There are so many things to look at in a genealogical library that 6 hours will seem like a half-hour.  Plan on spending a few hours and be sure to take your notes and charts with you. 


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