Researching in your pajamas

When I was a child, my library card was sturdy cardboard, inset with a metal tab, embossed with my ID number. Remember those?

Now my card has an electronic bar code, and libraries have certainly expanded their horizons.  As a kid, I’d never have imagined the riches I could uncover in the comfort of my home, 24/7. Here’s some of what I can access from my home computer, using my little old library card:

Genealogy collections: Of course, many libraries carry Ancestry.com, but you must physically be in the library to use it. But many libraries also offer online access to HeritageQuest, where you can search censuses, government document collections, genealogical journal articles and more.

Newspapers: Before you drag yourself outside on a cold and snowy day, consider how many newspaper databases are accessible online. The New York Times electronic database (1851-2005) is one of the most common. Other useful indexes your library may carry include the “America’s Obituaries and Death Notices” database and Newsbank (America’s Newspapers), which currently carries 350 newspapers.

Digital photo collections: Oh, my gosh, do I love these. More and more libraries (like my hometown library) are digitizing their collections of historical photos. I can lose myself in the New York Public Library’s digital collections for hours if I’m not careful. Not to mention the NYPL’s videos on historic topics, also viewable on the site.

Digital maps: Another secret vice.  Lately I’ve been rooting around in the Sanborn fire insurance maps for New Jersey, 1867-1970, finding out fascinating things about the neighborhood in which I grew up. To get an idea of how vast this concept is, the Library of Congress has catalogued fire insurance maps of some 12,000 cities and towns in the U.S., Canada and Mexico. Not only are they topographically detailed, but because they were intended to help insurers determine risk, they also go into incredible detail about building and street construction, down to the placement of windows and types of roofs. If your ancestors, like mine, were town folks, these maps are an amazing resource.

So pour yourself a cup of coffee and log into your library’s website. You’d be surprised how much you can get done in your pajamas.

Note: I started writing this before the first 52 Weeks to Better Genealogy challenge came up from Amy Coffin at WeTree, urging us to actually visit our local library and report back on their family history resources. Never fear – I don’t need much urging to physically enter my library, and I’ll be taking up the challenge in my next post.


History Mystery: Circling Around

Today’s post is about one of those minor local history mysteries. Simply put: What is this thing?

stone circle

Is this left over from wartime? Not sure.

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Advent Calendar: All Hail The Yule Log

For the GeneaBloggers Advent Calendar of Christmas Memories: Christmas Eve.

Thank God for the Yule Log, is all I can say.

We were a bit thin on Christmas Eve traditions in my childhood home. My mother’s parents were German, so we could have adopted the German custom of keeping the tree in a closed room until the big reveal for the wide-eyed children on Christmas Eve.

But my German grandpa was more about being all-American. Anyway, he could hardly have hidden a Christmas tree in his Brooklyn apartment. And it wouldn’t be any easier to pull off in the New Jersey split-level where we were raised.

But we could cherish the Yule Log, a Christmas Eve TV tradition in the greater New York City area from 1966 to 1989. If you grew up in that place and time, chances are you tuned in to WPIX-TV for your fix, at least for a minute or two:

The Yule Log’s magic is hard to explain to someone who didn’t grow up with it. (“Let me get this straight. It was a VIDEO of a LOG. Burning. In the fireplace. With Christmas carols. That’s it?”)

Yeah. That’s it.

The Log originally burned in the fireplace at Gracie Mansion, the official home of New York City’s mayor. You can read all the history and trivia in this delightful Yule Log website, lovingly tended by Lawrence F. “Chip” Arcuri, a maestro of Yule Log trivia.

In a 1970s version of home-theater surround, we could put the Yule Log on the TV in the living room AND on the radio in the kitchen, since it was simulcast. And the sound track was a true winter wonderland: Percy Faith! The Robert Shaw Chorale! Mantovani! My Dad singing along as he wrapped the final fruitcakes!

It is hard to imagine any TV station today devoting four hours of programming on Christmas Eve to a musical, burning log. (“Aw, c’mon. Who needs another abs machine infomercial, anyway?”) And after 20-odd years of Yule Logs, WPIX found it hard to imagine, too. The Log went out for a good long time.

But no doubt due to devoted fans like Arcuri, the Yule Log’s custodians at WPIX and its parent, Tribune Broadcasting, have rediscovered its retro appeal. It’s returned to New York airwaves in recent years, although not on Christmas Eve. Here is a schedule.

Keep the home fires burning. And Merry Christmas!


Genealogical Getting (and Giving)

I’ve seen some wonderful, thoughtful lists of genealogy gift ideas this holiday season.

Not that I need them, because of course the only gift I really want this Christmas is family togetherness (and for all my relatives to send me scans of all their ancestral photographs). Little things like that.

All right, I confess I wouldn’t mind getting a DocuPen, but I wouldn’t mind hitting the MegaMillions jackpot, either.

Back down to earth, now.

For those of us with simpler tastes and budgets, a membership to a regional or ethnic genealogy society that focuses on a specific area of interest is a terrific buy. Plus, you get the added bonus of supporting people whose research projects have direct bearing on your own family search.

There are hundreds of ideas out there, but here are just a few examples involving my own regional interests:

The German Genealogy Group:  It’s based in NY but welcomes members from anywhere. A membership is $15/yearly for US citizens; $25/yearly for citizens of other countries.

The Italian Genealogy Group: Individual membership $25/year, $27/year for families and non-US residents.

Both groups are members of the Genealogy Federation of Long Island, whose volunteers spearhead the massive New York City Vital Records indexing project, a truly monumental effort that has resulted in genealogy joy for many, many people, including me.

If you’ve read some of my previous posts, you’ll have noticed my profound admiration for the Troy (NY) Irish Genealogy Society. They’re a prime example of a vigorous and productive regional society, doing valuable preservation work and research. If you know somebody researching Troy roots, you can’t go wrong at  $10 per year, individual membership.

And in the spirit of giving as well as receiving, do consider a donation to any volunteer group whose projects have benefited your research in the last year. I know that the NYC vital records project can always use the support. (Donations can be made payable to the Italian Genealogical Group and sent to John Martino, Project Coordinator, 49 Brookhill Lane, Huntington NY 11743.)

What are your favorite ideas for genealogical getting – or giving?


Hitting The Bricks (Part I)

“Brick wall” is one of the more painful clichés of family research. And there are days I think that I should become a mason.

My great-grandfather Joseph F. Haigney has long irritated me by his refusal to be found in the 1900 census. Or in the 1900 anything, despite my diligent efforts. Talk about ingratitude.

I’ve found all his other census appearances from 1860 to 1930. I’ve journeyed to his birthplace, pored over vital records, and photographed his tombstone from a variety of angles, good, bad and ugly.
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