Are you researching ancestors in Brooklyn, NY? You must have visited The Brooklyn Information Page. If not, click on the link right now. I will wait.
And wait. And wait.
Oh, just come back tomorrow, already. This Brooklyn-centric genealogy page is crammed with stuff, and if you’re a first-time visitor, you’ll probably root around in it for hours, just as I did when I first discovered it — gosh, can it be eleven years ago now? Hard to believe.
The Brooklyn Page was created in 1997 by Nancy Lutz, and continues to be a font of information on all things Brooklyn. It is also a gateway to the NYBrooklyn-L email list, which I might as well warn you will flood torrents of information into your email box, but is always interesting as all get-out. I get it in digest form. I have mostly lurked there, and have learned all sorts of things from the unfailingly patient regulars. There is no such thing as a dumb question there, trust me. To get an idea, you can browse the archives here.
Back to the Brooklyn Page itself: Brooklyn is a pretty complicated topic. To say your ancestors “came from Brooklyn” may be of limited usefulness, depending upon the time frame. The entity called “Brooklyn” was once a whole bunch of separate settlements, each with its own rich history. (This helps to explain the fierce neighborhood partisanship that reigns in Brooklyn to this day.) Here you can find information on old Brooklyn town names, farmlands and street names, so important in narrowing the search for an elusive relative. You can also find information on which churches were located where — also very important in a place where Roman Catholics tend to use parish names as geographic signposts.
One of the nicest things on The Brooklyn Page is Paper Trails, where Nancy has established a home for something everyone has sooner or later — a vital record that doesn’t fit anywhere in the lines they’re researching. On Paper Trails, these orphan records are available for browsing, perhaps to be discovered by someone else who can make use of them.
There are also lots and lots of transcriptions: obituaries, police-blotter stories and directory pages, to name just some.
The Brooklyn Page is searchable, which is how I discovered the identity of my great-great-uncle William Haigney’s wife, Sarah, as well as some of Sarah’s large Dowd clan from Brooklyn. It was also the place where I first discovered the maiden name of my great-uncle Joseph’s wife, Catherine Reilly Haigney.
Consider this a very belated valentine to Nancy and all the Brooklyn list regulars, whose insights, humor and wisdom continue to make my day every day.
After college, I had a temporary job as a reporter at the Bridgewater (NJ) Courier-News. It was called a postgraduate internship, which loosely translated as: “We can’t hire any full-timers, but we could use the help for a few months.”
It was mainly fun. Sure, I often had to poke myself awake at municipal meetings, but I also got to cover Ultimate Frisbee tournaments.
And by far, the coolest perk of the job was the morgue.
“Morgue” is newspaper slang for the files of old clippings and photos. Before digitalization, this meant a roomful of overflowing file cabinets. It varied as to how well the morgue was organized, or if it existed at all. There might be an actual archivist on hand, but at small papers, there might simply be a copy editor who got sick of never being able to find reference material, so the morgue was a labor of love.
I lived for clip file research. Heck, I sometimes made up reasons to check the clips. (I really should have heeded this inner voice and chucked journalism in favor of a career in archiving.)
But today, newspapers are in shrink mode. Papers are closing. Or, like my former employer, they’re moving to smaller, cheaper quarters, with limited space for clip files.
This article, while bringing back memories, is a reminder that in many towns, the priceless resource that is a newspaper archive might be at risk. Fortunately the Courier-News management has donated its holdings to local libraries and historical societies.
But will everybody? What will happen to all that history? Speaking to a Syracuse, NY reporter, author and former newspaper guy Pete Hamill expressed the unique character of the morgues: “They tell you all the detail that historians don’t. How much was a pair of shoes. What did a guy pay to go to the ballpark in 1934 during the Depression. How many people were there.”
Interestingly, at least one business out there has sensed a commercial boon in old newspaper clippings. A few months back, Kevin Roderick at LA Observed reported on Time Capsule Press, whose owners plan to partner with newspaper managements to package material from their morgues into books. Their debut is a history of the Los Angeles Lakers drawn from the files of the Los Angeles Times.
It’s a definite bright spot of potential for a historical resource that can’t be allowed to disappear.
There is nothing better than a gigantic used-book sale, where you could spend a whole Saturday happily digging. I always expect to come away with a wheelbarrow’s worth of reading.
I don’t always expect to come up with a window into my grandparents’ lost everyday life, but that’s what I found at one book sale.
The window was Daddy Danced The Charleston, a vintage cultural memoir by Ruth Corbett, a veteran ad-agency artist. She also had a huge stash of memorabilia – a perfect source for her history of everyday life, circa 1920-1940.
Writing in 1970, Corbett aimed Charleston squarely at her daughter, a miniskirted mod-squader who giggled at flappers and raccoon coats. “Maybe she’ll laugh at her getup in 1990!” groused Corbett in her introduction. (No kidding.)
Corbett’s book resurrects vanished fixtures of everyday life, such as:
• full-service grocery shops
• irons you had to heat on the stove
• vacuum-tube cash-carrying systems in department stores
• oleomargarine you colored yellow with the capsule in the package
These are the details that bring old family stories into clearer focus. Corbett’s book is like the missing text to some of my family photos. Here’s the inside scoop on marcel waves, middy blouses, “Terry and the Pirates” and Fibber McGee’s closet. (If you ever had a mom or grandma tell you your room looked like “the inside of Fibber McGee’s closet,” you now know it wasn’t a compliment.)
Who knew that George VI’s unexpected accession to the British throne touched off a wave of coronation fever that swept everyday fashion in 1937, sparking a vogue for tiaras and brass coronet buttons on blouses?
And who can resist white-hot, now forgotten celebrities like the “girl diva” Marion Talley, “youngest lady to ever trill on the great opera stage”?
I can’t. And the book only cost me a dollar. I guess I got a pretty good deal.
After a brief break for shoveling snowdrifts, Ms. Bossy delivers the promised followup on How to Love Your Library. Just a few more rules (excuse us, suggestions) for making the most of a research trip:
Ask about what’s digitized. If the library has an online catalogue, study it, then call the library with a focused set of questions. You might even strike gold and find that the library has put its collections of photos and postcards online. In many cases, online archives are an ever-evolving work in progress, with materials added as more funding becomes available.
Follow local regulations. They vary greatly. I have researched in libraries where you never, ever browse the holdings; the staff retrieves materials you request. I have been in places where they cheerfully wave you into the archive room with a reminder that they close at 6 P.M.
A very incomplete list of some rules you may encounter:
• Wear white cotton gloves while handling old books and papers, if they ask you to. Even if they don’t, it’s nice to have your own pair – you can find them for $5 a dozen online if you look around.
• Turn pages properly – which you should also do whether they ask or not. Don’t reach for the corners; on old books they are apt to crumble under the pressure of your fingers. Instead, slide a finger carefully under the center of the page edge and gently turn it.
• No pens allowed in the archive room.
• No briefcases or purses in the archive room. (Usually they’ll lock them up for you, and I’ve been able to bring my laptop along, just not my briefcase.)
• No photographing documents.
Obviously not all rules apply in all places. Also obviously, it’s bad form to whine to the librarian that you were able to photograph the ledger pages at the Whatsis Library, so why not here? Not that you would do such a thing, I know.
Thank everybody. A lot. Librarians are some of the nicest people around. (Either that, or they are the most underrated actors imaginable.) I’m amazed at the genuine interest and enthusiasm librarians show when I turn up on their doorstep researching complete strangers. So say thanks. Consider a donation, if you can. And if you live within shouting distance, consider volunteering your services as a transcriber. If that fabulous pamphlet listing prominent Civil War veterans isn’t indexed online, it isn’t out of spite; it’s because there isn’t enough money or time.
Two sad but true things: One, I have a bossy streak. I prefer to call it an “orderly streak,” but either way, it must be genetic. Not only has it emerged in older relatives; lately I’ve noticed one of my daughters making lists of rules for her dolls.
Two, I can’t help overhearing things at the library, which wouldn’t happen if people remembered to lower their voices, but nobody does anymore, do they?
Based on what I’ve overheard, and seeing as this is National Love Your Library Month, it may be time to share some Rules for Proper Library Researcher Behavior:
Make an appointment. Many libraries are strapped for cash and space. Often this affects who can help you, and when. The “local historian” may be a part-timer or even an occasional-timer who volunteers when they can. The “archives” might be on the shelves in a conference room used for community meetings on alternate Tuesdays. Do not waste your time or the library’s by walking in without notice to research a genealogy question. It’s a recipe for disappointment.
Learn about the holdings before you go. It helps you stay focused on your visit, and it helps the library, in case they need extra time to get something out of deep storage. Some examples:
• Does the library have city directories? What years do they cover?
• Is the local newspaper available on microfilm or in bound copies? Is there a subject index? (If not, see “Do your newspaper homework,” below.)
• Any other local periodicals – magazines, historical society journals, etc.?
• Are there local histories or biographical indexes? When were they written and what towns do they cover?
• Are there any specific family histories or genealogies?
• Any vintage maps, and if so, what time frame?
Do your newspaper homework. If the local newspapers are not indexed (many aren’t), try to narrow your search as much as you can. This might mean reviewing your past notes, taking another hard look at census entries, or reading up on the general history of an historical event. Also, ask ahead about the appearance and general layout of the newspaper. Did it divide its news into local and national sections? Was there always a police blotter? Did it run wedding and engagement notices every day, or once a week? Knowing how the newspaper arranged its information can speed your search.
Whee! Ms. Bossy is having fun. A few more rules — er, tips — in my next post.