I Assess Myself, And Am Chagrined

I couldn’t miss Assess Yourself: Challenge #3 in 52 Weeks to Better Genealogy. It’s something that seems so obvious that it never gets done. Sad to say, my report card could be better.

The Vital Documents: I’ve got the birth certificate (despite losing it once), the marriage certificate and the diplomas, all in one convenient strongbox. It’s been important for me to have this stuff together since I have moved around a bit. So, I give me an A- for this area.

The Moves: Any descendant trying to track me would be pretty mad at me by the time they got through. I was born in Ohio, raised from the age of 6 months in New Jersey, went to university in Indiana, then lived in Connecticut, Florida and Illinois before returning to New Jersey. I’d expect to make census appearances in New Jersey, Indiana, Florida and New Jersey (again) but not Ohio, Connecticut and Illinois, where my residences didn’t coincide with a census. I should make sure this is all clear on my card in my Reunion file, and it isn’t.  F

Letters: My mother wrote me some letters while I was away at school, which I’ve kept. My father wrote me exactly one letter, which was missing and presumed lost for years, until I found it quite by accident this summer while searching for something else entirely. It is now locked up safely and scanned to my computer hard drive. Now excuse me while I make digital copies of my mom’s letters, too.  B+

Publications: I’ve got my school yearbooks. And some high-school literary magazines with stories of mine. And a couple of scrapbooks  full of newspaper clippings from my reporting days, which aren’t about me, but would say something about what I did at a certain point in time. But everything’s all over the house; it would be nice to get it all together on one shelf, huh? B

Photos: My Achilles heel. Not only do I have evil magnetic albums, I used to have an Evil Photo Box until several years ago. I did finally get my photos out of a huge cardboard moving box and sort them by year into a bunch of acid-free photo boxes. Last summer, I sorted out the digital photos on my current hard drive and backed them up. One hard drive has already failed on me. A month before that happened, I had purchased an external hard drive and backed up, so I still have my earlier digital photos. But it was a close, close thing. I’m grading myself generously; I think my fifth-grade nun would have been harsher.  D

So much to be done! At least I feel more charitable toward my ancestors now. We must share the Disorganized Document gene.

Evil Magnetic Albums!

I’ve been struggling of late with an old magnetic album – the kind from the 1970s with sticky pages and lethal plastic coverings. The consensus is that their adhesives are  damaging to photos.

As if that weren’t enough, my albums have peculiarly awful fluorescent floral covers. They look like something Monet would have painted at Giverny – on acid.

So:  Get ‘em out, put them in archivally safe albums, breathe a sigh of relief. Obviously!

But nothing’s every really obvious, is it? Not even with magnetic photo albums. I started reading and Googling and asking around, and the more I learned, the more conflicted  I became about two basic questions:

A. Should I dismantle the old albums?
B. If so, how?

Regarding Question A, the bulk of opinion out there favors removal from magnetic albums. (Older, non-sticky albums are another story – most conservators say to leave them alone.)

But a respectable minority points out that sometimes, photos are stuck in magnetic  albums so firmly that extracting them poses the risk of other kinds of damage – shredding the backs of the photos so that inscriptions are lost, for example.
Read the rest of this entry »

Cemetery records index: St. Agnes, Menands (NY)

If you have ancestors who lived in New York’s Capital District, you might well find some research joy in this exciting cemetery indexing project by the volunteers of the Troy Irish Genealogy Society.

TIGS has been transcribing the interment books of St. Agnes Roman Catholic Cemetery in Menands, N.Y., just outside of Albany. So far, two volumes of records are online, encompassing the years 1868 to 1910. Book I (1868-82), which went online in November of last year, contains 3,427 names. Recently, Book II (1883-1910) became available, containing 6,073 names. Book III is in progress, with over 12,000 names.

The records are a snapshot of the Albany-area melting pot, according to information from TIGS project coordinator Bill McGrath. For instance, the clear majority of burials listed in Book II were people born in Albany, followed closely by those born in Ireland. Immigrants from 13 other countries are represented in the records, including England, Germany, Italy and Canada.

The indexes on the TIGS site will give you a last and first name of the deceased, date of death, age, and the book number and page number of their interment entry.

TIGS also provides a printable request form that can be sent to the cemetery requesting the full interment listing for $5. Information available on the complete listing includes deceased’s place of birth, place of death, address of last residence, burial date, lot/section numbers and in some cases, the undertaker’s name. It could be well worth sending for, if you find a match in the online index.

Having visited there once, I can agree that St. Agnes is a beautiful example of the rural cemetery movement, all gently rolling hills and serene vistas. And it’s also a place of rest for thousands. I have a feeling quite a few researchers will be reconnecting with their Capital District roots because of this project.  McGrath and his team of volunteers have a lot to be proud of!

Puddlers, Stewards and Other (Pre)Occupations

I am lucky: My ancestors haven’t held any jobs with mysterious names, unless you count the maddeningly imprecise term “laborer.”

One of my great-grandfathers may have been a “puddler,” which is someone who worked at an iron furnace with a long-handled rake, opening the furnace and forming molten iron into a ball that could be rolled out into bars or sheets. Then again, he might just have been a peddler. It’s spelled both ways in a couple of places, and there is no hard evidence yet as to which spelling is the typo.

This same great-grandfather was later a steward on a tugboat in Brooklyn, which is a little mysterious, since I associate boat stewards with the care of passengers, who would seem to be in short supply on a tugboat. Finding a detailed job description for a tugboat steward in 1910 is  another item on the to-do list.

In the first 20 years of the 20th century, there are a lot of waterfront-related jobs in my family tree: tugboat steward, tugboat fireman, dry dock worker, patternmaker in a shipyard. They were South Brooklyn people, and South Brooklyn was all about shipping in those days.

Still, I am jealous of people who have quirky job titles in their genealogy, and I like reading about them in case one ever crops up in mine. Here are some cool links about strange job titles:

Old Occupation Names at the Hall family genealogy site: Really extensive, with detailed definitions.
Ancestral occupations at Rootsweb: Another encyclopedic list, clickable from A to Z.
The Strangest Names for Occupations: For the greatest hits, try this list. There are real gems here.  (Being a “honey dipper” isn’t nearly as pleasant as it sounds.)

LibraryQuest 2010: Part Two

The first 52 Weeks to Better Genealogy challenge from Amy at We Tree was a great excuse for me to re-visit the genealogy and local history shelves at my hometown haunt, the Montclair (N.J.) Public Library.

We’re fortunate to have a room dedicated to the local history collection. It contains so much interesting material that I am frankly bitter that I don’t actually have family roots here; I just live here. Here’s some of what is available:

In the general stacks:
• A global genealogical tour! I counted books on 10 different ethnicities, in addition to guides about general research, preserving documents, writing family histories and conducting oral-history interviews.
• The township’s old Field Books, listing property lots, their owners and tax assessments. Because of them, I know my house was built in 1914 and the tax assessor valued it at $3,400. (It is worth more today, at least for now.)

In the local history room:
• Microfilms for our local weekly, starting in 1877. (They’re only partially indexed, alas, but there are also dozens of clipping files arranged by subject.)
• Boxes and boxes of document collections about local groups, from the township council to Boy Scouts.
• Personal memoirs.
• Microfilmed editions of the Social Register.
• A survey of architecturally significant buildings.

Find of the Day:
A slim volume containing bound copies of The Stroller, a sublimely bratty weekly magazine from the mid-1920s. The Stroller specialized in breathless details of who in town was marrying whom, where the beautiful people were going on vacation and which prominent townspeople (unnamed) had fallen off the wagon again.

Gossip is eternal; so are the joys of research. I hope everyone else has as much fun digging as I did.

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.

Carnival of Genealogy: New Year’s Resolutions!

Ahem. (Taps champagne glass with spoon.)
Resolved for the year 2010:

To be a better genealogy citizen by donating to or volunteering for a group whose projects have illuminated dark corners of my research.
Having just completed some intense volunteering of the school and PTA sort, I learned to loathe the phrase: “I don’t know how you do it.” Really? It’s such a mystery? Maybe the secret is just … um, DOING something. And it is high time for me to apply this principle to genealogy groups whose work I follow. I’m sure they don’t like hearing “I don’t know how you do it” any more than I do.

To talk (again) to my relatives whose memories go back the farthest. Just in case.
I’ll be frank. This can be hard. I know there are many of you with relatives who love to talk. I haven’t always encountered this. My own mother, whom I loved dearly, definitely belonged to the “What do you need to know that for?” club. Often our desire to know must be balanced with a desire to avoid being a pest. Still, we must try, particularly in the cases of family members who are getting on in years. One thing I noticed about my mom was that while she was very uncomfortable answering direct questions about her past, she had no problem answering questions about family papers – her mother’s immigration affidavit, her father’s citizenship papers, a long-ago mortgage or lease. I listened and took notes that are pure gold for me, 12 years later. Maybe this approach will help me with some other folks, too.

To go through my computer genealogy program and make sure all the reference notes are attached to all the right places.
Another shaming moment here. When I first got Reunion for my Macintosh about 100 years ago, I was like a child with a new toy. The trouble is, I never really progressed beyond that childhood stage of throwing stuff at the wall (or in this case, the Notes field) and admiring the view. Therefore, I am nowhere near exploiting the many ways of organizing and collating data that this program offers. I hereby resolve to read the manual in 2010.

To make that signature family tree I’ve been meaning to make for about five years now.
I’ve been in love with this idea since I first read about it in one of Emily Croom’s books. I’ve even collected the signatures. So why not complete the project in time for, say, Thanksgiving? Maybe this will be the year …

To maximize my chances of keeping my resolutions by keeping this list short.
(Hey, I can check one off already!)

So that’s my (short) list! Can’t wait to see what everyone else will be accomplishing. May the New Year prove happy, healthy and rewarding to us all.