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.
The technical term for the treasured sheets of paper might be “handwritten genealogy.” However, in my neck of the woods it is Aunt Catherine’s List, as in: “You’re working on the family tree? You really ought to get hold of Aunt Catherine’s list.”
Aunt Catherine was my father’s oldest sister, and keeper of the family flame. The List is just that, a list of everyone she remembered in our family, starting with my Haigney great-great grandparents and my Kelleher great-grandparents and continuing down the line. Every time a cousin was born, they were added to The List.
I remain forever regretful that my interest in genealogy didn’t take off until after Aunt Catherine passed away, and that I never got the chance to talk with her in any depth about family history. But The List survives!
The List is a combination of first-hand account and family tradition. My aunt was born in 1914, three years after great-great grandfather Haigney died. But many of the relatives on the sheet, including my paternal great-grandparents, were alive well into her adult years, and of course the running tally of cousins is completely hers.
So far, the information on The List has held up to scrutiny pretty well. Through it, I learned about two siblings of Grandfather Haigney who died young. The death certificate for one of these children has helped me pinpoint where my grandfather and his parents must have been living in 1900, a past source of research frustration. The List also names two children of Great-great-grandfather Haigney who died in infancy, an assertion that likely explains the large age gap between his first and second surviving sons.
Treasure though it is, The List is not the final word. As Elizabeth Shown Mills has observed: “We must mentally appraise the credibility of each detail in each document on a fact-by-fact, circumstance-by-circumstance basis.” With that as a guideline, The List should provide me with hours of interesting appraisals for some time to come.
On a trip to Kings County Surrogate Court a few weeks ago, I opened up a typical, boring-looking probate folder.
Inside, I discovered that my one of my great-aunts (by marriage) had five aliases.
Now, I was aware that my great-uncle Joseph C. Haigney was married to Catherine Maude, nee Reilly. Given the overstock of Catherines in the family – including Joseph’s mother, a niece and a cousin – it wasn’t surprising that his wife needed an alias. But five?
My great-aunt’s probate file named her as Maude Haigney, a k a Catherine Maude Haigney, a k a Miss M. Reilly, a k a Maude Reilly, a k a Mrs. M. Ridley, a k a Miss (A) Farrell.
Two of these names are variants of Catherine Maude’s married name, and two are variants of her maiden name, which makes some sense.
Reading the file, I learned that my great-aunt had two sisters, Margaret Miller and Mary Ridley. That might explain the reason for the “Mrs. M. Ridley” alias, although the file had nothing to indicate how the sisters’ identities became entwined. As for “Miss A. Farrell,” it’s anyone’s guess how that name came up.
Finding an alias on your family tree does not automatically mean you’re dealing with criminal behavior. There are many historical reasons for aliases, including:
• Changes in marital status (where “alias” indicates “formerly,” as in a woman’s marriage or remarriage).
• To indicate foster children or stepchildren.
• To indicate a nickname. (Well, of course.)
• To indicate illegitimacy. (Under a practice beginning in 17th-century England, a person born out of wedlock might adopt the surnames of both parents; i.e., Green alias White. Either the father’s or the mother’s surname might be first; there was no firm custom.)
• To avoid persecution. A striking example is that of the Sephardic Jews of Portugal, who adopted aliases to conceal their Jewish identities.
So why did my great-aunt end up with five aliases in her probate file? I’m thinking her case is probably one of sloppy forms more than anything else, but only more research will tell for sure.
As I was packing up, I asked the clerk in charge of the records room if aliases crop up often in Kings County probate records.
“Oh, sure. Two, sometimes three, even.”
“What about five?” I asked.
“Five? That’s weird.”
More about aliases:
• Schelly Talalay Dardashti at Tracing the Tribe has an interesting discussion of Sephardic aliases.
• A site maintained by John Palmer of Dorset, England lists many reasons for aliases in English parish registers.
• And here is advice on how to record aliases in your family tree.
Jill Hurst-Wahl at Digitization 101 discusses the question of how Haiti’s archives and libraries have weathered last week’s terrible earthquake disaster. The initial report from this Facebook librarians’ group was unexpectedly good news: Haiti’s National Library was one of the few buildings left standing in its area; books and shelves were intact.
I was interested and glad to see the topic come up, even though the question often arises as to whether it’s appropriate to worry about it at a time like this. Yet, when is the right time to think about cultural cornerstones? Two months from now? Two years?
So many legacies, large and individual, are buried when these disasters strike. Ultimately it’s a vital service, trying to hold onto cultural treasures when all hell breaks loose.
My prayers go out all Haitians, especially after this morning’s 6.0 magnitude aftershock there.
For Treasure Chest Thursday, a postcard from my files of the New York State Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Home, circa 1885:
The Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Homes, set up to provide for the flow of aging and infirm Civil War veterans, were forerunners of today’s Veterans Administration. My great-great grandfather, Martin Haigney, lived in two of them, off and on, from about 1900 until he died in 1911. This is the one in Bath, N.Y., where he was a resident until shortly before his death.
I owe this particular treasure to Robert E. Yott, who has written From Soldiers’ Home to Medical Center, a history of the Bath facility. Mr. Yott’s book has a lot of details about the history of the home, a great help in visualizing what daily life might have been like for my great-great-grandpa and other veterans like him who lived there.
Ancestry.com has an index of records for these homes: U.S. National Homes for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers, 1866-1938 (subscription required, or you can do a 14-day trial membership).