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Nicole Wedemeyer Miller, the co-author of Fostering Family History Services, presents information from her book about how even librarians without genealogy/local history collections can serve genealogists.
Everything librarians need to know to help genealogists but were afraid to ask
Everything Librarians Need to
Know about Helping
But Were Afraid to Ask!
Presented by Nicole Wedemeyer Miller, Adjunct Lecturer
This presentation is based on the book Fostering
Family History Services: A Guide for
Librarians, Archivists, and Volunteers, co-
written with Rhonda L. Clark, and published by
Why are librarians afraid of genealogists?
• Their questions go on all day, if you can
even find their question.
• They are attempting complex research,
but often know nothing about how to
• If you answer one question for them, then
they ask 100 more.
• In short, they are needy.
Another small detail…
“I don’t know anything about genealogy!”
Overcoming the fear factor
• Get a basic overview of what genealogists
are trying to do
• Start thinking outside the collection box
• Learn about the basic sources they use
• Understand how to negotiate the
genealogical reference question
• Get programming ideas
Why is it popular?
• Interest in American history
• The internet
• Television shows
• Celebrity angle
• Growing number of retirees
It’s the study of the vital events in a family
that establish the family’s pedigree; or
linkages between generations. It’s the who,
what, and where.
It’s a more in-depth expression of
genealogy. It interweaves information from a
number of different fields into our ancestors’
life stories…It attempts to explain the how
and why of our ancestors’ lives.
“Joseph "Horace" Ryburn was the second oldest of five brothers and attended University High School
in Bloomington, Illinois. In 1892 he purchased 170 acres for $17,000 from Mr. Stewart, with a $5000
mortgage at four percent interest. He and his wife Estella moved to this property after they were
married in 1895, and always called it "The Home Place." Horace and Estella's first two children were
born there, Florence in 1898 and Madeline in 1900. In about 1902 the family moved to 1213 E.
Washington in Bloomington, because Horace had heart problems and so gave up farming. He bought
this house for $5000 and then made improvements such as installing French doors for the parlor, and
hardwood floors upstairs. The home had gas lighting, but electricity was installed later. There was a
water tank in the attic that used a hand pump from the basement to operate it. In the winter, the water
went through the furnace to supply hot water. In summer, hot water was heated on the stove.”
Linear vs. Cluster
Dorothy Rita McAvin
George A. Wedemeyer IV
Nicole Alaine Wedemeyer
• Patrons need to research in many, many
locations and collections.
• Patrons have some information at home.
• Patrons can find some information online.
• Most patrons need to know “How do I
In addition to finding info…
• They need to analyze what they have.
• They need to organize what they have.
• They need to record and share what they
Getting started strategies
Find out where they are in the research
Just beginning, somewhere in the middle, or
What to do with beginners
• Give/sell FGS and pedigree charts.
• Find them a basic how-to genealogy book.
• Give them a list of genealogy links or show
how to access online.
• Refer to the Family History Center and
other area research facilities.
What does the LDS Church have to do
• Help them figure out how/where to find
research assistance in other localities.
Suggest information on evaluating and
o Look for free videos online, such as Family
Search’s “Learning Center.”
o Look at intermediate titles in appendix.
o Articles in genealogical periodicals
• Archive Grid/DPLA & other new internet
bells and whistles
• Association of Professional Genealogists
• Call their attention to hot new genealogy
What else can you use besides the
o Encyclopedias, even old ones
o American Heritage
o 973s, but also lurking in the travel books,
o Federal Writers’ Project American Guide
o Who’s Who in the…series
o Professional directories
o Specialized encyclopedias, such as those
covering athletes, science, etc.
o Full-length biographies, autobiographies,
Business & General Sources
• Corporate directories
• City directories
• Phone books
• Vertical files
• School yearbooks
• Gaps—some are missing, especially 1890
• Incorrect information recorded
• Problems with the indexing
• Illegible handwriting
• U.S. Censuses before 1850 only list the
name of the head of the household
• Only some are online, and some online
ones are behind a paywall.
• Missing years
• They may be owned by an institution in a
• Directories did not cover 100% of the
• Not everything is online.
• Over 90 percent is still offline.
Major categories of websites
• Subscription databases
o Find my Past
o My Heritage
There are many more…
• Free websites--Institutional
o Allen County Public Library in Ft. Wayne
• Free websites—Volunteer & User-Input
o U.S. Genweb
o Genealogy Trails
• Free websites—by individuals
o Joe Beine’s Death Records & Obit Index
o Tom Tryzinski’s Digitized newspapers
o Stephen Morse’s One Step Indexes
IV. Negotiating genealogical
• Facts about genealogists
• Breaking down the reference interview
• “It’s exciting to watch history come alive
• “Enjoy the process…”
• “Learn as well as teach.”
• “I do not have to be an expert genealogist
to provide good service.”
• All ages, all genders, but skew towards 60
and over females.
• Most are hobbyists.
• They have a variety of research goals.
• They have a wide range of educational
levels and research abilities.
• They have a wide range of computer skills.
What they like
• They like a person to guide them, not
• They like to find information by looking for
a name, but lots of information is arranged
by geographic location or record group.
Barriers to Service
• The library is only open during the day.
• None of the genealogical/local history
• None of the staff have any family history
• There is no service desk in the
genealogy/local history room, & no materials
are provided to guide independent usage of
• The collection is full of uncataloged
materials and Byzantine finding aids.
• The library website does not mention the
“g” word anywhere.
• The greeting
o Non-verbal cues/attitude
o “Hello, what may I help you find today?”
Establishing the Contexts
• Geographical context: where they lived
• Chronological context: when they lived
• Socioeconomic context: their status in the
Questions to ask…
• What was your grandfather’s full name?
• Do you know the name of the town? Was it
Belleville, or just near Belleville?
• What did they do for a living?
• Where did they go to church?
• Do you know their ethnic background?
Dates can be elusive
• Try to nail down to at least a decade when
a family lived in a given location.
• If the patron doesn’t know, maybe he can
remember how old he was when a family
• Did any historical event occur when the
family was there?
To fill in contexts…
• Consult online trees, census records, and
local histories to try to verify/expand facts.
• Refer patron to home sources.
• Tap the oral traditions.
Narrow the focus
Try to head in the direction of a specific
question. This can be challenging for many
Types of patrons
• The Newbie—doesn’t know where to start
o “One Quarter Rule”
o Find genealogical classes, both online and
o Refer to local genealogical or lineage
• The Gusher—talks non-stop
o Fill out pedigree chart during the
o Have him fill out a reference form
• The Confused—can’t articulate his
o Check on this patron often
o At least stroll nearby and make eye
• The Optimist—is sure that someone else
has already written up his family
o Check WorldCat, GB, Internet Archive
o Check online trees
o Check PERSI
o Explain searching vs. research
• The Disorganized—has a bunch of stuff
which he can’t make head or tail of
o Remind this patron about organization
systems, software, & research logs.
o Offer information on how to analyze
• The Wounded—is motivated to do the
research because of an emotional issue.
o Offer privacy, discretion, reassurance.
o Make absolutely sure that referrals will be
o Offer to correspond via email.
• The Monopolizer—asks constant, never-
ending questions. Will not work
o Can’t answer any more verbal questions
now, but you can leave another in writing.
o Schedule a one-on-one session.
o I can’t work with you more today, but you
could come in…
Identify Sources to Meet the Goal
• FHL 1-866-406-1830
• Local historical/genealogical society
• Town historians in NY or CT
• Eastman’s Encyclopedia of Genealogy
• Random Acts of Genealogical Kindness
• Reddit, Stack Exchange
Last step: referrals
• Never guess; make it good.
• Verify via website or phone call.
• Provide contact information.
• Suggest materials to ILL.
• Specific research skills like using online
catalogs, focusing a Google search, &
even locating a book on a shelf by call
• what a source may contain
• Citing information
• Locating expert assistance
• It attracts attention to your genealogical
• It is an efficient way to instruct several
patrons at once—uber reference.
• It gets patrons in the door.
• It can be low cost and low fuss.
“How to Grow Your Family Tree”
• A basic how-to overview
o Define genealogy & family history
o Work backwards
o Linear vs. cluster
o Define a source
o Discuss home sources
o Recommend how-to titles and websites
o Tell them about local & regional places to
Presented by: a staff member, or a volunteer
from the genealogical society, DAR, or FHL.
The “Spotlight On” Program
• Pick a resource: reference tool, archival
collection, or online website/database
o Teach how it’s best used
o Present examples
o Save 10-15 minutes for questions
o Keep it at about an hour
“The Story of My Life”
• A children’s program
o Create a template that kids fill in with
information about themselves and their
o Use Dr. Seuss’ My Book about Me as
• The materials for this program are free
and will be emailed to you.
o It can be held at the library, or at a senior
center or nursing home.
o If you encourage the participants to bring
grandchildren, it’s an intergenerational
Reaching Out to Ethnic Groups
• Identify an ethnic group in your area, and
design a program to help them to do their
o Identify where they can find information
locally, and elsewhere in the U.S., such as
an ethnic genealogical society.
o Recruit someone to give an overview of
this group in your area—religious officiant
or a college instructor.
o Sponsor with another local group.
o Could lead to a fabulous oral history
o Serve treats from ethnic restaurant/bakery.
• Genealib listserv
• Dick Eastman’s blog
• Adventures in Genealogy Education blog
• Genealogy for Librarians Pre-conference