Saturday, January 16, 2016

Finding Your Roots: The Irish Factor (S3 E2)

I was recently asked if I could do a workshop on Irish Ancestry Research. I declined because although I have Irish ancestry and have researched my Irish ancestors, I do not feel I am enough of an expert to teach other how to use Irish records. And perhaps that is because, as Henry Louis Gates Jr. points out in this episode, the majority of Ireland's records were lost in the early 20th century.

The details Gates leaves out is that this is due in large part to the Irish Civil War. In June 1922 the national repository building, called Four Courts, was seized during the Battle of Dublin and was destroyed by explosives and subsequent fires. Now in order to do your Irish research you must know the county or parish from whence your ancestors came.

For many of us Irish-Americans that knowledge is lost. Eight of my 32 great-great-great grandparents were born in Ireland; a whole 25% of them. I can get two of those 8 lines across the pond to their Irish Counties of origin. One of those lines were research by elder cousins before I was even born. The other's County was discovered through an obituary.

That being the case, I have not had much opportunity to use the Irish records that do exist but Finding Your Roots did; specifically Gates showed their use of Griffith's Valuation. The Griffith's Valuation is a detailed guide to the property, land and households of mid-19th-century Ireland. It is not a census. Only the head of each household is identified. It only identifies who owned or rented what land, assessed the value of the land, and determined the tax to be paid on the property.

Gates also points out that aside from County records, church records are incredibly helpful. He reveals to Bill Maher a church baptismal record for his great-great grandfather. Gates tells Maher, a strong atheist, "The church is there. You could go visit the church." To which Maher replies, "Let's not go crazy, Skip." Gates then underscores that this is often the only documentation that a person existed, a church record. "Thank God for the Church," Gates says. Which is true. Churches and government agencies are the record keepers.

I tell most of my patrons when we start that some families are better documented than others. They keep really good documents on the wealthy and criminals. In other words if we can't find much, your people were probably just good ole regular joes.

I always feel a little bad when I find out something unsavory about a patrons ancestor but it's kind of true as this episode shows us when Gates reveals to Soledad O'Brien that her Irish ancestor who wound up in Australian was a criminal. Based on deeper research though, it is revealed that her ancestor who committed robbery did so due to the poverty in which he lived.

Digging into your ancestors records, digging up the dirt humanize them because, after all, they were human. Flawed and imperfect. You inherited part of them but you are not them. They lived their own lives, stories, had their own feelings and thoughts and struggles.

I really enjoyed seeing that realization and connection come across Bill Maher's face when he saw the baptismal record of his great great grandfather and says, "I wish I knew what they were like, and what they thought, what they dreamed about."

Don't we all, Bill, don't we all.

The result was Griffith's Valuation – full name The General Valuation of the Rateable Property in Ireland but also known as the Primary Valuation (of Tenements) – a detailed guide of the property, land and households of mid-19th-century Ireland. It is not a census. It covers who owned what and who rented what, and assessed the value on which each identifiable 'parcel' of land and/or property should be taxed.
Only the head of each household is identified. Family relationships and other personal information were not recorded.
- See more at:
The result was Griffith's Valuation – full name The General Valuation of the Rateable Property in Ireland but also known as the Primary Valuation (of Tenements) – a detailed guide of the property, land and households of mid-19th-century Ireland. It is not a census. It covers who owned what and who rented what, and assessed the value on which each identifiable 'parcel' of land and/or property should be taxed.
Only the head of each household is identified. Family relationships and other personal information were not recorded.
- See more at:

Monday, January 11, 2016

Client File #1: Mrs. F Mother's Mysterious Letter

I'd like to talk about some of the amazing finds I have been privileged to share with the patrons I have worked with as a part time genealogy librarian in a public library here on Long Island. In order to write these posts I am going to alter the names of those involved in an effort to conceal their real identities. Its a matter of privacy.

As a librarian it is my responcibility to ensure my patrons' right to privacy. You have the right to open inquiry without your interests being examined or scrutinized or spread about town. "You know that girl over there was looking up information on abortion." Guess what? Mine is not to judge and it's nobody's business but your own what you research in a library. I am here to help you find the information YOU want/need. Librarians protect your right to read and research without your motivations being questions. And family history research is a personal matter. I take that responsibility very seriously but on the other hand some of the lessons learned in researching are just too remarkable and enlightening not to share. And so, let me tell you about Mrs. F.'s letter.

Mrs. F wanted to know more about her mother who had come to the U.S. in about 1920 from Czechoslovakia. In 1993 Czechoslovakia was dissolved into two sovereign states; the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Mrs. F. had in her possession a few pictures, postcards, and a letter that belonged to her mother. She was not absolutely sure of the town her mother came from. Family lore had it that Mrs. F's mother left her homeland under scandal. That she was supposed to marry but instead ran away to America. The letter was in what we thought was Czech and Mrs. F believed to be a letter from her grandfather to her mother disowning his daughter.

I tried Google Translate but not knowing the language made it difficult to read the handwriting. And Czech and Slovak both have characters that aren't on my keyboard. It is an amazing tool, Google Translate, but for this it just didn't work for me.

Then I tried looking for a human translator. I have a friend who is Bulgarian and works for the European Economic Union so I though maybe she knew someone through her job who could translate the letter. I also contacted a cousin I know through genealogy research who had been to my ancestors' hometown in the Czech Republic, so maybe she knew someone. She did put me in touch with someone who was willing to translate the letter for me for a fee but told me for free that it was in 2 languages; Slokav and Hungarian. Hungarian! 

So after months of trying to find a human translator I reached out to a close friend of mine who is Hungarian. She in turn found someone who was able to reveal that the letter was from the scorned boyfriend to Mrs. F's mom. From the tone we can only suspect that it was his last letter before taking his own life.

Reading the translation brought both me and Mrs. F to tears. The portion that was in Hungarian were song lyrics he included which read:
You have ignited my heart into flames 
Only to crush it down to the dirt 
If you were able to teach me that life and love is only a dream 

Now teach me how to forget you 
The love filled summer has ended 
Butterfly wings always take your desires to someone else 

Clouds cover my heart 
As I gaze at the star filled sky and cry
Even the most beautiful dreams have come to an end.

Friday, January 8, 2016

Finding Your Roots: The Stories We Tell (S3 E1)

This is my favorite genealogy series because it is the one that really most closely examines American history with it's particular leaning to the history of African-Americans.

However, I am kind of over the experience of white people discovering their black ancestors and African-Americans discovering their white ancestors. "The intermingling of the races" - Dude, their is one race; the human race. Our skin comes in different shades and tints of brown. Raise your hand if you don't get this yet so I can come yell at you directly.

This is not to say that skin color is not deeply entangled in the American experience, oh it is! But just because I have some degree of great-grandparent who was labeled a different race than my own did not make me inherit their experiences; perhaps it develops in me a different respect or admiration for the life experience they endured but I am not a different color and I will be judged by the color I appear to be.  

African-Americans are not the only group of people to experience discrimination in American history and so I am deeply looking forward to the next episode of this series subtitled, The Irish Factor. Not that Finding Your Roots hasn't addressed the discrimination toward immigrants before, it has.

I'm not shocked that actor Ty Burrell's 4th great grandmother was a black slave or that artist, Kara Walker, who's artwork closely examines slavery and the African-American experience, has a white direct ancestor. Shocked is such a strong word. 

Rather, I love (another strong word) Burrell's amazement at the researchers' ability to find documentation and images of this woman he had only heard about and the admiration he expressed for his female ancestors. You could see his struggle to accept the fact that she had been the victim of a rape by her slave owner who he too was descended from. 

I loved Walker's furrowed brow and pursed lips as she shook her head during the reveal that her 2nd great grandfather was a white male stepping out on his wife to father a child with her black 2nd great grandmother; that white man evidently supported his biracial illegitimate son's career. But I also ached with her as she obviously grappled with what she already kind of knew, that her surname was that of the white man who owned her black ancestors.

One of my favorite moments though was when Gates revealed one of the sources used in researching Ty Burrell's ancestry was a family history called, Saga of the Mask Plantation North Carolina: Slaves Journey  to Oregon. Write down what you know of your family history, people! It will help future generations even if your facts aren't absolutely correct.

You are the culmination of your ancestors hopes, dreams, efforts, and life forces. You are not them. Some of them were good people of noble character and some of them, I assure you, were not. I promise you all of them were imperfect humans, except for my Jacob Raynor. I still think he might have been an alien.

Monday, January 4, 2016

Genealogy Librarianship

At the suggestion of Cousin Mary at Heritage & Vino, I thought I'd tell you a little bit about my new part-time gig as the genealogy librarian at Mastic-Moriches-Shirley Community Library (MMSCL) in Shirley, NY.

It's not really that "new." I have been at it since March 2015; 9 months now. I love it.

A few months prior to starting the job I interviewed for another position as a part-time genealogy librarian at a different public library on Long Island. About a dozen friends had forwarded me the job posting and, although I have a full-time job and am still working on my second degree, how could I not interview? I didn't get the job. But one of the people who interviewed me passed my name along to MMSCL.

The position isn't really as a part-time librarian; it is more like a consultant's gig. I am a "program." I work one Saturday per month for a few hours. While I am there I meet one-on-one with about 5 patrons who registered in advance to see me. I see them back-to-back which makes for a pretty intense day, really. Each person comes with a different interest and level of experience with ancestors coming from all corners of the world. But I start each session the same way, with what librarians call "the reference interview."

"So have you started your family tree research?"
"What specifically do you want to know?"
"Okay, so tell me what you know about your mom/dad/grandma/grandpa."

Almost everyone says they don't know anything about the person they want to research but you get them talking and before you know it they know names, dates (if only approximately), locations where the person resided, other family members, etc. And from there, almost always within minutes, we can find a record of the person.

I start out in for several reasons. One being that MMSCL patrons have free library access to Ancestry while in the library. Also, it is the most popular genealogy database and has one of, if not the largest collection of resources; might be bigger, if not FamilySearch is definitely free to anyone regardless of where they access it from but I digress.

Whatever record we find together, I try to show the patron how to really read it, to consider why the record was made, how reliable the information may be, and the process they should use moving forward in their research. 

"We found the 1940 census record, let's see if we can find the 1930, and then the '20. Move back in time."

My research with the patron doesn't really end after that hour. I have had patrons as young as 15 and old as 90. Some of them are there to learn how to research but others are really there to learn more about their family history. Not all of them are computer savvy; some do not have access to a computer outside of the library. And so, I promise them all that I will do an additional hour of research for them and that I will call them before I come to the library next month and let them know what I found for them. I call them a few days before I return to the library to let them know I will leave a folder of material for them at the next when I visit next. Often those folders contain anywhere from 4 to 40 documents I located related to their family from a wide variety of sources. I'd estimate that most patrons get a dozen documents from me in their folders.

If you have done any family research of your own, you know that some ancestors are forthcoming with records and some are impossible to find anything on. Thus, it may go without saying that some patrons are much happier with the service than others I am sure.

I have worked with some off the clock, over the phone, in follow up meetings, and online through email and chatting. I know it is outside of my "job" but I share a passion with these people and I understand their "need" to find answers about their family history.

To date I have worked with 37 individuals and given a presentation to one group on using DNA to further their genealogy research.

What I enjoy most about this job are the people I work with; both the library staff and the patrons. Everyone is so nice to me. I have gotten several thank you cards and even Christmas gifts. Mr. Baecker baked me cookies! Lots and lots of cookies, as the appropriate last name might suggest.

Everyone has expressed such gratitude for the work I have done for them. And what really makes me happiest is to make those calls each month telling my patrons that, "This coming Saturday I will leave a folder for you at the reference desk of the records I found about your family."

If I can get permission from my patrons, I'll share with you some of the things we have uncovered together! Some really interest revelation did indeed occur as they always do when one looks back on the lives of their ancestors.

Keep Diggin'!

Friday, January 1, 2016

Happy New Year

It has been a long time since I have blogged. My only excuse is that I have been fully engrossed in my last year of studies toward completion on my masters degree in public history.

Oh I have been doing genealogy research. Fear not. I just have not done much on my own ancestry. This is what I have been doing.

Mr. Boller's Scrapbook
My project this past semester has been on a scrapbook that mysteriously resides in the archives of the college at which I work. The book belonged to Mr. Claude Villette Boller (1869-1951). You can check the wonderful resource out at my online exhibit at this link:

In an effort to discover how the library acquired his scrapbook I have used to search for living descendants of Mr. Boller and just this morning I believe I may have made contact with a great grandson. Back in August I sent an email to an Ancestry user who linked to the same document about the Boller family that I found on I received a message from him today. I hope our communication continues.

Genealogy Librarian

Back in March 2015, I picked up a part-time job at a library way out east in Suffolk County, Long Island at a public library. Once a month I meet with up to 5 patrons for one-on-one hour long sessions during which time I show them the online resources available to them.
Sometimes I am teaching them how to research on their own but in many instances the patrons are not computer-savvy and thus, I promise to continue research for them. I give them each an additional hour of my time researching their family history. So that has cut into my blogging time, for sure. But it has given me the opportunity to explore records I have not used before in regions where my ancestors did not reside - Slovakia, Puerto Rico, the Southern U.S.
It has been incredible fun for me. I have learned so much. And many of the patrons have been truly grateful for the service which is the real reward for me.
Maybe in the future I will share some of their stories, pending their permission.
Family News
This year was filled with a great deal of happy news. I had several cousins give birth to beautiful, healthy children.
  • 9/6/2015: Cousin Jacquie gave birth to fraternal twins: Silas and Sora
  • 11/11/2015: Cousin Therese gave birth to her daughter, MaKenna
  • 12/1/2015: Cousin Lisa gave birth to a boy, also named Silas but from the other side of the family, so different last names.
  • 12/5/2015: Cousin Mary, of Threading Needles in a Haystack fame, gave birth to her son, Julian.
Mary's new website is Heritage & Vino where she not only blogs but also offers her genealogical research service for a very affordable price. Check her out.
Following the line of vital record creation this year, we had births AND marriages. My sister Rachel got married on 9/27/2015. And she has announced that they are expecting my niece Breanna in late February.
And I thought perhaps this would be a year our large family would escape the pain of collecting death certificates but unfortunately I just recently learned of the very unexpected passing of my Uncle Ronnie. Just typing his name brings me to tears. He passed due to complications during surgery this passed Monday, 12/28/2015. My thoughts and prayers go out to those who knew and loved him, especially Cousin Lisa, his only child.
In May I will finally be done with my second masters degree which will hopefully permit me more time to research my family history, and perhaps yours ;-)  ...and to blog about it all.
In any case, I resolve to do more posting on here in the year to come.
Happy 2016, everyone!