Sunday, January 07, 2001

Digging up roots

As head of the genealogy department, librarian is part historian, part detective

By Jim Knippenberg
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        The problem with genealogical research, Pat Van Skaik says, is hitting brick walls.

        The joy of genealogical research, she says, are those same brick walls. “Genealogists lament them, but they love figuring a way around them.”

        She should know. As manager of the Main Public Library's History and Genealogy Department since 1993, the 45-year-old historian turned librarian oversees 16 employees tending to 60,000 books and 50,000 rolls of microfilm.

        All about somebody's ancestors.

        “We're the oldest collection west of the Alleghenies and considered one of the top in the country,” she says. “Professional researchers have moved here because of it. We're not as big a center as Washington (D.C.) or Salt Lake City, but we fall in right behind them.”

        No kidding. Get a load of the resources crowding the sun-filled third-floor department and the dim, murky stacks (a full city block) a floor below:

        The complete U.S. census from 1790 to 1920 (one of only three U.S. libraries with it); passenger lists of ships carrying arrivals back to the 1600s; plantation records, slave ship lists and port-of-entry information, making it one of the most complete African-American collections anywhere; military records, including pension records; city directories for most U.S. cities dating back to incorporation dates.

        Oh, and two things Ms. Van Skaik's especially proud of:

        • Information on all 50 states, and a lot of it. “We have one African-American researcher who comes up from Atlanta. Every time she comes back here, she tells us we have more on Georgia than Georgia does.”

        • Information on foreign countries, and a lot of it. “We have an Irish specialist who we keep asking, "Why not go to Ireland?' She says, "I'll go when I exhaust the Irish collection here.' That's been going on for 10 years.

        “And it's also the reason we're doing these tours. Because there's so much there.”

        The tours are one-hour orientation sessions at 10 a.m. every Saturday in January and February. Free. Just show up.

        “The funny thing about the tours is a lot of professionals who use the department often come to see what new material we've added — there's a lot almost every year.”

        There needs to be a lot. Tracing most families is no easy chore.

        “There are always complications. Maybe a name was misspelled at customs. Also, people back then changed names, almost on a whim. Family legends passed down for years that you thought were true turn out to be false, because someone 100 years ago thought it was shameful and substituted an invented story of greatness.

        “It's absolute detective work. It's finding that the document you know will answer that last question doesn't exist and having to find a different approach, such as looking for it through a different family member.

        “It's kind of like a prosecutor. You don't have the murder weapon, but you have this piece of evidence and that piece of evidence, and that leads you to another and another until you can finally put a case together.”

        Fine. But before that, a few questions?

        “Fire away”

        The first thing I tell new researchers ...

Start with yourself and work back. Never go to what you think is the beginning.

        The worst thing they can do ...

Is to trust any one source. You'll find names spelled differently from year to year. Some people show up one year in a city directory one year and not the next or, worse, some long-ago census taker got information from a neighbor and it's wrong. Double check.

        New researchers always seem surprised by ...

        What comes to mind is how quickly they get hooked on the research process. People talk about the bug biting you. My old boss used to say it only takes one successful search to get hooked. They're also surprised to find we cover all 50 states. A lot of people think it's only Hamilton County because it's the Hamilton County Library.

        The most helpful documents are usually ...

        Census and passenger lists. But there's also valuable information in our military history collection — Civil War pension lists, things like that.

        My favorite success story ...

        Was an African-American researcher who found his ancestors on a ship list. He had been at it five years, looking. He was so happy he cried.

        One thing people sometimes find that they don't like knowing ...

        That the true story differs from the idealized version the family had been handing down. An ancestor you thought was a war hero turns out to have died in prison.

        The most often asked question ...

        Where do I start?

        One thing this department could really use ...

        We already have a really good passenger list collection and are one of few libraries with a complete passenger list index from the National Archives, but we could use the real lists.

        The thing we do best ...

        Is connect people with the resources that help them answer questions in a way that's easy and user-friendly.


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