Archivy etc.

opinions, occasional rants, and sometimes things that have nothing to do with archives at all. Nothing here should be assumed to be reflective of my employer's opinion(s) nor should it be assumed that at anytime afterward, this is what I still think.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

ADR-2: Genealogical Resources.

Question 1: [summarized] using the various resources in HeritageQuest, search for a grandparent.
Okay, I did it, knowing darn well I wasn't going to get anywhere with my family. My mom's folks emigrated to the US in the early-mid 1920s and wound up in Detroit by 1930 but since that census year isn't indexed for MI yet, no such luck and I'm not about to read all of the Detroit returns to see if I can find them. My dad emigrated to the States in the 1950s, and so nothing in the US census for them, either. I did search on my dad's last name and found 2 people listed with it: Gottleib Schmuland in WI in the 1900 and 1920 (listed as 30 in 1900 and 55 in 1920 and not found in the 1910) and a Julia Schmuland in Spokane WA (curiously enough where my folks have retired to now) in 1910.

I spent 2 years of my undergrad working on encoding the 1900 ID census for computer processing for the Idaho Population Project (IPOP) back in the day when computers didn't crunch words so well, so I know for myself what a challenge it can be to read handwritten censuses and transcribe them well. I use the census--occasionally--to try and track down snippets of information on Alaskans in villages (usually easier to read through those short schedules) so this is one of the online resources I consider myself familiar with. So I skipped the second exercise, since I've done it a bunch of times in past, and even played with printouts a little.

Zero hits on my mother's or father's surnames on the rest of the resources, as anticipated. With the exception of the US Serials Set on which I got this response:
Which since you probably can't read that small, tells me that due to licensing restrictions, academic institutions do not have access to this area of HeritageQuest Online. So much for speeding things up by using my work connect.

As the ADR-Anchorage group was talking on Saturday, somebody, I don't recall who, mentioned that as an archivist I probably dealt with genealogists all the time. It surprised more than one of them when I said "not so much." Our archives has a lot of organizational records and materials created/collected by Alaskan individuals and families, but unless we have the papers of your family or friends of your family, chances are we won't have a lot of material of interest to most genealogists or family historians. Or maybe not that we don't have it, what we do have is scattered, our materials for the most part aren't item-level named indexed, and so somebody doing more general research is unlikely to find the time/result ratio in their favor--best chance is that they'll find scattered and occasional items after having had to go through box after box after box of material, even assuming they were to find collections in our holdings with some sort of connect to the individual for whom they were searching and get it narrowed that far, at least.  A lot of the types of documents of broad genealogical value: birth/death/marriage records are either governmental or church documented, and the governmental stuff is in governmental archives and church documents in church hands or similar. The Russian Orthodox Alaska Diocese vital records index is held by the Library of Congress and is available on microfilm in many large libraries in Alaska.

But when I worked for the Utah State Archives and taught sessions on the types of records that people interested in doing Utah-related genealogy might find at the state archives there, even then I didn't see a lot of genealogists. This was due to two things: the huge presence just down the street of the LDS main Family History Library which held microfilm copies of many of the records we had plus international ones as well, and that a lot of Utah genealogists were doing the research not so much for finding the stories of ancestors, but tracking the family trees. And a lot of the marriage/death/cemetery/birth/probate records we had were indexed with dates and names so that was about as far as many of the genealogists we saw got into our records: just confirming dates and names.

What I found interesting in the Alaska-specific documents shared in this week's material was the mention of how few court records were included. Or vital stats. A few years back I called up the state's Vital Records office and attempted to inquire as to when the state/territory started keeping birth/death certificates. And was basically told it was none of my business unless I was looking up an ancestor. Which shocked me! I still think maybe the receptionist I got didn't know the answer and didn't entirely understand why I was asking the question if I wasn't looking up a family member, but I'll admit to not having pursued it further. Does anybody know the answer to this? When did Alaska's government start tracking births & deaths?

Because in other states/territories, governmental tracking of births/deaths mostly started round about 1895-1905. I read a really fascinating book a few years back (title/author escapes me now) and one of the small side points to it was the explanation that it was really the Populist movement of that time frame that got governments to start doing birth/death certificates/registers. Because at the heart of it was public health. If you're interested in infant mortality rates (for example), you need to document the deaths of infants. And in order to document the deaths of infants, you kind of have to document the birth of infants. I realize this is a gross overgeneralization of the causal relationship here, but this is exactly why birth and death certificates--in most places--were handled by the state or local departments of health, and still are in many places. That's why the quantity of genealogical information in these documents may vary in quantity from place to place: the department of health wasn't necessarily thinking that someday these records would be useful to genealogists, but they were thinking in terms of immediate statistical and epidemiological needs. That they've ended up being so useful to genealogists is just serendipity.

Related to that (since I'm on my birth/death certificate soapbox now) I used to have to point out to researchers that you couldn't entirely trust the genealogical information appearing on death certificates, especially. Because generally it was filled out by a grieving family member who may or may not have been emotionally capable of dealing with the questions at the time. Or if it was filled out by a more distant relative or friend, would they necessarily know the accurate ancestry details? Speaking of family without a clue, my mom just found out in the last couple of years that her mother, Helen Ulm Milchner, who has been gone since the 1980s, wasn't named Helen (and that's probably one of the reasons I've never found her in the Ellis Island database) her birth name was Magdalena. We believe it was switched to Helena when she immigrated to the US and then eventually shortened to Helen which is what she went by most of her adult life. You can imagine the family confusion after my grandfather's death in 2005 when one of my aunts found an insurance policy made out to Magdalena Milchner. Everybody wondered who was this woman my grandfather had named a beneficiary in the 1930s! I'll note I haven't found her under Magdalena either in the Ellis Island database, but I did find my dad's dad & siblings who apparently on their way from Russia via Liverpool to Saskatchewan crossed Ellis Island and show up in one of the ship manifests there.

But back to court records, naturalization records are phenomenal for genealogical information, especially for those of us who are first, second, or third generation Americans!  You can often find the where/when in census and from there find the courts that would have handled the process. This is a guide we used when I worked at the Utah State Archives regarding the how-tos and whys of using naturalization records for genealogical purposes. It's Utah-based, of course, but since naturalizations were largely handled the same way nation-wide, there's a ton of excellent information in there on how these records were kept, when they were kept, and how you might go about finding them (Utah or otherwise) AND what types of information you might expect to see in them.

Toward the end of our ADR-Anchorage meeting on Saturday, we got to talking and foreseeing things about week 2's lesson. We all had a lot of fun comparing not so much our genealogies as all the stories of genealogy gone wrong. Like when somebody was interviewing my paternal grandfather and he somehow managed to add an extra son to his list of children including a date of birth, which is now in a print book somewhere. My grandmother, who knew darn well there was no extra John in the family on any date, just sat and didn't correct him while my grandfather misinformed the nice man doing all the hard interview work. One of the other librarians shared that in her family, all the women were named some variant of Sarah but never went by the variant by which they were named and used a different one, which could probably get a genealogist trying to track this down years later to tear out his or her hair! Or the fact that the banks all use our mother's maiden names and places of birth as their security questions except that whoever had the bright idea to use that apparently never thought about genealogists and the fact that they tend to share that information widely: does this make us more likely to get our accounts hacked?

But that's [more than] enough from me, once again. I'm going to go read the articles and call it done for this week. Elapsed time? A LOT less than last week! I'm really sorry I'm going to miss next Saturday's meet-up since I'll be out of town: I suspect the conversation will be really lively again! By the way, if you're going to be in Anchorage one of these Saturdays and want to join us, it's open to all. Keep an eye on the Facebook page for the group. We're not currently planning to move the date or time, but just in case.


  1. Wow Attila- Thanks for starting some great conversations here in your post and for the always appreciated sense of humor. These discovery exercises should at least start some good stories about work in libraries.

    Half of my family immigrated to the US in the 1950s from Lithuania so I understand how useless Heritage Quest and other resources can be to track down ancestors considered "new" to this country.

    I took a look at the catalog of the Alaska State Historical Library and see that the Alaska Bureau of Vital Statistics began publishing a document called Vital Statistics for Alaska but not sure of the content, could have been a how to guide for new government employees. As I understand it, prior to that time largely it was the work of churches that chronicled this info.

  2. Jonas: thanks for the heads up on the BVS doc. At the time I was asking the question it was because a researcher was in trying to do some genealogical research. Since those records were out of our purview anyhow, when I got the brush-off, I just gave the researcher the contact information and left it to him or her. Obviously I never thought it was that important that I know the answer or I would have done the first thing on my normal progression of research when it comes to things created by state govt: call the State Archives! I bet they know.

  3. Fun to read your soapbox rant this week, Attila! By the way, your blog is easy to commment on because you have a Name/URL option. I suspect other blogspot folks could set their blog up this way too. Did you deliberately set up this way?

  4. Good question! Yes: in the dashboard it's under settings and then under "posts and comments." I set that to anyone, which lets people comment anonymously too which is kind of a pain, especially if you want it to be more interactive. But I can delete any posts I find problematic.

    I was concerned about doing this initially when I set up the blog based on my experience with our WordPress blogs at work: we get tons of spam comments to that one and so we've made those comments moderated. I was worried that if I set this one to anyone I'd get my postings inundated with spam too, but so far I've been okay.