18 March 2014

Tuesday Tip - Citing Sources vs Starting an Archives?

I received a question last night that made me more uncomfortable than any question I’ve had in a very long time. I honestly didn’t know how to respond. This morning I brought it up to my husband and, after discussing it through with him, I decided how best to answer it. Here’s the question:

"I will be archiving some material at my local public library. Is there a simple how-to for newbie archivists? It's all volunteer there, so there's no trained archivists on site."

This may seem like an innocent enough question, but it’s not unlike someone who’s been in a major accident asking the doctor, ‘Is anything wrong?’ There is no right or wrong answer because there’s simply no way to know with the information that’s available at that point in time. Of course, I could have responded to the person and asked for additional information. But that’s not the issue about this question that makes me so uncomfortable. 

Let me ask you this: would you hire someone off the street to do your family research? Or how about going up to a random person in a Library’s genealogy section and asking them? That person may or may not know anything about the Genealogical Proof Standard. I didn’t when I started researching my family in 1996. Heck, I didn’t know there was a GPS until 2011! I hadn’t heard of Elizabeth Shown Mills, Dr. Thomas Jones or pretty much any other highly respected professional in the Genealogical community. That’s not to say that I didn’t know how to find a family tree on RootsWeb or how to go to the Newberry Library to look up information in a book, but I had no concept of the proper standard for genealogical work.

Even more, I didn’t know how important it was to cite my sources. This is an element of the GPS that probably causes the most heated debate. But, as anyone who’s done genealogical research for more than a few years can probably tell you, there’s a painful lesson in looking at a key piece of information needed for a proof statement and realizing you can’t use it because you have no clue where that information came from.  It’s a lesson that may not be learned for years, because the lack of a proper citation might take years to uncover in a large volume of research. The simple fact remains, you can’t just say that “Joe Smith is the direct descendant of Charlemagne” without some corresponding evidence. Well, you can say it, but that doesn’t make it a fact.

How does this correlate with the question? “Archiving” is not something you learn in a few hours. Just like genealogical research skills and best practices, it takes years to learn the intricacies of the best practices in Archival Sciences. And yet we are faced with the realization that, just like someone who is starting to look into their family history, there is the need to protect and preserve primary materials in places that don’t have the resources to hire a Professional Archivist. There are steps to be taken to get the process started, but there are also mis-steps that could create challenges in the future, or worse, the loss of information and/or materials.

So, just as there’s a need for Professional Genealogists to get the word out to new family historians about best practices and proper standards, Professional Archivists need to find a way to educate those who ask questions that cause that uncomfortable feeling. Doing nothing, not sharing the knowledge that can ensure the material will be stabilized to preserve it for the long term, won’t suffice. Locating reasonable resources that can point beginners in the right direction is essential to ensure a safe start for any Archives not created by someone trained in the Archival Sciences. Because, believe it or not, there is a LOT of science involved in working in an Archives. There’s years worth of information to learn, some of which is critical to the long term health of the material over which someone is now the steward. And, what may seem to be the best thing to do may indeed be the worst thing to do for a collection. Just like not citing sources is one of the worst things that happens in genealogical research. (To be fair, I’m admitting that I have lots of material in my research that does not have source citations. I’ve been researching since 1996 and it wasn’t until the beginning of 2012 that I started looking at the best practices of genealogy. But, I've learned the importance of this best practice and apply it to all my current research.) 

As a trained Archivist who’s worked in a wide variety of Archives for the last eight years, I worry about the number of people being tasked with the responsibility of ‘archiving’ materials for public use, as is the person who asked me this question. Granted, this group may be forced into this situation by a lack of funding, but that shouldn’t stop the professionals in charge from seeking the assistance of a Professional Archivist to set the proper structure for their new Archives. They shouldn't be leaving that responsibility to someone without Archival Sciences education.

Fortunately, the Society of American Archivists is working on “Best Practices for Volunteers in Archives”, a document that, according to the website (http://www2.archivists.org/ accessed 18 March 2014), will go to the Standards Committee for review and be available in May 2014. In the meantime, for those who are interested in an answer to this question, I can direct you to several very good resources:

I wrote an article for Archives.com that explains, in layman’s terms, the process of ‘Processing’ material. You can find it here: 

This does not answer the person's question, I know. I wish I could go to their location and help them get their Archives started. But I can't, so I have to be satisfied with providing what information I can that will help. Researchers generations from now may depend on what we do.

29 January 2014

Wishful Wednesday - 52 Ancestors Week 5 - The Story of Lillie Howard

One of the challenges in telling our ancestor’s stories is, without documents of their life, how do we know what it was like to be them? I think about all the little failures and successes in my life, that no one will know in the future, that have molded me into the person that I am. So, we dig to find all the documents that we can to bring together as much information about each of those people from whom we came. And, every once in a while, you can find something that tells a whole story in very few words.

For this week’s ancestor, I chose someone who’s not an ancestor at all. But, she’s buried with my family. And, in that one not-so-small gesture, I think it tells a great deal about my family. I’m pleased to introduce you to Lillie Howard.

 I ‘found’ Lillie as I was researching my Burrows family in Cincinnati, Ohio. If you follow my blog, you’ll know I’ve become quite a fan of Cincinnati; it’s a gorgeous city and every time I’m there I feel, well, at home. It’s a welcoming place. And, out of 38 of my extended family buried in Section 54 Lot 93, Lillie has always been an enigma.

The Big Guy had a special Plan for little Lillie. She died on Christmas Day, 1857. Now, mind you, I’ve thought a LOT about little Miss Lillie. I’ve done the math to see if she could have been a child of one of the Hartshorne girls or any of their contemporaries. It just seems impossible.

So, I decided Lilly needed a story. It goes something like this: The Hartshornes, SW and Ann Eliza (Burrows) are at church on Christmas Eve and hear of the plight of this poor baby girl who is tragically ill. Their hearts go out to her, having lost three infant children themselves. When they return to church the next day for the Christmas celebration, they learn of the sad fate of little Lillie: she’s died. In a gesture born of the season, SW tells the head of the Home to have little Lillie’s body prepared and sent to Spring Grove to be buried in their family plot. 

What do you think? Do you wish there was a different story for Lillie?

22 January 2014

Wisdom Wednesday - 52 Ancestors Week 4 - Anne Marie Wagner to Mary Wersel

I spent a number of years searching for records of the wife of my 2nd great grandfather, Frank B Wersel. All of the family information I had indicated she was Mary Ann Wersel; nothing was known about where she came from or what her maiden name had been. Names are funny things; today the 'honor' associated with carrying a family name isn't anywhere as strong as it was in the 19th century. Yet, many of us have had the maddening experience of trying to trace an ancestor who seemingly vanishes only to find them hiding in plain sight with a new name.

In December, 2011 I was blessed to have original materials loaned to me by my Cincinnati cousin so I could digitize them and do a little basic conservation of the old and delicate documents. One of those was this ‘Extrait’:

For those who can’t read French, this is an extract from birth records in Bliesbrucken, Sarreguemines, Moselle, [Lorraine] France which was written in 1844. It’s the birth record of my 2nd great grandmother, Anne Marie Wagner, born 8 May 1842 to Jean Frederic Wagner and his wife Anne Eve Hensgen. A second document explained the ‘Extrait’:

It’s clear this document has seen better days, and at first glance there isn’t anything there to save. This is an interior passport, a document that allowed a traveler to move freely throughout the area. A closer look includes this little bit of information:

It clearly mentions “Wagner, avec sa femme” and also mentions “Gertrude et Anne Marie”. (“Sa femme” means ‘his wife’); it is dated 26 March 1844, the same year as the birth extract. It would appear that the purpose of getting his daughter's proof of birth was to provide it to the authorities when he requested the passport.

While there wasn’t a document showing how the Wagner family came to the United States, there was a Naturalization document, originating in Cincinnati, Ohio and dated 7 October 1850, for Anne Marie’s father, who is now John Wagner.

Then, on the 7th day of April, 1860, Anne Mary Wagner was married to Francis John Wersel in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Not to be confused with Frank B Wersel…that’s another story). I’m not certain, but this may be their wedding photo:

Isn’t she lovely? And he’s quite dashing as well, don’t you think? Anne Marie seems to have chosen her husband well; by 1870 their family included five children (George, Henry, Agnes, Franklin and Charles), Anne Marie’s parents (John and Eve) and a female servant. Of course, she’s no longer Anne Marie, but gave her name as ‘Mary’.

By 1880, the Wersel family had added two children, William and Stella. The entire family, including the Wagners lived at 251 Betts in Cincinnati. By now, Anne Marie was living as the wife of a business man; Frank’s upholstery business was booming and he was doing very well for himself.

The following image was taken some time after 1890, the year the Wersel’s son Henry married Laura Richards. Mary Ann Wersel is flanked by her children with her son Henry and his wife Laura standing behind her.

On 18 July 1897, Mary Wersel died. She is buried, along with her husband Frank, in St. John’s Catholic Cemetery in St. Bernard, Ohio.

From Anne Marie Wagner in Bliesbrucken to Mary Wersel in Cincinnati, Ohio. It wasn't a long stretch, from Anne Marie to Mary, but I was held up in my research, initially, because I didn't think to try a different name. Now, it's the first thing I do.

C’est ci bonne, c’est la vie.