Friday, September 08, 2006

Read all about it!

"There are collectors, and there are researchers." I recently heard this truism on the TV series "Ancestors" which is being rerun on KCSM (Channel 17 in Sonoma).

If you want to just make a chart, or decorative family tree, you can simply collect names, dates and (perhaps) places, fill in the blanks, and tell yourself you are done. Many books are constructed in this manner, with page after page of names, incomprehensible numbering systems, and little else (not even documentation). How dull can you get?

The true family historian is not going to drop the matter so easily. History of any kind is more than collections of names and dates. It is about big and little events, anecdotes, and the everyday activities that are part of peoples' lives.

The program I saw was about newspapers as an extraordinary source of all sorts of personal data, well worth examining. Besides obituaries and the traditional notices of births, deaths, and marriages (how many papers publish those any more?) there are the society pages (another disappearing feature), regular news stories and special articles. Even advertisements may be a source of information and added interest.

I found this ad in a Franklin County, Indiana, newspaper:
"Joseph Meeks, Cabinet Maker ... . has now on hand two Mahogony (sic) Sideboards, also BUREAUS, DINING TABLES, TEA TABLES, Stands, and Bedsteads of various decriptions, which he will dispose of in exchange for Cash, or country produce, likewise Lumber of all kinds will be received." It is dated July 15th, 1834, Brookville.

It happens I posssess a chest of drawers said to have been made by Joseph Meeks at the time of my great grandfather's marriage in 1836, and this little ad gives me some insight into the maker and the times.

The first step in dealing with newspapers is of course finding them. If your ancestor lived in a small town, the "local" paper may be published elsewhere – often in the county seat or another, larger, city. Look on maps and try to find the most likely spot. Libraries have directories of current newspapers and their publishers, which may help. And the public library in the town or county of interest may well have microfilm copies of the old papers. Once you locate a likely publication, it may be possible to borrow the film through interlibrary loan. [ILL is, to me, one of the unsung wonders of public libraries – if you can be specific about your need, with title, date, etc., of a publication of any kind, you can request it through your local library, and usually there is little or no cost involved.]

Staff members or volunteers at many libraries, large or small, will do limited lookups for you, if you can be pretty specific about dates. If the date is not known, ask if they have an index to their papers, and give a brief outline of your problem. Often this can be done by email, but if you are writing a letter, be sure to enclose a stamped, self-addressed envelope. Make sure they know you are willing to pay for photocopies.

There are also secondary sources for newspaper material, depending on where you are looking. At the website you can look at the Mormons' Family History Library catalog, specify an area (usually the state, or state and county) and look for the sub-heading "Newspapers." While the FHL does not collect actual newspapers, it does have many books of material extracted from newspapers, such as: Marriage notices from Kansas territorial newspapers, 1854-1861, published by the Midwest Historical and Genealogical Society. This title has been filmed, so you could borrow it through one of the local Family History Centers.

(Tip: if you find something in the FHL catalog that is not filmed, you may still be able to borrow it through interlibrary loan; the public library may well be able to locate a circulating copy for you elsewhere)

Be sure not to overlook the resources of the wonderful Genealogy and Local History Annex at the Central Santa Rosa Library, 3rd and E Streets. Open Wed.-Sat., 10-6.

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