Thursday, October 30, 2008

Salt Lake City

Some thoughts on returning from Salt Lake City and the Family History Library:

You promise yourself to focus on your predetermined research, but when you walk into that building, with its thousands of books and millions of films, it takes time to adjust, to take it all in -- the first-timer needs at least a day to settle down, perhaps taking an orientation tour or class; the returnee must reacquaint him/herself with the Library’s many features and discover what changes have taken place since the last visit.

My favorite “new” technology was the microfilm scanner which copies images directly to flash drives, or, as they are also known, memory sticks These can be then loaded directly to your own computer as photo images, for later adjustment and enhancement. (And if you need a flash drive, they can be purchased on site very reasonably. No charge for using the scanner, and plenty of help if you require it.) In fact, there seemed to be a lot more staffers available to give assistance of every kind. The photocopiers which print out images from microfilm are still available, too.

The Library has banks of computers for researching their extensive online collection, and the wireless setup enables use of one’s own laptop for most searches. I found this especially helpful when I was looking at the online catalog for additional sources. Instead of jumping up and going to the microfiche catalog, as in times gone by, or even using one of the Library’s computers, I could sit at my microfilm reader or book-littered table and just log on to my trusty MacBook. Saved time and steps -- both important when time is limited.

There are many subscription websites, in addition to the locally-available and Heritage Quest. In fact, the ease of looking at census records online is such that the many cabinets of census film that used to occupy a whole section of one floor have been done away with. I was happy to see, however, that the printed indexes are still at hand. You never know -- what is mis-typed or omitted in one or another online index might show up in the printed version, and vice versa.

Some people prefer to concentrate on books, rather than films, when working at the Library, because, they point out, films can always be borrowed through a local Family History Center, while books cannot. I agree, to a point.

Books are usually secondary sources, with their credibility depending heavily on the accuracy, thoroughness and documentation of the research. I use printed family histories for clues only, and try to track down any sources that are given. Print indexes or abstracts are a first step in finding the original, usually on film.

There was a time when I looked at the printed "Index to Probate Records of Kent County, Delaware, 1680-1800," extracted data from the brief entries found there, and let the matter rest. No more. For one thing, these items, while full of names and dates, do not list tracts of land, which were usually named. For another, there is nothing like looking at the original to get a sense of what life was like. Full text of a will may have explanations as to why one child is given more than another. Complete probate records, where there is no will, may contain appraisals, listing the decedent’s personal and real property, the results of sales with names of purchasers (which may include the widow and close family members), and record of the final distribution, which will name the heirs. Much of this detail is necessarily omitted in printed works.

The Plaza Hotel, right next door to the Library, is still my favorite place to stay. Besides the free airport shuttle, they provide small refrigerators, coffee-makers and microwaves in every room now. A real time- and money-saver is having a quick breakfast in your own room! The Library’s lunch room seems to have a greater variety of vending maching offerings than in earlier times (I used to take my own trail mix and got heartily sick of it).

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