December 18, 2014

Tips for Planning Your Trip to the Family History Library

FHL Family History Library

Are you planning your first research trip to the Family History Library (FHL) in Salt Lake City in conjunction with the upcoming Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy,  FGS 2015 Conference and/or RootsTech? Wondering what’s the best way to prepare for it? I was in your shoes a few years ago. I vividly remember what it was like walking into the FHL for the first time, feeling a mix of awe and trepidation at its enormous size. So I’ve pulled together some tips that I hope will help you.

A good place to start is Tips for Visiting the Library on the FamilySearch website. Another handy resource is Janet Hovorka's The Chart Chick's Guide to Salt Lake City, available as a free PDF download. The FamilySearch blog recently posted Exciting New Changes at the Family History Library. The FGS Voice Blog offers A Virtual Tour of the Family History Library with hours and layout of the building, to help you know what to expect.

If you read these, you’ll notice a few common threads. One thing everyone recommends is that you do some prep work at home before walking in the door of the Family History Library.

But how, exactly, do you do that? Start by identifying the books, journals, and microfilm reels you want to look at from the FamilySearch catalog. Here’s an easy method for determining what you want to do:
  • Enter the place where your ancestors lived, from largest body to smallest: country or nation, state or province, county or parish, town or city. (Example: United States, Pennsylvania, Lehigh, Allentown) As you're typing, the locality you want may pop up; go ahead and click on it. Keep in mind that you'll usually get more results by searching on the county only, without naming a town.
  • Choose what you want to look at from the results (cemeteries, church records, vital records, etc.).
  • Click on a title to see a particular resource. When you find one you want to check, either print out a copy to take with you or add it to a Word document, Excel spreadsheet, or electronic note-taking application like Evernote or Microsoft OneNote
  • Write a note about who or what you want to look for right there on your print-out, list, or spreadsheet, along with any pertinent details. (Example: “Look for John Eberhard/Mary Comfort marriage in Lehigh Co. around Dec. 1891.”) If there’s more than one microfilm listed, circle or highlight the one you need to get from the drawer in a bright color.
  • Return to the Catalog home page and search by Surnames, repeating these steps.
  • Organize resources by where you'll find them in the library. Since family history books, locality-based books, US/Canada microfilm, and international microfilm are on different floors of the library, it helps to know what you need to get on each floor.
  • Make a master list of your highest priority items—those sources you want to be sure to look at. It's easy to lose track of time, and you don't want to forget to do something important. I make a list on Evernote, and print it as well so I can check things off as I do them.

Salt Lake City

Another common question is what should I bring with me? Essentially, you'll want to bring the research tools you're most comfortable with. Here's some of the things I'd suggest:
  • A laptop or tablet to check resources, take notes, and consult your genealogy database. You don't want to get there and waste time duplicating what you already have, or wondering how William Whatever fits into your family tree.
  • Blank research logs to record your results and sources. I make myself write down the title, author, film number, and other citation elements before I open the book or crank the microfilm. Then I record the volume, page number, and details when I find something. If I don't find anything, I write "no record found" or a similar note.
  • One or two USB flash drives. Try to buy the kind that you can attach a small keychain to. That way, if you accidentally leave the flash drive in one of the scanners (speaking from personal experience), you have a better chance of getting it back.
  • A digital camera and spare battery. You can save time and money by taking pictures of books and articles rather than making copies. Some people take pictures of microfilm, too, to avoid lines at the scanners. 
  • Dollar bills for the copier, for those times when you want to print from a book or microfilm. Copies are only a nickel each. 
  • Reading glasses, if you use them, or a small magnifying glass.
  • A pouch with pencils, pens, paper clips, small post-it tabs, and any other items you usually use, and a notepad to write on.
  • Money, bottled water, and/or snack to eat in the snack room. Trust me, you'll get hungry, but it's soooo hard to tear yourself away. 
  • Chapstick. The air is dry in Salt Lake City.
  • Some kind of tote, backpack, or rolling bag to put everything in. Lockers are available, but I usually carry my things around with me.

That's about it. There's a short orientation film you can watch when you first arrive. As you're working, the volunteers and staff at the FHL will be more than happy to answer all the questions you ask, like where to find things, how to work the printers and scanners, and where the snack room is. You’ll be in good hands.

My first visit to the FHL was both exhilarating and exhausting. I made some great discoveries—one of which I wrote about in “Striking Gold in Salt Lake City”—and found a lot of information about my ancestors. Here’s hoping that your first visit will be everything you've dreamed of!


Note: This post is a reprise of the one I wrote for the FGS Voice Blog, Tips for Researching at the Family History Library, published December 8, 2014. 

December 2, 2014

Crowdsourcing, 1836 style: Thomas Garrett

Old newspapers are full of fascinating little tidbits for family historians. If you're like me, though, it's not always your own family that you find. While browsing through microfilmed papers at the Ohio History Center a few weeks ago, I came across this notice in the October 5, 1836 edition of The Ohio People’s Press, published in Columbus:

Thomas Garrett Ohio Saratoga New York James Garrett

"Information Wanted
My Father, James Garrett, died at Balston, Saratoga county, N. Y. in the year 1810, leaving two sons, and a daughter named Nancy. 
     At the age of four years, I was given to one Zera Beach, who then kept a tavern near Balston Springs, but afterwards removed to Champlain, in Clinton co. N. Y. and in whose family I remained until 8 years ago. 
     My brother, JAMES GARRETT, for whose discovery this notice is made, was given, at our father’s decease, to some family to me unknown, and of which I have never been able to make any discovery. 
     Any information on the subject, from any source, will be gratefully received. 
     Printers throughout the U. States and Canada are respectfully solicited to give this one or two insertions, and oblige a family of orphans. 
Manhattan, Lucas co. Ohio, July 27, 1836" (1)

Reading this, it struck me that newspapers were the Facebook of our ancestors’ time. Social doings, political comments, marriages, divorces, births, deaths, personal announcements, even requests for help from sympathetic strangers—all this and more found its way into the newspaper.

Merriam-Webster defines crowdsourcing as “the practice of obtaining needed services, ideas, or content by soliciting contributions from a large group of people and especially from the online community rather than from traditional employees or suppliers.” (2) It’s a new word, one we associate with social media in the digital age. But as this notice shows, it’s hardly a new concept.

The Boston Pilot, for instance, published thousands of missing persons notices for Irish immigrants over a 90-year period. The notices were often submitted by relatives in Ireland seeking information on loved ones whose whereabouts in America were unknown. Today, those notices are a valuable resource for genealogists trying to connect Irish immigrants with their families. Boston College has created a free searchable database of these "Missing Friends" notices, Information Wanted, to assist researchers. 

But back to Thomas Garrett. I find myself wondering how widely his plea for help was published. Was he ever reunited with his brother James? It’d be nice to think he was.

I wonder, too, if anyone researching the Garrett family today will find this digital reposting of his plea. Maybe it will help someone connect Thomas, James, and Nancy Garrett as the children of James Garrett, who died in Ballston, Saratoga County, New York, about 1810. 

You never know. In any case, I rather like the idea of bringing Thomas’ 1836 search to the World Wide Web in 2014.


1. "Information Wanted," The Ohio People's Press (Columbus, Ohio), 5 October 1836, p. 3, col. 3.
2. Merriam-Webster Online ( accessed 29 November 2014).

November 26, 2014

The Moose Behind the Wall

What’s your earliest or most vivid Thanksgiving memory? Have you written it down, or at least told it to someone? These days, with my father suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, I’m realizing just how precious our memories are. It’s a blessing to be able to look back at our lives.

With that in mind, I’d like to share my earliest holiday memory with you. I think I'd just turned five years old. That year, we went to my great-uncle Dwight’s house for Thanksgiving dinner. There’s a black-and-white photograph I saw years ago, with me perched in a step-stool pulled up to the table, but I don’t know where it is now. In my mind, at least, that photo and this memory go together.

Permit me to set the stage a bit. Dwight Ballenger, my grandfather Lloyd’s younger brother, lived in Westerville, Ohio. He and his wife, Betty, had three children, all teenagers at the time, who I didn't really know yet. I saw my grandparents, Lloyd and Nora Ballenger, almost every day. I adored my two aunts, who were in their young 20s. Rounding out the table were my dad and mom, with me and my little brother Eddie, perhaps two years old.

I didn’t seem to fit in anywhere.

The big kids, naturally, didn’t want me bothering them. The women—including my aunts, who were acting very grown up—didn’t want me underfoot in the kitchen while they cooked. The men were, well, men. Their talk was boring. Eddie and I played together, but we must have gotten too rambunctious after awhile.

Next thing I knew, I was banished to the basement. Where the big kids were.

It was bad enough just walking down the steps. They were the scary kind with no back, just planks. That’s all I remember, until I saw the moose.

The moose was sticking its head through the wall. How fascinating. It kind of reminded me of Mr. Ed, the talking horse on TV. You didn’t see the rest of Mr. Ed, but he was real all right. So where was the rest of the moose?

My cousins helpfully explained that it was standing behind the wall. If I would just walk around the corner, into the dark side of the basement, I could see the rest of it. I might even be able to touch it.

I was hesitant, but my desire to see the moose trumped my fear of the dark room. Around the corner I went.

Of course there was nothing there. So I did what any disappointed five-year-old would do: ran crying to mom.

When my mom went down to investigate what I was carrying on about, she saw only a deer head mounted on the wall. Time for a certain young lady to calm down, go back upstairs and behave herself for Thanksgiving dinner. I think I stuck to my mom like a shadow the rest of the day.

All these years later, remembering that makes me smile. But the memory may not always be as clear.

So this Thanksgiving, I hope my family (including my mom) will indulge me in a little exercise. I’d like to ask each of them to write down their earliest Thanksgiving memory. It’s simple, and actually a lot of fun to do.  

Do you have a favorite holiday memory? Take a few minutes to write it down, record it on audio or video, add a note to a photograph, or do something to preserve it. Share it with someone if you can. You'll get to relive the moment, and younger family members might just thank you for it one day.

I’m grateful for many things this Thanksgiving—my family and friends most of all. Time has made me increasingly grateful for the gift of memory, too.

Wishing a Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours,

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November 16, 2014

Free Guide to Research at the Ohio History Center

Ohio History Center Columbus

If you have Ohio ancestors, you’ve probably wondered what you might be able to find about them at the Ohio History Center (OHC) in Columbus. The OHC Archives/Library holds many major collections of the Ohio History Connection (formerly Ohio Historical Society). It’s a key repository for anyone working on Ohio genealogy.

To help you get the most from the OHC Archives/Library website, or to aid you in planning a research trip, I’ve written a guide called Connecting With Your Ancestors at the Ohio History Center. It originally appeared as an article in the Summer 2014 issue of Ohio Genealogy News, published by the Ohio Genealogical Society.

I’m pleased to announce that the article is now available to view or download absolutely free on my website, Buckeye Family Trees.

Ohio History Center genealogy research room

The guide attempts to answer many questions you might have, such as:
  • What kinds of resources does the Archives/Library have?
  • How do I use the online catalog?
  • What do I need to know before visiting OHC?
  • What facilities do they have for researchers?
  • Can I bring my camera or scanner?
  • What if I can’t find what I need? 

To get your copy, just visit Buckeye Family Trees and select the “Free Guide to OHC” tab, or use this link: Click on the button to read, download, save, or print the article for your personal use.

Ohio History Center microfilm research

Staffed with friendly and knowledgeable archivists, OHC is one of my favorite places to do genealogy research. I hope you’ll find this a helpful tool in the search for your Ohio ancestors.


October 24, 2014

How Time Flies: Four Years and Counting

A certain milestone crept up on me this week while I wasn’t looking. Hard as it is for me to believe, it’s been four years since I published my first post here at A Sense of Family.

I remember how thrilled I was to get my first comments and followers. The idea that people out in cyberspace were actually reading what I wrote? Amazing! It still amazes me when I stop to think about it.

From the beginning, I found generous support from Thomas MacEntee’s community of Geneabloggers, from which treasured friendships have sprung. I learned about the ins and outs of genealogy blogging from Dear Myrtle, Randy Seaver, Tonia Kendrick, Caroline Pointer, and many others. Gradually I developed my voice, and before I knew it, I had a whole year under my belt. Turn around and it was two, then three years.

A big thanks to all those who dedicate their time to writing blogs about genealogy, family history, cemeteries, genealogy education, and family history writing. Your posts continually inspire and inform me. I really admire the talent found in our niche of the web.

Even though I haven’t been blogging as frequently lately, it’s no secret that I enjoy writing about my ancestors. This year I’ve been inspired by Amy Johnson Crow’s series, "52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks," on No Story Too Small. I’m not going to make it anywhere close to 52, but I still count myself ahead—because let’s face it, any family story preserved is a victory.

I also like sharing news, resources, and tips that I think might interest you. It’s gratifying to be able to pass along some of the things I learn and discover, as well as events I’m excited about. I hope these things energize you to make discoveries of your own.

Whether you’ve read A Sense of Family a few times, a few months, or the whole four years, thanks for joining me on this journey. I’m grateful to each and every one of my readers—without you, I’d just be some crazy lady talking to myself about dead people all the time. Hope you’ll come along for act five.


October 22, 2014

Happy Campers at Boy Scouts Camp Ro-Fre-Lo, 1929: Wordless Wednesday

My grandfather, Freddy Herrel, is the fellow in the center of this troop of Boy Scouts (with his hands on his buddy’s shoulders). It looks like they’re having fun, doesn’t it? I love the wide-brimmed hats.

Fred dated the photo 1929 and labeled it “BSOA Camp Ro-Fre-Lo” in his scrapbook. He was 15 years old. It looks like the cabins are closed up for the winter, so the troop may have been there to help with the opening or closing. My guess is it was taken in November, March, or early April, because the trees are bare.

A Google search for Camp Ro-Fre-Lo didn’t give me any results, and I couldn’t identify it on this list of America’s Oldest Boy Scout Camps. Freddy lived in the German Village community of Columbus, Ohio, and his troopmates probably hailed from the same area. So I imagine the camp was in Ohio, Kentucky, or western Pennsylvania. The name he gave may be short for a longer one. Does anyone know where this camp might have been?



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