December 30, 2014

Countdown: Top 10 Posts of 2014

Well, we’ve come to the end of another year. When I was a kid, I loved listening to Casey Kasem’s Countdown of the top 100 songs on New Year’s Eve. They’d play on the radio all day, with the number one song announced about midnight.

I remember when Three Dog Night’s “Joy to the World” topped the chart in 1971. I was at a sleepover of my church’s junior high youth fellowship at someone’s house that New Year’s Eve. We were so happy when the song came on that we grabbed pots and pans from the kitchen, ran out on the front porch, banged the pans and sang along at the top of our lungs. A moment of pure, simple joy.

So in time-honored fashion, I’ve compiled a countdown of my top 10 posts of the year. They’re a mix of reflections, tips, strategies, stories, and information I’ve gathered. For 2014, the winners are:


If you have time to read just one, you can’t go wrong with #3, The Two Most Important Things Genealogists Can Do Now. Following an all-day seminar, I reflected on sage advice from Tom Jones, who urges all family historians to preserve today what could be lost tomorrow.

A good starting point, I think, for setting goals for the new year.

And now, in the spirit of celebration, here’s Three Dog Night performing “Joy to the World”:


December 25, 2014

A Merry Christmas to You

Merry Christmas, dear readers and friends! May this holiday season bring you joy, and your new year be filled with health and happiness!


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).


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