Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Genealogical resources: one person's junk is another person's treasure

When I started doing genealogy, it was just a hobby and it was just for fun. It had to be for fun, because I started a lot of my research in college, where my main resource, due to convenience and lack of funds, was the Internet. The great thing about the Internet is people can post information about anything from anywhere. The bad thing about the Internet is people can post information about anything from anywhere. What you find on the Internet can give you a place to start - a name to look for, a date to find - but there's a lot of bad and just plain wrong information out there, and it's meaningless unless you can back it up with facts.

A couple of years ago, my dad brought home his grandmother's death certificate and funeral bill, which he'd found in the basement of my grandfather's house (as it turns out, sometimes being a pack rat ends up being a good thing - you may save lots of useless junk but occasionally you might save something valuable and useful.) He also found lots of old photos, an old diary of one of his great aunt's (who, if she were alive today, I would take real issue with because, being sensitive about her age, she erased any dates and mentionings of her age in everything she owned!), a datebook his grandfather kept for the entire year before his father was born, and a 100-year old family Bible with the names of all the children and their dates of birth listed on the inside cover. These were facts. These were things that could back up and prove (or disprove) any information I found on the web.

The Internet is a good place to start, like I said. But unless you're using a site like Ancestry.com where you have access to primary sources, it's only good enough for the most part for speculative, "fun" genealogy. Family records and heirlooms like the ones that apparently filled my grandfather's basement for years can provide proof. And they can provide information with which to further your genealogical search - death certificates can give date and place of birth, parents' names and place of birth, mother's maiden name, addresses, places of burial. My father found clipped obituaries, letters written to my great-grandmother by a soldier pen pal of hers during World War I, a baptismal certificate for his grandmother, another funeral bill for another relative...family members may be holding onto resources and not even know it! For someone who isn't a genealogist, a funeral bill is just a bill. It doesn't matter if it's 100 years old. It's just junk taking up space. But everything is a clue, a part of the story. If you can find it, you can not only fill in pieces of the puzzle, you can find more spots that need pieces filled in.

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