Finding family information through DPLA

By DPLA, July 15, 2014.

Photo of Larry Naukam, author of this postLarry Naukam is the retired Director of Historical Services (Local and Family History, Digitizing, and Newspaper Retrieval) for the Central Library of Rochester and Monroe County, New York. He has been actively involved with local historical and genealogical groups since 1978. He is on the Board of Directors of the Rochester Genealogical Society and has been a member of RGS Genealogical Educator’s Group since 1991. 

Genealogists are getting much more interested in doing serious research and having accurate citations than may have been the case in the past. DPLA offers a place where these researchers can utilize the “serendipitous discovery” potential of items in the DPLA to advance their research. As more people discover DPLA, they will enhance the quality of their research output by accessing this larger pool of available materials.  Even having a small piece of a larger collection will stimulate use of that collection.  Case in point: a small historical society in mid-New York state digitized an account book from the early years of that town. As it was created before the U.S. was a separate country, this helped people who had colonial ancestors flesh out the stories of some of their ancestor’s lives. Academics used it to reconstruct a look at that community. More searchers are using more materials and doing so in a historically responsible manner. DPLA can greatly enhance this process of discovery.

Any library or archive wants to engage their users. After all, what good is a collection that no one knows about and no one uses? Having materials online to be discovered is a good start. There is far more to be used for family research than just censuses. I wrote an article twenty-five years ago which utilized land records, church records, letters from one family member to another, photographs, wills, and the like. If the Internet and DPLA has existed then, it would have greatly aided this research by pointing me to likely research sources instead of having to guess which institutions might have various kinds of materials.

I am often asked: why should I put everything online? No one will come to use the collection! Not true. Personal experience showed me that by putting some useful tools online, usage of the place that I used to work at septupled. That’s right. Seven times as many people came in to use the collection because they had discovered some content online and wanted to see more. That location continues to be a leader in small public library research facilities.

But there’s another item to consider: why is the DPLA important to researchers? It’s obvious that as DPLA follows its plan to make a growing number of items available and discoverable though different access points, then all will benefit. As more and more information goes behind pay walls, it becomes more and more essential to have other items freely available.

Capturing information, and presenting it in a useful and discoverable manner is very important. Members and participants in the DPLA can put forth extra effort to include at least samples of what’s in their collections. For example, a local historian can put a selection of pictures with adequate metadata online, and mention in the accompanying text that there is much more to be used in person. I have visited many local historians in my area, and there is a great amount of useful materials in their offices. How great it would be to have  that material discovered! These historians might or might not be able to do this work themselves. That’s why I am a member of a group which does volunteer scanning and cataloging of such records. In 10 years we have done over 150,000 pages of materials. We get about 15,000 hits a year to that web site, without a lot of publicity (yet).These records will greatly assist family searchers in their quest for additional data about their ancestors and collateral relatives. People have told us so, and a national genealogy group gave us an award for this work in 2010.

Draper family genealogy diagram.

Draper family genealogy diagram. Courtesy Bancroft Memorial Library via Digital Commonwealth.

Photograph of two African-American corporals, Perry, Houston County, Georgia, 1918. Pearlie Brown and Quitman.

Two African-American corporals, 1918. Courtesy GA Dept. of Archives and History via DLG.

Immigrants seated on long benches, Main Hall, U.S. Immigration Station.

Immigrants seated on long benches, Main Hall, U.S. Immigration Station, Ellis Island. Courtesy NYPL.

What do genealogists and family historians want to see? Censuses, of course. Those are available already from numerous resources. But a big, big move now underway from both commercial and non-commercial publishers is trying to get researchers to write up their findings and more importantly to amplify them with far more than just simple census data. Biographies, letters, church records, manuscripts, diaries, journals, and many other sources can be used to write a family narrative. By taking the above-mentioned material, a name becomes a person. Such things can tell us more about how a person lived and felt. Think of some letters written back and forth between a young couple in wartime, and what they would mean to their descendants decades later. The people that the readers knew as older folks would seem vital and alive.

Those involved with putting information online should talk to users about access points. That’s something I did years ago when users would come in to my area. This is what we have. Is it useful to you? What would be useful as well? How do you want to access it? Simply making things available increased usage 7 times, and as of a few years ago visits just to the top guide pages of our web site got 250,000 hits a year. Not bad for a small library!

This means that our funding sources (and visiting users!) took notice of us. We did a great presentation to the American Association for State and Local History in 2008, and hopefully inspired more digitizing efforts. Funders watch use, and grants can be much easier to get if a location is successful. Having a location discovered through DPLA is likely not only to result in increased usage, but also in higher quality research being done as more materials become available.

Remember as well that intellectual activity inspires actions. Genealogists are becoming much more sophisticated in their research. Academics have traditionally had to do rigorous research and fact checking, while genealogists got a somewhat deserved reputation as being mere name collectors who believed anything if it was written. No longer. Major conventions are flooded with those anxious to learn the right way to do things, and by making so much available the DPLA gets used by a wider audience.

Images of Anneke W. Jans-Bogardus and Everardus Bogardus with a genealogy chart.

Anneke W. Jans-Bogardus, Everardus Bogardus, [and] Genealogy Chart. Courtesy the New York Public Library.

Let me give an example of multiple ways to engage the material. A friend recently was researching the Bogardus family of New York. They were early settlers of the colony and state. The Dutch patriarch lived from 1589 to 1647. The friend found over 150 mentions of the Bogardus family in the collections pointed to by the DPLA. They ranged from drawings to manuscript to photographs, from English to Dutch to Danish.  He was amazed at the sources that he could locate and see through the DPLA. His research has been enriched and he is happy to tell others of his positive experience.

But it can be so much more. “Genealogy” has over 63,000 results in DPLA. One of them is the actual Ellis Island immigration web site; another an oral history of an African American point of view. The term “genealogical” has almost 6,500 entries. The term “family history” has over 1,200. Searching on a surname can yield a feast of sources that could be useful. People search for terms like “genealogy,” “genealogical,” and “family history” as they start a search and often will come upon something cataloged against that term. Find-ability is only as good as the terms used to describe it.

The DPLA has a curated exhibition, Leaving Europe that provides a learning commentary for those who wish to pursue more avenues of inquiry.  I use it to demonstrate how people came to the U.S. during the 19th century.

All in all, DPLA is a magnificent resource that should grow and be advertised and marketed to genealogists and family historians. We all will get a lot from this endeavor by sharing our discoveries.

Cover image: Atlas Universel. Tableau mythologique. 1834. Courtesy David Rumsey CC BY-NC-SA 3.0.

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