Has it been a while since you worked on your genealogy research? As passionate as we may be about genealogy, the reality is that a little thing called “Life” can get in the way!
Getting back into genealogy can actually be a bit daunting. Where did you leave off? Where should you start back up?
If it’s been months or even years since you had your hands in genealogy, you’re in the right place. In this video, we’re going to talk about how to pick up your genealogy after a hands-off spell so that you can quickly and efficiently get back on the trail of your ancestors.
Get your Genealogy Restart checklist in the Resources section.
And by the way, perhaps you haven’t taken a break, but you feel like you’ve gotten a little out of control and disorganized in what you’ve been doing so far. This process also works very nicely as a quick audit to help you get back on track.
How to Jump Back into Your Genealogy
Has it been a while since you worked on your genealogy research? As passionate as we may be about genealogy, the reality is that that little thing called life can get in the way.
In my case, my daughter got married earlier this year. There were plans to make, bridal shows to throw, and the wedding itself which meant planning a trip because it was a destination wedding. Needless to say, I didn’t work on family history for several months.
If it’s been months or even years since you had your hands in genealogy, you’re in the right place. In this article and companion video we’re going to talk about how to pick up your genealogy after a hands-off spell so that you can quickly and efficiently gets back on the trail of your ancestors.
Even if you haven’t taken a break, you might be feeling a little out of control and disorganized in what you’ve been doing so far. This quick genealogy audit can help you get back on track too!
Genealogy Restart Checklist
I love a good to-do list where I can have the satisfaction of checking things off and knowing that at the end of it I have accomplished something. Some of the things on this list may not apply depending on how long your genealogy hiatus has been. If that’s the case you get to check them off right away!
Step 1: Find Out Where You Left Off in Your Research
Do you remember where you left off the last time you were researching your family tree? If not, your search history is a great place to start. For example, if you used the popular genealogy website Ancestry.com you can pull up your past search history.
How to find your search history at Ancestry.com
At the Ancestry® home page you will see a box at the top that highlights the recently modified items in your family tree. According to one source at Ancestry.com, this “shows a list of last modified nodes in the tree. For a shared tree – any user who has access to the hint can modify the nodes and it will show up in that list. It (also) shows a hint leaf for the nodes that have at least one undecided hint.”
This could be a place to start, but I recommend reviewing Your Recent Searches if you want to pick up where you left off.
You’ll find your search history in the menu under Search. Click All Collections. Toward the top of the All Collections page you’ll see Your Recent Searches. It’s just above the map. You’ll see a few buttons listed for the most recent names you searched. Next, click the View All button to get a more comprehensive view of your activity history, starting with the most recent activity.
On the Recent Activity page, you’ll see the names you searched for and the details you included such as a place and time frame. Ancestry also tells you the date you ran the search.
Recent Search History page at Ancestry®
If you see searches in the list that you don’t need anymore, click the trash can button to delete them.
Notice over on the left that you are viewing Recent Searches, but you do have other options:
All Recent (activity)
Viewed Content (records you’ve viewed)
Viewed Collections (record collections you accessed)
All Recent provides the best overall picture of your past search history. This is a great tool for jogging your memory and helping you decide where to pick back up.
Review your activity history in your genealogy software.
You can also review your most recently activity in your genealogy database software.
In RootsMagic for example, in the menu go to Search > History or click the History tab at the top of the side bar on the left side of the screen.
Step 2: Identify Gaps that Need to be Filled
Many people enjoy focusing their research on their direct ancestors (grandparents, great grandparents, etc.) While you may have traced back many generations, you may have missed a few things along the way. This is a good time to start with yourself and work backwards through the direct ancestors in your family tree. Look for gaps in your timelines and information, and then start back up by researching to fill them in. Of course, you can also do with any relative that you want to learn more about.
Once you’ve identified the person you want to work on, create a research plan. If you’ve never created a research plan before, don’t worry, it doesn’t have to be complicated. You create and track it on paper, a spreadsheet or any number of notetaking programs. The important thing is that you identify:
your specific research question,
the records you think you’ll need to answer it
the locations where you think those records may be housed.
Step 3: Prepare for Genealogy Research Success Going Forward:
Since you’re picking your genealogy back up, this is the perfect time to check to make sure you’re set up for success going forward. These remaining items will help ensure that your new discoveries will be well-documented, organized, and protected from loss.
Genealogy software database
If you already have genealogy database software, open it up and see if there’s a newer version available. Look for Check for Updates in the menu.
If you don’t have a genealogy database software program on your computer, go get one now! We’re talking about a software program that you install on your computer. It’s a database specifically designed to record all the information you find. It keeps it organized and searchable, allows for source citations, photos, links, and more. It also gives you tremendous flexibility in running reports. This is something with which an online tree can’t compete. And most importantly all your data resides on your computer hard drive. This means it’s completely within your control and not subject to a paid subscription, or problems with a website such as the site being closed or sold off. The tree you build can be synced to an online tree if you wish to do so. Back in the old days (early 2000s) a database on your computer was the only option, and it remains your best option today.
Genealogy software is typically very affordable. You can even download Family Tree Builder at MyHeritage for free. If you’re willing to invest a few dollars there are several excellent programs to choose from such as RootsMagic, Family Tree Maker, Legacy, etc. I use RootsMagic but all of these programs have been around a long time and are great. The one you pick really depends which user interface you like, and to what extent you may want to sync your tree online.
If you don’t have a cloud backup program running on your computer, now is the time to get one. What’s the point of restarting your genealogy research if you’re going to risk losing everything if your computer is damaged or stolen? I’ve used Backblaze for years because it’s reliable, affordable, has an app, and automatically backs up all my files including video. There are several out there to choose from. The important thing is to pick one and get it installed on your computer. It will run automatically in the background, giving you peace of mind that your files are backed up offsite on the cloud in a secure location.
Status of Genealogy Website Subscriptions
Now that you have the tools you need to restart your genealogy research, it’s time to check genealogy websites. Did you have subscriptions to some of the popular genealogy websites like MyHeritage or Ancestry? Log in and go to your account to see if they are still active, and if they are, when they are set to renew. This will help you decide where to spend your time first. Start with the subscription that is up for renewal first. Then you can determine if you want to allow it to renew or cancel and try another genealogy website subscription to round out your research.
If you don’t have any current subscriptions, consider focusing first on familysearch, the largest free genealogy website. Then, depending on your research goals, you can select the paid subscription(s) that will support your research plan.
A Paper Filing System
While we don’t generate as much paper these days as we used to, some paper is inevitable. Don’t add to the paper clutter. If you don’t have a paper filing system in place, take a moment and set one up. Pick a filing system and stick to it. Then as you start your genealogy research you’ll always have a place to put things.
Filing Digital Content
The same goes for digital files as goes for paper files. Don’t jump back into your research without a filing system in place. It’s important to download the digital records you find so that you have access to them even when your subscriptions run out. Avoid a messy computer and commit to a digital filing system and filing name convention.
Were you citing your sources consistently when you last worked on your family history research? If not, STOP EVERYTHING and watch my video Source Citations for Genealogy. Citing your sources will save you headache down the road. You may discover that a previous conclusion was incorrect, and you’ll want to review the source where you got that information. A downloaded record usually doesn’t include specific details as to where you go it. Going forward, as you download records and add the details into your database be sure to also add the source citation.
With this in mind, familiarize yourself with the source citation tool in your genealogy program. If it looks daunting, don’t panic. Head to the menu and click Help, and then search for source citation. There you’ll find the instructions you need to once and for all get a handle on how to cite sources in your software.
Now’s the Time to Restart Your Genealogy
Don’t let the passing of time stop you from getting back into your favorite hobby. By following this checklist you will quickly get back into goal-oriented research and exciting discoveries about your family.
Change is something we can always count on, but that doesn’t make it any easier, does it? Understanding why the change is happening, how it affects you personally, and what you can do to adapt, does. So, when FamilySearch announced the end of their long-standing microfilm lending program, I immediately sought out the key expert who can answer these questions for you.
FamilySearch’s Goal for Microfilm and the Family History Library
It seems like only yesterday I was interviewing Don R. Anderson, Director of the Family History Library about the future of the library and FamilySearch. Back then, in 2009, he made the startling statement that their goal was to digitize all of the microfilms in FamilySearch’s granite vault. (Click here to listen to that interview in my Family History: Genealogy Made Easy podcast episode 16.) Fast forward to today, and we see that in less than ten years that end goal is within sight. We are also seeing the ending of a service nearly every genealogist has tapped into at some point: the microfilm lending program. Family historians have been able to place orders for microfilm to be shipped to their local Family History Center where they could then scroll through the images in search of ancestors.
On August 31, 2017, this service comes to an end.
Fear of the Unknown
It’s sort of scary to see this come to an end before every last roll of microfilm has been digitized and put online (just head to social media to read some of the concerns). It’s definitely been comforting to know that the records you need are just an order form and two weeks away.
I have always found that being armed with information helps alleviate fear, and so upon hearing the news, I reached out to FamilySearch to arrange a special interview with Diane Loosle, Director of Patron Services at FamilySearch. In this special Genealogy Gems Podcast interview, we take the time to really comb through what the end of the microfilm lending program means for you, and what your options are for records access going forward. I’ve been anxious to get this information into your ears and hands, and have spent the entire weekend producing this episode and transcribing it for you.
The Interview: The End of the FamilySearch Microfilm Lending Program
Lisa: One of the constant challenges for genealogists is gaining access to genealogical records that they need for their particular family history research. I imagine that you’ve had that challenge yourself. Thankfully, since 1938 the FamilySearch organization has been microfilming records around the world. They’ve been making these records available through the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, and through a tremendous lending program with their Family History Centers located worldwide. And that may be where you’ve gotten your hands on a couple of microfilms and records over the years. But of course, as the Internet has been more accessible over the last two decades, this is changing the landscape of record access. So more and more we are gaining access to digitized records online, and this has led to a really big change in the long-standing microfilm lending program.
I’ve invited Diane Loosle, the Director of Patron Services Division at FamilySearch, to talk about the change that’s occurred, what it means for you, and what your record access options are going to be going forward. Diane, thanks so much for joining me today.
Diane: I’m so happy I could come, and thank you for inviting me.
The Reasons Microfilm Lending is Coming to an End
Lisa: I imagine that you’ve been very busy with the changes. I know that the last day of the microfilm ordering was August 31, 2017. And you know FamilySearch has been digitizing records for years, so we are going to be shifting from microfilm to digitization. Why is right now the time that the change is happening, where you’re actually discontinuing the physical microfilm lending?
Diane: This is such an exciting time Lisa. We’ve been looking forward to this day for many, many years because when you think about the fact that you can get access to these images immediately in your home, for the most part – there are some that you have to access through a center or library, but the majority are in your home – that’s pretty wonderful. And so we are moving to a place where all of our fulfillment for your needs for your records is going to be digital and that’s what this change is all about.
So the reason that it’s happening now is that, a couple of different reasons. First, we have moved through a lot of the microfilm and have had those digitized and they are up online. So it was a good point with that.
We’ve also seen a huge drop in the orders of microfilms. So there’s not very many being ordered now, so that kind of lined up.
And then also our supplier. We have a single supplier for vesicular microfilm, and I think that’s important to understand that we’re talking about a certain type of microfilm because we use that type to make the copies and send them out to you. We have a single supplier, and that supplier has been kind of raising prices and giving us the indication that they would rather not be in that business. And so with all those things together, and the fact that we would like to take the resources that we are currently using to duplicate films, and send them out, and ship them and all of that, we’d like to take those resources and move them towards bringing you more records digitally.
It seemed like the right time to make this decision to finally finish it. Now we do have some of the collection that has not been completed of course, and I think that’s what’s causing most people concern is, “What happens? Can I get access to that during this time that you are still finishing it off?”
Lisa: Exactly, and you know I have visited the distribution center for your lending program, and it was massive and it looked really complicated. And then when you add on the idea that the access to the actual film itself is changing.
I just got a camera from my uncle, and it’s got 25-year-old film in it. It took me all day to find a local store that could develop it for me!
So, it’s like a perfect storm of a lot of technological changes, which is exciting, because as you said we can access things from home.
Digitization and Publishing Limitations
I know that when it comes to the microfilm that you guys have, the goal has been to digitize all of it. But explain to folks what the limitations are in terms of, do you have the rights to lend it, do you have the rights to digitize and put up online everything that you have microfilmed?
Diane: Right. So we are always limited by the rights associated with the collections because the record custodians stipulate those when we do the agreements. And in microfilm, we’ve been circulating things. Our intention is to circulate digitally everything possible legally for us to do. And that’s the majority of the collection.
Now in the process of doing this, what’s happened over the years is that laws have changed around Data Privacy, particularly in Europe and some other locations around the world. And as we’re going through and reviewing all of these, you can imagine these thousands of contracts for this process, we’re discovering that there are some that because of the changes in the Data Privacy laws, they really should not have been continuing to circulate because of those changes.
So those would then in the future be restricted because of the Data Privacy issues. And those are usually very modern records, those that have living people in them.
So there will be a set of records that maybe you could have gotten on microfilm previously that you would not now be able to get digitally. But that’s because they shouldn’t have been in circulation anyway because of the data privacy changes. But for the most part, what we’re circulating microfilm-wise you will have access to digitally.
Now, about 20% of the collection you have to access through the Family History Library, or through a Family History Center or affiliate library because of the contracts we have. And that was also true with the microfilm of course, and now it’s true with the digital images as well, based on the contracts, so there will be a certain set that is in that category.
Family History Center Affiliates
Lisa: Help us understand what affiliate centers are.
Diane: Affiliates don’t have to return the film they have. Affiliates are usually public libraries or Family History Centers in an LDS chapel. Local leadership will decide. So if they keep them, you can still access them. And the Family History Library in Salt Lake City will maintain a large microfilm collection as well. Go to familysearch.org and in the right corner, you’ll find the Get Help link (and click Contact Us). Search by zip code for affiliates near you. They will appear on a map. Libraries have extended hours compared to Family History Centers.
The best way to find out where the films are still located, both physical and digital, is the FamilySearch Card Catalog. Many people aren’t that familiar with the card catalog. Look for the Camera icon, then click to go to the document image.
Lisa: Let’s dig into that a little bit. So we’re talking about, you mentioned the term “affiliate centers” and I know that there are some locations which aren’t technically affiliates. Can you help define that for us? How do we figure out, before we make the jaunt over to the local family history center if that’s one that actually can still have some of the microfilm. Help us sort that out.
Diane: So if you go to any center or affiliate library out there, and I’ll tell you how to find those in just a minutes, they can keep whatever film they already have on hand. There’s nothing that’s saying that they need to send it back. Now that is dependent on decisions made at the local level. So, you know, the leadership of either the affiliate library, which is normally in a public library, or a family history center which is often in an LDS chapel, the local leadership there will make a decision about, you know, the film and what happens to them in the future, but we’re not asking them to send them back. So you’ll still be able to access them. And the library here in Salt Lake will maintain a large microfilm collection as well. So, it will still be available that way.
Now the way that you find these locations is if you go into FamilySearch, up in the right-hand corner there’s a Get Help link, and the Get Help link lets you get in touch with us. And then you can search actually using your zip code to find which centers and affiliate libraries are near you, and both will appear on the map that appears. So, uhm, you can find out which ones are near your location.
The affiliates are, as I said, often public libraries, so they may have extended hours beyond what the family history center might have because the family history center is often as I said in a chapel and manned by volunteers. And so they may not have as many hours as your affiliate libraries may have.
How to Identify Where the Films are Located
Lisa: So whatever they may have had on hand when the lending program came to an end, they had the option to decide if they were going to hang onto it, or if they were going to send stuff back. There’s going to be some just at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City. Do we go into the card catalog to identify where the existing films are still located?
Diane: Yes, so the best way to find out what’s available both digitally and where the films might be physically located is through the FamilySearch Catalog on familysearch.org.So if you go to Search on FamilySearch, and then Catalog, you can look up your location, look up the records your interested in, and it will tell you where those can be found.
Now, if it’s available digitally, and actually most people I’ve talked to where they would have this concern about “oh goodness, I’m not going to have access to my films!”, when I’ve talked with them, and we’ve looked them up, their records were already available digitally, they just didn’t know it. So, if you go in the catalog and look it up where it lists the microfilm, there will be a little camera icon out to the right-hand side, and if you see that little camera icon, you can click on that and that takes you straight in to the digital images for that record.
Now we publish those, we do about digitize about 1,500 microfilms a day at the vault. And we publish those pretty immediately up on to the website through the catalog. You will not find those through the Historical Records part of FamilySearch under Search Records. They’re just through the catalog, so there’s a much larger collection available through the catalog than what you see in the Historical Records section.
How Films are Prioritized for Digitization
Lisa: When we get notifications, I know I get your press releases and such on the new records that are coming out, does that include those? Because we do publish every Friday kind of a run down for all of our listeners out there, what the newest records are that are coming online.
Diane: It does not currently. That publication only includes things that are published online in the Historical Records section of the website. However, with this change, we’re looking to change that so it will include those being published to the catalog. Now the challenge with that is the volume! Because 1,500 films a day is a lot.
And these films, because the way that we did this initially, we prioritized all of the films that had been ordered in the last five years to make sure that those were available digitally, so it’s been kind of piecemeal a little bit.
So, you might have two or three films in a full collection that have been digitized and the rest maybe not, at this point, and so trying to help you understand what is and is not available through that publication. We’re still working through the details. But the intention is, as we go forward, will be to prioritize filling in those collections where maybe one or two films have been digitized and the rest have not yet. We will go through and make sure the whole collection has been digitized. And then we are going to introduce a process where you will be able to let us know if there is a film that you absolutely need. You can let us know, and we will work that into our prioritization and try to get that to you as quickly as we can. You know if you think about how long it took to get a microfilm to be delivered to you once you ordered it, you can think about it’s kind of the same time frame when it might then be available to you digitally.
How to Request that a Microfilm be Digitized
Lisa: How could they be contacting you to make that kind of request?
Diane: We are working on that process right now, trying to finalize it. So there’s kind of two options we’re looking at at the moment: One, you would contact us through our support line, the Help Line. The other is that we would just have a form up that you would fill out. Now the form is going to take more time to get established and up. So we may go out of the gate with not as ideal of a process, but we want to make sure that we can let us know, so we’ll be clear about what that is as we get closer to September 1st.
Lisa: When we get into the catalog, have you already flagged which ones are going to have restrictions, they are just not going to be able to be digitized? Because I think some people might be thinking “Maybe I should just hold on and wait, over the next couple months maybe they’ll get to this one, I’ll put in a request.” But I imagine that’s going to be a big job if you have to go in and try to flag every single one that you know you’re not going to have the rights to digitize. Tell us how you’re going to deal with that.
Diane: Well, that has not occurred and would be pretty impossible to do at this stage, just because of the volume of what we’re dealing with trying to go through. We’re doing it as we go to digitize the films. And so, we discover it as we go, as opposed to knowing it ahead of time.
Lisa: So if they put in a request, you pull it out, go ‘OK well let’s look at doing this,’ and then realize, no, this one’s not going to be able to do it. Then at least they would get that information?
Diane: Yes, they would. Well, what would happen is we’re working on a way so that in the catalog you would be able to identify that. So for example, a request actually came from the community out there that we be able to distinguish if a record can be viewed in my home, or if I have to be at the facility to view it, or if there is some other restriction on it. And so, because of that feedback, we thought “So let’s see if we can figure out a way to help people understand that.” Now, these things probably won’t be ready right out of the gate. But we’re looking for ways to make it simpler for you to understand what the challenges are with the record that you’re trying to access.
Gaining Access to Microfilm and Some Restricted Digitized Records in Person
Lisa: Sure. So, if we’re looking online and we see a record, and it’s not been digitized yet, would we at this point, until you get more formalized processes going, would you still encourage people to get in touch with the Family History Library in Salt Lake City? What other options are they going to have to gain access?
Diane: So first what I would do is I would look, because we’ll maintain the film inventory, so we know where the films are located, so I would first look and see, is this film available somewhere near me? Or if I have an opportunity to come to the Family History Library, and the film is there, great. But, so first look and see if you can locate it, then you can let us know through the channels that we’ll have available to you what the film is, and then we’ll put it into the list to be prioritized to be digitized. But I would always encourage folks to look and see if they are located near where that film already is because that would be much quicker for them to get access to that.
Lisa: If Salt Lake City is the only place, then, of course, this really whittles down to the big fear of everybody, is “Oh that one film I’m going to need, it’s only going to be in Salt Lake City and I can’t get there.” What other kinds of options might a person like that have?
Diane: Well, so I think that there are some options available to them because we have a large group of professional researchers who come to the library every day, and those folks could probably be useful to you in looking up those records and getting copies of whatever is needed. So that’s one option that people could take to do that.
The majority of what we’ll have, I don’t think the case would be that the only place you can get it is the Family History Library. If we do have a fair number of collections that are in that category as we finish this process off, then we’ll look at ways to provide some access where we can. But that access would probably be in a digital way as well. So that would be my suggestion, that they reach out to those who are here every day and could take a look at that. And I think you know there are other websites where you can get access to professionals as well, or just good samaritans, you know, that want to help you out.
Lisa: Absolutely, and there are lots of those. Finally, are there any records that the people listening are going to completely lose access to?
Diane: The only ones that would be in that category is because of data privacy. So, if there was an issue with, you know, a law changed, that made it so that we could no longer provide access to those. But that would have been true in the microfilm world as well.
Lisa: Exactly. So really, it really doesn’t change in that respect. We’re not losing records, we’re changing up how we access them. And I think you’ve helped shed a lot of light on kind of what the process will be and it sounds like you have a big job ahead of you.
“We’re not losing records, we’re changing up how we access them.” Lisa Louise Cooke
Shifting Resources to Meet the Goal
Lisa: How quickly do you think it’s going to help once the lending process is let go of, that the resources start going to all of this other work now that you have to do on the digital side?
Diane: I think it will move pretty quickly for us to, you know, start to do more with the resources we have. For example, we’re collecting around three million images with three hundred camera crews out there, about a week. So, that’s a lot! And we want to shift a lot of resources. Another place we’d like to capture more is with Africa and the oral genealogies project that we have, and gain more access there. So, we’ll be shifting to those. And then, of course, the vault is moving at a pretty good clip already, with about 1,500 films a day, so I think we’ll be able to keep up pretty well with the demand that’s coming at us from people. But, we’ll evaluate that as we go, and determine if we need to boost up more there or not, to be able to move more quickly for folks.
Empowering Genealogists to Learn More
Lisa: Any other questions that I didn’t think about that you’ve been hearing online, in social media, that you’d love to give us some input on?
Diane: Well, we have had some questions from some of the affiliate libraries about how do they get the access? So that’s been happening online a little bit. And so we just want them to know that we’ll be reaching out to them via calling all of them actually, and helping them through this process of setting up the things that they need to technically to be able to get access to the images digitally. So that’s definitely something they should know.
The other thing is that we have a lot of people who don’t actually know how to use the catalog [laughs] because you know they’ve grown up in a search world, or looking at the historical records the browsable images, and a lot of people don’t understand that there’s a lot of different ways to access the records on FamilySearch. So you have Search, which is a very small percentage of the collection actually, compared to the whole, and then you have the Historical Records that are only browsable, and that you can go in and look at the images browsing, and then you have everything that’s been published through the catalog. So there’s kind of three places that they need to look. So I think that’s the biggest piece I’ve seen: people just don’t know. They’re not aware of where to find those things. And you know eventually, it will be nice, maybe when those things come together. But at this point in time, they’re separate. And that’s because we wanted to ensure that you would maintain access. If we could just publish them quickly and maintain access for you, that’s the best in our minds.
Lisa: Absolutely! Well, I know that Sunny Morton here at Genealogy Gems is going to be joining us in future episodes talking more about just those different areas. And I love the way that you kind of laid it out for us because I think a lot of people weren’t that familiar with the differences. And she’s going to be helping us get a little savvier in that ongoing research.
Diane, thank you so much for taking time to visit with me, and to answer some of the questions. I know that you know that the emotions that run high are only because people are so passionate about family history, and they are so appreciative of what FamilySearch has done. It’s been an amazing resource that you guys provide to the public for free, which is just absolutely invaluable. And I know that I have a lot of confidence in where you guys are going because you always are out there looking forward. How far out into the future you guys look and you plan for is just phenomenal! It’s not just about us accessing records, it’s going to be for generations to come, and I love the fact that you guys are really laying the groundwork for that.
Diane: Well, thank you, Lisa! We are all about getting you access to records so that you can find your ancestors, and we will always be about that. I’m glad that I could come and help people to understand what’s happening and hopefully be a little less concerned about the change. I know it’s difficult, but it’s a wonderful change too.
This week, I’m researching at the Allen County Public Library in Fort Wayne, Indiana, which has one of the best public library genealogy collections in the United States. They’ve got more than half a million items on microfilm and fiche and 350,000 more in print. Among these items are nearly 50,00o city directories; 55,000 compiled family histories; most National Archives microfilmed military service and pension records….Okay, I’ll stop before you get jealous.
But in fact, MOST public libraries have some good genealogy resources. Have you checked out the library near you lately? OR the local history and genealogy collection in a public library near where your ancestors lived? You may likely find these 5 great resources:
Access to paid subscription genealogy websites like Ancestry.com Library Edition, HeritageQuest Online, Fold3 and other genealogy databases.
Local historical newspapers–or at least obituaries from them. ALSO access to historical newspaper websites like GenealogyBank.com which may have papers you’ll never travel to see in person.
City directories, old maps and/or local histories for that town.
Surname files. These aren’t at every public library, but you’ll often find them in libraries that have dedicated genealogy rooms. These likely won’t be neatly organized files with perfect family trees in them, but collections of documents, bibliographic references and correspondence relating to anyone with that surname.
Other surprising local history resources. For example, my hometown library in Euclid, Ohio, has online collections of Euclid newspapers, history, yearbooks and oral histories!
What does your library have? Browse its website or call and ask about its local history and genealogy collections. You might even Google the name of the county with the phrases “public library” and “local history” or “genealogy.” Another branch of the same library system (not in your own or ancestor’s town but nearby) might have just what you need to find your family history!
Listen to the Family History: Genealogy Made Easy podcast by Lisa Louise Cooke. It’s a great series for learning the research ropes and well as refreshing your skills.
Want to learn more about doing genealogy at the public library? Check out two recently republished episodes of Lisa’s Family History Made Easy podcast:
Episode 34: Do Your Genealogy at the Public Library, Part 1Genealogy librarian Patricia VanSkaik talks to us about researching at public libraries. She shares what kinds of things may be at the library (including unique resources), how to prepare for a visit and lots of great tips for making the most of your research time there.
Episode 35: Do Your Genealogy at the Public Library, Part 2We go deeper into genealogy research at the public library. Genealogy librarian Patricia VanSkaik is back to talk about how to search an online library card catalog including advanced search methods, the unique collections that may be at public libraries, how to ask for exactly what we want, and the obstacles librarians face when it comes to cataloguing large and unique collections that may interest genealogists.
Each area of genealogy research comes with a unique set of challenges. Jewish genealogy is no exception, but thankfully there are fantastic websites and online resources available to help. Even if you don’t have Jewish ancestors, these resources may prove very helpful for researching Eastern European branches of your family tree. Many provide detailed maps and information about towns that have long since vanished.
In this week’s Elevenses with Lisa episode professional genealogist Ellen Shindelman Kowitt (Director of JewishGen’s USA Research Division and National Vice Chair of a DAR Specialty Research Jewish Task Force) joins us to share:
unique features that JewishGen.org has to offer
the best regional websites
what you need to do before you dig into these websites
You can watch here, or click “Watch on YouTube” to watch at the Genealogy Gems YouTube channel where you can also view the live chat by signing into YouTube with a free Google account.
Episode 57 Show Notes
Lisa Louise Cooke: When I think of Jewish genealogy, immediately my mind goes to JewishGen.org, and I was hoping you could start us off with an overview of that. I know that you’re involved with them and boy, do they have a lot to offer!
Ellen Kowitt: JewishGen is really the premier main source for Jewish records on the internet today.
It’s run as a non-profit and it’s actually a part of a museum on the lower side of Manhattan called the Museum of Jewish Living Heritage. It’s run by a professional executive director, Abraham Grohl, but then there are thousands of volunteers that participate as research division directors, who help to identify records, index records, and translate records because language is a big issue in Jewish genealogy.
They’ve developed some really great data sets that can be searched for free by anyone. There is no charge to search JewishGen. Similar to FamilySearch, they ask that you register for a username and a password, but they don’t sell your name and it’s not going to go anywhere past accessing that website.
They have different tools they have developed that are unique to searching Jewish records.
I think there are a lot of entry points into JewishGen. For a novice, particularly beginners who have not done a lot of research anywhere on the internet, it can be a little overwhelming. They have a unified search, which combines the data sets from hundreds of records into one search function, because you can search each of these data sets separately. But if you’re just browsing and curious, and just want to throw your names in, the unified search is a great place to start.
Something that is really exciting about it is that they’ve had these special algorithms developed that are unique to Jewish names and Jewish languages. I’ll mention the Jewish languages in a minute, but it’s similar to the National Archives in the United States, which developed what we call the Soundex, which is an alpha-numeric code assigned to your name. It helps you navigate other spellings to your name that are similar, but maybe your family didn’t spell it that way, but it could be found in a record that way. The American Soundex doesn’t always work on Jewish or mostly Eastern-European names, so these special Soundexes were developed on JewishGen that are now used throughout the Jewish genealogy world on other databases as well. One is called the Daitch–Mokotoff. Another is called the Beider-Morse, but JewishGen doesn’t call them that. When you go in, it’s blind to you.
You’ll put your name or your town name into the search engine and there is a form with fields that you can populate. It doesn’t matter if you’re spelling the names of your given name, your surname, or your town name correctly, because you’re going to be able to pick a couple of different ways to search in a drop-down menu.
The first one will be called “Sounds Like,” the second is “Phonetically Like,” and then it goes into “Starts With,” “Is Exactly,” “Fuzzy Match,” “Fuzzier Match,” and “Fuzziest Match.” My recommendation is always search on “Sounds Like” and “Phonetically Like” because those are Daitch–Mokotoff and Beider-Morse Jewish algorithms for Jewish names and places. So that’s really, really helpful.
Many times people coming to Jewish genealogy are just hung up on names, where they come from, and figuring out an immigrant’s place of origin. Because, think about it: nobody spoke English in the Russian Empire or the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which is where a majority of Jews came from after 1880. So, they’re speaking languages like German and Russian, Lithuanian and Polish, and even Yiddish, which is linguistically more like German although it is written with Hebrew letters.
These immigrants come to American ports and there could be an immigrant from another part of the world with a different kind of accent, like an Irishman. So, an Irishman in America listening to a Yiddish speaker from Russia – of course they’re going to butcher spelling the names. It’s just par for the course.
People can’t get hung up on the spellings of Jewish names, particularly the surnames and the towns of origin where they are emigrating from. Of course, those towns are important to narrow down and understand where they were, because that’s where you’re going to look for the records.
JewishGen’s Communities Database
That’s a second point about JewishGen that’s so helpful. They have a Communities Database, and that lists over 6,000 places where Jews mostly lived in the largest populations around Eastern Europe. In many of those places, Jews don’t live there anymore, but they will outline for you in different time periods where the records are or where they were.
We always refer to Jews coming from Russia because we see that on passenger manifests or census records. But a lot of times when you see Russia as a place of origin for a Jewish family, if they came before 1917, that was Russian Empire. The Russian Empire doesn’t exist anymore, and what was the Russian Empire pre-1975 is not Russia-proper today.
There are a lot of countries where your family could have come from, including Poland, because part of Poland was in the Russian Empire. Your family might actually be from Lithuania, Latvia, Belarus, or Ukraine, or even some places in the south that don’t exist anymore. There used to be an area referred to as Bessarabia, and another one, Bukovina. These don’t exist anymore. Even Prussia, when you talk about the German Jews who came over, and this is true for non-Jews, too. There is no Prussian Empire anymore, and what was the Prussian Empire is now largely Poland, parts of Russia, and Germany of course. But it’s misleading that if your family spoke German and said that were Prussian, that they were German the way we think of Germany today. A lot of Jews came from Prussia, so that’s why I mention it.
Those are the key things about JewishGen. It helps with you the name complications and determining what other spellings there might be in records. It also helps you with locating these towns and what the administrative districts today would be.
How to Get Started in Jewish Genealogy Research
If you’re researching a Jewish family, it’s no different than any other American family, if you’re starting in America. You start with the civil records, the vital records, the census records, and the passenger manifests. None of these American records are divided by faith or ethnic group. So, a Jewish person, or if you’re researching a Jewish branch, should be starting the same way as any other American research. Start with yourself, work backwards, go through and exhaust all of the American records that you can, which will help you determine what those original names and place they came from are. That’s where JewishGen really helps you. It’s kind of like a 102 class. You have to do the American 101 records, and then when you’ve exhausted all of that, you jump to the Jewish records, which are largely available through JewishGen.
And the big point about JewishGen is the networking, because there’s this huge discussion group. They are now on Facebook with a group.
They have something called the JewishGen Family Finder, where you can register the names you’re looking for and/or the towns. Likewise, you can search to see whom else is researching the same names and towns that you are.
Through the messaging on JewishGen, you can get in touch with them and say, “Hey this is my story. Can I see your tree?” or “Do you have any family photos?” or “Have you had any success finding records for the little town in the middle of Ukraine?” Or even, “Have you hired a researcher that was helpful in pushing your research back in this particular archive in Lithuania?” It’s a fantastic way to find people researching the same obscure, small areas of the world that you are.
Lisa Louise Cooke – That’s an amazing resource, and you’re so right that we still have to follow the basic genealogy methodology. We still need to go through those records here. It’s tempting – I know people will say, “Well I know they were Jewish” so they’ll want to jump into that, and yet you miss so many clues that would probably come in super handy once you get over to JewishGen and you’re ready for that.
Ellen Kowitt: Absolutely…I find people who come to Jewish genealogy as beginners have not done that. I’m often backtracking and teaching American research before I ever get to a single Jewish record. I think that it’s really important that people take a look at (American records).
If they’re not in the United States and they’re listening, Canadian records or British records, wherever you might be starting from. You need to start in the country where your person that you’re researching is located, with those records first.
JewishGen Research Divisions
Lisa Louise Cooke: That’s a great point. I know for my own Sporowskis who were German-East Prussians, really they’re out of Belarus. I’m pretty sure that even though my great-grandfather later was going to the Lutheran church in America, I think they were a Jewish family back in Belarus. JewishGen has been one of the few places to find information about some of these locations that have changed names and boundaries. It’s just an amazing resource in that way.
Ellen Kowitt: Belarus is a good example. JewishGen has maybe over 20 research divisions. I happen to be the director for what’s called the USA Research Division, and just to define that, it’s not census records and passenger manifests. It’s looking at records held at Jewish repositories that are in the US, like the American Jewish Archives or the Southern Jewish Historical Society.
There are research divisions geographically all throughout Eastern Europe and there is one for Belarus called the Belarus Research Division. If you click on their link from JewishGen’s drop-down menu, they have their own website and they give a lot of maps, from now and then, of what Belarus was, and lists of towns divided by province, or what was gubernia. There are ways to connect with people and search what their records are.
Here’s a little tip I have about Research Divisions and any project on JewishGen. If you don’t find what you’re looking for and you really think it might be there, or you’re spelling it wrong and it’s not showing up in the Soundex, contact whoever the person is on that record set or who the Research Division director is, or who the town leader is.
In Ukraine, there are hundreds of town leaders for these little towns and what we find is that the town leaders and the Research Division leaders often know or are holding onto records that are not online. If you’re not finding something, it’s free to send an email! Just inquire and say, “Do you know anything else about Grodno, Belarus in 1854? Or the name Cohen?” or whatever it is, and you just never know what these folks have because I have found there are a lot of offline lists that the experts know about.
Lisa Louise Cooke: That’s very good insider information. It’s true, as you go into your genealogy research you get more and more daring and send that email. All they can do is just not be available. But it sounds like those folks are more than happy to help. What a wonderful idea.
Regional Jewish Genealogy Resources
Lisa Louise Cooke: We were talking about specific regions and I’m sure there are all kinds of different things here, but what other types of websites might be out there for regional Jewish genealogy?
Ellen Kowitt: It’s a little confusing. There is kind of a hierarchy. It’s not coordinated by any organizing body, but there are three independently run Jewish database sites. When I say the names, sometimes people say, “Oh that’s part of JewishGen.” They’re not. They are run independently. The three are:
JRI-Poland which stands for Jewish Records Indexing Poland,
And what we used to call LitvakSIG, and SIG stands for Special Interest Group.
All three of these groups kind of have roots in JewishGen and then for different organizing reasons all wanted to organize as independent non-profits. But they share their data. Now, do they share all of their data? Do they share their data at the same time? Are they sharing it in the same place? The answers really vary. This is why, I always say, if you’re brand new, check out Unified Search on JewishGen.
Ancestryactually has some of LitvakSIG, some of JRI-Poland, and some of JewishGen’s records. Just recently LitvakSIG released some of their records to MyHeritage. So, there is some overlap back and forth on the data sets. But if you’re from these three particular geographic regions, I would not only be looking on Ancestry, FamilySearch, and JewishGen. I would always go to their original databases on each of their original websites.
LitvakSIGreally stands for Lithuania, but Lithuania today is really different than the geographic borders of Lithuania a hundred years ago. When you look at modern-day Lithuania on a map, if your family is coming from a part of Latvia or Belarus or an area of Russia that surrounds that area, you might want to look there. I have this corner of southwestern Lithuania that part of my family came from, but it has also been Prussian, it has been Suwalki, Poland, and it’s right near Belarus, but yet I found records in Lithuania in LitvakSIG. I have also found them in Suwalki from JRI-Poland. So, loosely when you define your location, consider what’s geographically around the modern-day borders. But LitvakSIG is predominantly Lithuania and a lot of Jews came from Vilnius and Kaunus and all these places up there.
The second one is JRI-Poland. They are fantastic in their records acquisition. They’ve had partnerships with the Polish state archives. They give locations of microfilm that are for Polish municipalities at the FamilySearch digital collection. They have tons of volunteers who have worked there for 30 years. It’s extremely extensive.
For listeners who don’t know, the Polish State Archives has largely gone online, so a lot of vital records are digitized and you can go right to the record. Now, it may be in Polish or Russian, but you can get to those records for free, just like you can on FamilySearch sometimes.
JRI-Poland is just a powerhouse for getting access, using their indexes first to locate if there are records for your family in a town, using the Soundexes that are the Jewish Soundexes, and then getting to the original record. I just love JRI-Poland.
And be loose on those borders because it’s going to include Suwalki and those areas north on the Lithuanian-Russian border. Even the Belarus border and that Prussian border on the other side. For JRI-Poland, ‘cast a broad net’ is areas that were ever considered Poland, even on the southern side, too.
The third one is called Gesher Galicia, also run independently, and also shares data with JewishGen. Galicia does not exist anymore. It was a designation for an area that today you would think of on a map as western Ukraine and eastern Poland, and a lot of Jews lived in Galicia. Unique to that area is that it was Austro-Hungarian Empire at one point, so the records are in German, not so much in Russian or in Polish.
But Gesher Galicia has got a fantastic search engine on their database, and they are another powerhouse that is just continuing with their volunteer army of adding so many great data sets.
They’re really good, too, at allowing you to list what towns you’re researching if you join, and I think they have a small membership fee. In fact, each of them have a membership fee that they’ve added on, and I think that just gives you access to records maybe a little bit sooner.
These three are often lumped in with JewishGen but are really organized as separate organizations and they acquire records and index them in a different way.
Lisa Louise Cooke: That’s a great overview and it reminds us, like with all genealogy, that when you see partners working together and they end up with records on multiple sites, I find myself wanting to look at those records, even if they’re the same, on every site. You never know what the nuances are. You never know if their image is clear. There are so many different possible variations.
Jewish Records at Ancestry.com
Ellen Kowitt: There are! I have taken a deep dive on Ancestry’s records of JewishGen. They started an arrangement awhile back, I think in 2008, and JewishGen gave them a bunch of records in return for Ancestry housing their servers. So a great business arrangement for a little non-profit like JewishGen, but confusing for people like researchers that only use Ancestry and never look any further.
Certainly if you’re finding things on Ancestry (Jewish Records at Ancestry)that are JewishGen, you want to go to JewishGen and search also because JewishGen has not updated all the records that they sent to Ancestry ten or more years ago. There are unique records that were never sent to Ancestry, and you pick up those Jewish Soundex search capacities on JewishGen.
Now, Ancestry’s search has definitely advanced in recent years but it’s not the Beider-Morse the Daitch–Mokotoff Jewish algorithms for searching Jewish names. If you can’t find somebody on the JewishGen collection at Ancestry, go to JewishGen and try running the search there.
Lisa Louise Cooke: Another area I can think of as a roadblock area for folks in their research is around the Holocaust. What kinds of resources do we have to conduct research when it comes to the Holocaust?
Ellen Kowitt: I started doing this about 25 years ago and it used to be that either the records were not released by some of the archives in Russia or in the East, or they weren’t in English, or they weren’t indexed. You would put in these requests and it would take literally years for certain repositories to answer a basic inquiry with “Yes” or “No” if they have a card on your family.
I think there was a lot of mythology build around ‘you can’t document the Holocaust and what happened to people’ and what we’re finding all these years is later is that there are so many records. Plenty of people are documenting their families. We are continuing to find more resources available online, even from repositories that are traditionally not in English.
It’s hard to say where to start, because the story of the Holocaust has also evolved. It used to be we learned in school, if we even learned at all about the story of the Holocaust, that it was the story of the concentration camps and the Jews being gassed, and that’s certainly true. But there are so many other elements of the Holocaust like the story of the 1 ½ million Jews killed in Ukraine before anyone ever was killed at Auschwitz. We call this “the Holocaust by bullets” (and the story and most of what was the Soviet Union at that time), was the Jews were rounded up and, this is gruesome, but they were executed and left in mass graves that are unmarked, largely, throughout what was the Soviet Union.
Even Jews who knew their family was tied up in those kinds of stories thought there was no way to figure out what happened to their family or the town. But we do have records. The Russians kept records. It turns out the Germans kept records. A lot of this has become available online that you can search in English.
It really depends, for a family that knows they have a Holocaust story, where they were, what country they originated in, if you know the story that they went to a camp, or if they were in a small town where there was a mass grave. You’re going to be looking at very different resources.
I would say, if you only had to look at one and you wanted to just start this process, Yad Vashem’s website in Israel, in English, would be the place to do a general top-level search. The reason is because Yad Vashem is like the US version of the (United States) Holocaust (Memorial) Museum in DC, and they have resources too, but the one in Israel is called Yad Vashem and it has a larger collection.
They have also collected these pages of testimony from survivors who talk about their family members and where they last saw them, or if they know the exact story about what happened to them or their whereabouts throughout the war. Thousands of these pages have been submitted and they’re searchable. You can see the original pages that people submit and you can even get in contact with the people submitting them. It’s a great networking opportunity for people looking to connect. Yad Vashem has these great success stories, less and less because the survivors are aging out, where they connected people who still had living relatives in Argentina, Australia, or in Europe, and they’re just fantastic renewal stories.
But yes, complicated topic. It is possible to learn what happened to a community, hopefully to an individual. Records are at Bad Arolsen, the Arolsen archives in Germany, in addition to Yad Vashem and the US Holocaust Museum.
JewishGen does have a Holocaust collection worth searching, although it’s smaller than these other larger repositories. There are all kinds of things on the internet – webinars, speakers, and even books that have been published on how to track down victims and survivors of the Holocaust.
And non-Jewish, too. I recently was looking into someone who came from a Ukrainian Orthodox family and they were shipped out of Ukraine to what would be now the Czech Republic, and they were in a work camp. Sometimes these repositories you think of as Jewish record repositories for Jews in the Holocaust also tell the story of the non-Jewish victims of the Holocaust.
Lisa Louise Cooke: I so appreciate your vast knowledge on this. I know you teach people about genealogy, Jewish genealogy – tell us a little bit about you got started in genealogy and then into it professionally.
Ellen Kowitt: I guess like everybody out there, I just have that gene. Even from a young age, I was the one who just gobbled up the stories at the holiday tables and remembered the names and connected the relationships and just kept track of it in my head, long before I realized that was not normal, it was unusual and not everyone does that.
There is a woman, Sallyann Sack, who writes a lot of books on Jewish genealogy and she’s one of the publishers of Avotanyu, which is both a journal on Jewish genealogy and also a publishing company on books about Jewish genealogy. In my twenties, I happened to go to a lecture she gave at a synagogue in Washington DC, 25 or more years ago. She said “Hey we have this club! It’s a Jewish genealogy society and we’re doing a beginners workshop. Do you want to come?” I went and there was no looking back. I just got the bug. I started interviewing relatives like we all are taught, to talk to the oldest people first and the records can wait.
It just went from there. I got super involved as a volunteer. I actually think volunteering is a great way when you’re a beginner to learn about record sets. I have seen probate records, naturalizations, and Jewish records that I would never have found in my own family by helping index through a project with a local society. That was fascinating to me.
Then one day a friend insisted on paying me money to do some research on his mother, and I actually liked it. I thought, wow, if I can make a few extra dollars to pay for my genealogy obsession – and these websites can be expensive, the conferences cost money – but if I can make money and help to pay for my obsession, then I’m going to be a professional. So, that’s how I fell into that and it’s grown from there.
Lisa Louise Cooke: I think those of us who caught the bug when we were young are really fortunate because we got opportunities and I think had a focus on talking to and recording some of those stories. I know that’s probably people’s biggest regret, when they didn’t think about it back when they had an opportunity to interview some of the older relatives. I know in my case I just treasure the few interviews that I did do and I still have.
Ellen Kowitt: Me too.
Lisa Louise Cooke: I really appreciate you sharing all these wonderful resources. And of course, folks can visit you at your website at EllenKowitt.com, and I know that you do lecturing and all kinds of professional work on genealogy, and the wonderful article, Find Your Jewish Roots Online, in the May/June 2021 issue of Family Tree Magazine. Ellen, it’s been a delight to talk to you. Thank you so much for joining us here on the show.
Ellen Kowitt: Thank you so much for having me, I enjoyed it!