Archive for the ‘Brick Wall Busters’ Category

Please note: Classes are always on a Monday night, usually from 7:00 to 8:30 pm. Classes will not always be in the same room. They will either be in Special Collections near the back of the first floor or in the ITTC (aka the computer training center) on the second floor. Check each class below for its location. Registration is required and will usually start at the beginning of the month before the class is being offered. Call a reference desk at 617-796-1380 to register. Also clicking on the title of the first two classes below should also get you to the registration form.

Class: Starting Your Genealogy Research Online with Census and Vital Records

Date: 23 October 2017
Room: ITTC
Time: 7:00-8:30 pm

Description: When people start going online to research their family history, the first documents they usually come across are the United States census (generated by the federal government) and birth, marriage, and death records (generated locally). I will discuss these documents in the context of computer-driven research. Some records can be used as proof of a relationship. Others are only signposts toward more reliable information. Tips relating to online research in general will also be incorporated. Registration is open now. (Limit: 12) You can register by clicking title above. (Limit: 12)

Class: Tracking Your Ancestors Using Local Resources — Yours and Theirs

Date: 6 November 2017
Room: Special Collections
Time: 7:00-8:30 pm

Description: Typically, you begin your family research with the resources closest to you, including your public library. But you shouldn’t stop there. This class is about tracking your ancestors in the towns and cities, counties and states where they actually lived. Here is where fresh discoveries are made, obstacles are broken down, and wonderful stories can be discovered. How do you track down digitized collections, special records, newspaper articles, books, and/or manuscripts that have been generated locally about people, families, and events in that community? I will discuss how to uncover online the resources available in places you’ve never visited. You will learn how to find libraries and history and genealogy societies relevant to the communities you are researching. You may discover relatives still living there, perhaps some you know nothing about and who may be working on a parallel track in a genealogy quest of their own. Eventually you may decide that there are places you want to actually visit. As you identify the localities you need to search, the focus and the scope of your project may shift and expand — prepare yourself for surprises. Registration is now open. (Limit: 15)

Class:  Brick Wall Genealogy

Date: 18 December 2017
Room: Special Collections
Time: 7:00-8:30 pm

Description: The further back you go in your family research, the more “brick walls” you are going to hit. A brick wall is anything that keeps you from finding the information you need to connect with an ancestor, that prevents you from reaching back to another generation.  Who builds these walls?  Often, we do ourselves. This class will be about how we build them and how we might be able to go under, around, over, or through them.  Often the bricks are made of our assumptions and our inexperience.  Join me and let’s discover what we can do about this. Trust me. I’m an expert at inadvertently laying bricks, then demolishing them.  Registration will be open at the beginning of November. (Limit 15)


vea/4 October 2017
Newton Free Library
Newton, Mass
Library website:  http://www.newtonfreelibrary.net
Genealogy blog:  https://thecuriousgenealogist.wordpress.com
Genealogy LibGuide:  


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The Art of Research and How to Find Local Resources

DSC05030 Genealogy Files by FamilyA curiosity about family history always starts with a question, a need to know.  It can start with a question we ask ourselves or something that is asked of us. Once engaged, we may ask relatives about the individuals who make up our family and are our ancestors. We then look at what we have and what is missing. We form more questions. What do we want to know? What piques our curiosity? One family? One ancestor?  One question expands into several. What quest are we on? What pieces of information do we want to discover?  Where do we think they are likely to be?

websites VerticalHaving committed ourselves to find the answer, we often continue our genealogy quest by going online. We could be looking for books relating to our ancestors in an online catalog or searching databases for records. Many libraries pay for subscription databases such as Ancestry, American Ancestors, and Heritage Quest so their patrons can use them at no cost.  If we want to get started on our home computer, FamilySearch.org is a good option. FamilySearch.org has millions of records online and access is absolutely free.  It was created and is maintained by those members of the Mormon Church particularly interested in family history. This site is just as important as Ancestry to check. As we become more experienced we also discover websites that are especially useful for our particular areas of research, favorites that we keep returning to.

Front of Library 17 October 2012At some point, inevitably, we come up empty handed and are not sure what to do next.  This is when we turn to people or institutions that we think can help us. These include public libraries, historical societies, genealogy/family history societies, town clerks, librarians, archivists, and subject specialists. We discover many of our personal contacts by first going through the institutions that employ them. It is likely we will first consult the institutions that are nearest to us geographically. Think, however, of your ancestors. Most of them probably moved around, some fairly frequently. Don’t overlook the importance of local history and genealogy resources in the areas where they lived.

Interested in learning more about a location, you may start by looking up a town or city of interest on the Internet. You may also consult books like The Genealogist’s Address Book and American Libraries Directory for likely places to send your question.  Once you discover a likely contact, you need to do two things: check out your contact online and organize your question. To find more information about your contact, see if the institution has a website or a blog, a Facebook or Twitter page.  Learn a bit about what it does and the information or collections it has. Why do you think this institution can help you? Once you check it out, do you still think it can help? Find out if there are guidelines for asking questions. Does it list a preferred email or postal address? Now back to your specific question:

The Importance of Questions

115 Larger Question MarkA question sent by email or through the post should be succinct and to the point while at the same time providing enough information for your contact to work with. Telephone queries may be fine to double-check contact information and hours, but for family research you need to offer a certain amount of detail. Questions that include information such as family names, dates, and places are best exchanged in writing. Anyone who has dealt with census records knows the myriad ways this material can be misheard and misspelled. Your question and accompanying information need to be written.  If you desire an answer, how you pose your question is critical.

Here are some tips for what to include in your question from someone who answers them (me).

  1. Focus specifically on what you want to find out. For example, if you are seeking information about a person, let your contact know the full name of the person you are researching.
  1. What specific piece of information do you want to know? If you are researching a person, do you want to find a birth or marriage or death record? Think about what you are using these records to discover. Are you using them to find parents’ names? Say so in your correspondence. Do not think just of the record you are looking for, but of the information you need. It will be easier for your contact to think of alternate sources for the information needed if they become necessary.
  1. Do you already have other information that would narrow the search to the correct person? Do you have family members (spouse, children, parents) or dates and/or locations of birth, marriage, or death? Include them in your query.
  1. What makes you think the specific person or institution you are contacting has the information you are looking for?
  1. Let your contact know which sources you have already checked. You want the person to help you by covering new territory, not rehashing what has already been searched.
  1. Restate succinctly what you would like your contact to do.
  1. Don’t forget to end with a thank-you. Remember that the people you contact have many demands on their time. Be polite and let them know you appreciate their spending some of this time helping you.


Consider the following email as a model for how a query can be constructed, question by question.

Who are you researching?

I hope that you might be able to help me locate information on my great uncle, [full name] b.[birth date]. His son [same name, Jr.] b.[birth year] – d.[death year] worked for the city of Newton for many years.  Note that the writer not only gave me a very specific question, but also let me know another critical piece of information.  There were two men, father and son, with exactly the same name. The son worked here for many years – hence I may find other records under the name I am researching that pertain to a different person.

What specifically do you want to find out about the person you are researching?

My goal is to locate the death record and burial place of [first name] Sr.

What additional information do you have that might help?

The last-known record that he personally filled out was a WWII registration card in [nearby town] in [year], however  Why are you checking in this location? he was listed in the your city’s directory [page number given] in [year of directory] living at [address] with his son. My correspondent was able to find a copy of the directory, probably online, before she contacted the library.

What research have you already done?

I do not believe that he had a Social Security number as there is no SS death index entry for him. Although he registered for both WWI and WWII, there is no service record for him.  I have spoken to the State Archives, Boston Veteran’s Services, WWI museum in Concord, Military records, NARA, all surrounding towns, our family cemetery records, Find A Grave, Ancestry, Familysearch.org, Social Security Administration office, and pretty much all other resources within my ability. Many people will not have done this extensive amount of research. But whatever you have done, put down. You do not want resources you have already seen rechecked. Given time constraints, this will result in new sources having gone unchecked.

What would you like me to do?

I hope that you might have access to additional directories, perhaps an obituary database or another means to search for the death of [full name of person being researched].

Thank you for your assistance,

[Your name and contact information]

Newton City Clerk's Office 2010Results: When I went to the City Clerk’s Office, I found no record for the father. I found no obituary on our Newton Graphic newspaper microfilm for the son, as well as no death record.  (By the way, when I pay a visit to the City Clerk’s Office, I always bring a family group sheet as a reminder to write down additional information I discover. It is always a paper version. For me, having something in your hand is a better prompt than if it’s buried on a laptop or tablet.)  I found the marriage record of the son and records for the birth of four children (grandchildren of the man she was researching). She did not have information on two of the children and she did not have the marriage record. I checked for other information in a private subscription I have that pointed the search to a bordering town.

Now, how about an example of a bad query:

I have a whole lot of [fill in any surname] with a ton of [fill in common given names] and I don’t know how to put them together.  I’m enclosing printouts from Ancestry that put most of these people in Newton at various times.  Can you help me figure out how or if they fit on my family tree?

Most people would put a query like this in the circular file. No librarian has enough off-desk time to answer a question like this.  I send such a correspondent a two-page letter explaining how to research and put together a family tree, in addition to a list of basic steps, family group sheets, and an ancestral/pedigree chart.  This has often helped clarify the thinking of the person sending the original question. As a result, I have received rewritten queries I can work with, often accompanied by a family group sheet.

An Added Place to Post a Query

Did you know you can also post a query to multiple people at once using an online message board?  Some websites also allow you to do this. If you are using this type of resource, it is important to know the site’s rules and regulations for posting a query.  Some sites will restrict the subjects or locations they will allow. They may have a specific format or word limit.  Be respectful of the places that allow you to do this and follow the rules.  You will dramatically increase your chances of getting an answer and you may even make new friends in the process.

vea/20 May 2016
Newton Free Library
Newton, Mass
Library website:  http://www.newtonfreelibrary.net
Genealogy blog:  https://thecuriousgenealogist.wordpress.com
Genealogy LibGuide:  http://guides.newtonfreelibrary.net/genealogy


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How can I track down records?

What are immigrant banks?

I just found out from Marshall Cohen, one of our genealogy club members, just how important immigrant banks can be in your research.  He is letting me share his advice with everyone through The Curious Genealogist.   His two short paragraphs could give you enough information to break down one of your own brick walls.  As you are reading, don’t skip over the last sentence. It is important. It shows that you never know where a connection is going to be made.

Marshall wrote:

I have been using a wonderful resource: The Philadelphia Immigrant Bank. There is an index of this source on Ancestry, but the raw data is held by Temple University. The trick to using it is to find the record via Ancestry and then go to the raw data and find the specific source, reference in hand.

Immigrant Banks were interesting hybrid institutions in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. Immigrants would save their money in dribs and drabs in one of these institutions. Then, when they had accumulated enough for a steamship ticket for a relative’s passage, they would purchase it and send it to someone in Europe. Several of my relatives came through Philadelphia, and the bank records show who has paid how much for the ticket and the address of the payer. All of this has revealed a Philadelphia-Louisville pipeline that originated in Vohlnia Gubernia in the Russian Empire. I’ve been conversing with a woman online who has an Ancestry tree for a particular schtetel. She has documented the connections between families and traced where these people went once they emigrated. This is similar to what I was talking about with my relations from Sudilkov-Shepetovka. Strangely enough some of the people from the woman’s village intermarried with people from my relatives’ villages.

Marshall Cohen

vea/15 April 2016
Newton Free Library
Newton, Mass
Library website:  http://www.newtonfreelibrary.net
Genealogy blog:  https://thecuriousgenealogist.wordpress.com
Genealogy LibGuide:  http://guides.newtonfreelibrary.net/genealogy

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