Genealogy at the ALA conference



This week I attended the annual conference of the American Library Association (ALA) in Chicago. It was such a great experience! It is the largest conference for libraries of all kinds in the United States. I learned a lot about today’s librarianship, including lots of cool tidbits about how libraries are helping genealogists!

ALA selfie
ALA Selfie!

Some genealogical highlights from the conference:

  • My professor Nicole Wedemeyer Miller (who taught Genealogy and Library Services last semester at Univ. of Illinois, and who just published a book about Family History services at the library) spoke about conducting a successful genealogy reference interview, emphasizing the need for patience and organization. Not every family historian who walks into the library will know what they are looking for!
Nicole W. Miller giving presentation
Nicole W. Miller giving a presentation to librarians about performing a successful genealogy reference interview.
  • Genealogist Tina Beaird reminded us about some great free genealogy websites to suggest to patrons (or use for our own research!). These included Digital Public Library of America, Linkpendium, FamilySearch, Google News Archive, and local or state Digital Memory Projects like Montana Memory.
  • This year is the 100th anniversary of the US’s entry into WWI. Representatives from FindMyPast and FamilySearch highlighted some great resources for locating your ancestor who participated in WWI. FamilySearch has a huge variety of WWI resources at all levels, including local, state and international records! FindMyPast (free subscription through many public libraries!) offers a British perspective of the war, including most WWI British military records. Missouri also has a wonderful project for Missourians who fought in WWI called Missouri Over There. The project is bringing together all kinds of digitized photos, 3D artifacts, and a service database that has a listing for every WWI service member from Missouri.
  • We heard an overview of the project to find the Haymarket Martyrs’ Monument time capsule. A librarian had stumbled upon a historic newspaper article about the erection of the monument that described a time capsule that was buried underneath the cornerstone of the monument. That discovery started a project to uncover the time capsule. With the help of an archeologist, they worked to uncover it, but did not end up finding it. The librarian is continuing her search for the remarkable time capsule!
  • A librarian from the Fountaindale Public Library (the library has a great genealogy blog by the way!) hosted a panel of historians from various ethnic historical societies, who can be very helpful with regional and ethnic research. The panel consisted of representatives from the Swedish American Museum, the Polish Genealogical Society of America, and the Chicago Scots Genealogy Group.
  • A session called “Mapping the Generations” was a great overview of how libraries can help genealogists use maps to find their ancestors.
    • If you have Chicago ancestors and you haven’t used, it’s such a great resource! Find out what the neighborhood where your ancestor lived was like, or find out which churches were nearby. Bonus: you can send them your own photos and information to add to their site!
    • New York Public Library has a bunch of digitized maps for New York City, and has some crowdsourcing projects going on that use Fire Insurance maps, modern maps, tourist maps, and information from city directories to eventually create a great genealogy resource! (These can be found at NYPL Map Warper and Building Inspector.) In the end, you’ll be able to zoom in to the map, see the footprint of the building where your ancestor lived, and see a listing of all the people in that household! It’s still a work in progress, but it will eventually be an amazing resource for New York City genealogy!
    • A rep from FindMyPast also expressed how important maps are to family historians, and the importance of looking at all kinds of maps. Topographical maps, historic weather maps, religious data maps and other informative maps can help shed light on your ancestors’ decisions!
  • First slide to presentationOne of the BEST sessions that I went to was “How to put your family history on the map: Georeferencing and geocoding historical information” by Ryan Mattke from the University of Minnesota. I loved this session because I’ve always wanted to learn more about geospatial technology, and this tutorial gave me the basic tools to make my own interactive maps! He showed us how to use this for genealogical research, but it has a lot of applications, like creating walking tours of your town, or create your own interactive map like! He showed us how to overlay a digitized historic map over a modern map (like Google maps), link them, and then add your own interactive points to the map! You’ll be seeing my own interactive map here soon!
  • I also attended a short debate about preserving analog audiovisual materials in libraries, museums and archives. The question was, “Is the preservation of analog audiovisual media the single most important preservation issue facing libraries (and archives and museums) in 2017?” However, the panel and audience did not reach a full consensus. Although the discussion was primarily among professional archivists and preservationists, it did raise some important questions that are also important for family historians. If you do happen to have old audiovisual materials in your family history collection, such as old home movies on VHS or film reels, or cassette tapes of interviews with relatives, what do you do with them? Especially for degrading formats like magnetic tape (VHS or cassette), there is immediate need to preserve the content by digitizing them. However, once you digitize them, you need to actively migrate them to stable file formats in order to preserve the digital files. I learned that digital and analog audiovisual materials can both be easily lost (very soon!) to time and obsolescence if we do not actively work to preserve them! As for me, I’m ready to dig out my grandmother’s old film reels and get them digitized!

I went to a lot of sessions pertaining to genealogy, but they weren’t the only ones I attended! I got a bunch of free books and swag at the exhibit hall, I met the Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden, and was just barely missed meeting Representative John Lewis! I went to several other events, including a speech from Reshma Saujani (CEO of Girls Who Code) and Hillary Rodham Clinton at the closing ceremony! I’m both excited and exhausted from the experience!

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