Local History: Taking Genealogy to the Next Level

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As we age, our children and extended family look to us evenmore to fulfill the role of family historian. Sometimes we can feel the responsibility to help fill the gaps inhistory when we get together during holidays or special occasions.  We are not able to provide answers to everyquestion that arises about those who came before us, and the records we findgive place to even more questions.  Sowhere can you turn to learn more?  How doyou put your family history into perspective for the upcoming generation?

Dive into localhistory

Most of us do not realize there is an oasis that awaits usamong local history.  You do not have tofeel like you are wandering in the dark alone looking for the pieces of aforgotten past.  Clues await you if youare clever enough to find them.  Once Iopened myself up to local history, my research took on a life of its own.  I have never run out of directions to take inmy quest to discover more about my family. 

If you have primarily researched your family online, youmay be drifting along without the valuable resources that could very wellprovide the insights you need to the resolve research challenges you face.  Are you feeling frustrated?

“Local historians,” saysJoan Dils, “need to set their patch into the wider context or their work justbecomes a collection of facts.  The “why” and the “how” are just asimportant as the “what” – so if we channel our personal interests andconnections in this direction, we help national historians construct a richerand more meaningful story of our country.”  See Local history helps tounlock the secrets of our identity.

Local resources

I cannot tell you how beneficial is has been for me toexplore the resources situated in the local areas where my ancestorslived.  It has always been worth my timeand effort to visit the local history department of county libraries just tolearn more about their holdings.  Some ofhelpful resources I have found include:

  • Cemetery books 
  • Biographies and oral histories
  • Newspapers that are only on microfilm
  • Church histories

On numerous occasions, I have run into people who knew membersof my family that I never met before.Most of the time local librarians have a great deal of knowledge abouthistorical records that exist in their area, how to access them, and what theycontain. Many of these records are notavailable online. It's for this very reason that we created Genealogists.com. That is, to make the world's records available to everyone regardless of where they are physically located even when the records are not online.

Be daring

I have plunged into the vertical files in libraries andmuseums helping me to learn about local organizations, events, and peopleduring different time periods.  A coupleof years ago, I visited the Union County Museum (SC) where I offered to do apresentation on African American genealogy. I had been researching this area from afar.  I spent time there to learn about theirresources.  They collect published familyhistories, and they have a vertical file on local families.  To my great surprise, they gifted me with abook of oral histories that they knew contained the history of myancestors.  When it comes to sleuthing,you need set the sky as your limit.  Younever know what or how your discoveries will manifest themselves.

On your adventure, don’t forget to stop by the localuniversity library just to browse the local history and check out themanuscript collections.  Browse thebibliographies for the cited sources.  Youwill be surprised to discover historical records that you have not consideredyet.

GreenwoodCounty Library (SC)

Probably the most daring thing I have done as of late is tomove to the area where my ancestors lived in the mid 1800’s.  In addition, I have committed myself tovolunteering in the local history room two hours a week indefinitely.  The Lawrence Room at the Greenwood CountyLibrary (SC) is a treasure trove.  I haveaccess to experts who know the history of the area, and the room is full of resourceswaiting to be tapped.

Start where you are

If you cannot travel to a local area, try connecting inthese ways:

  1. Submit a research request to Genealogsits.com.  They have over 350 professional researchers with access to over 700 of the world's archives.
  2. Makefriends with other people who live and research in an area (the volunteers atthe local family history center). 
  3.  Follow repositories on social media (Facebook orTwitter) to read what they share about local history.
  4. Search GoogleBooks, WorldCat, Internet Archive, and Amazon for books on the local history andfamilies in a specific area. I have actually found ancestor’s names in booksthrough these places.
  5. Review the online catalogs of libraries andarchives to learn about special collections.

I was excited to recently discover information on my familyin a periodical among FamilySearchBooks where you can find over 100,000 digitized publications containing avast array of local and family history.The publications open easily in an online reader.

Genie (Louisiana), v.41 Ark-La-Tex Genealogical Association (Shreveport, Louisiana)

The efforts that you make to learn more about local historywill add dimension to your research resulting in a greater understanding aboutthe life of your ancestor.  Your familywill be fascinated by what you will have to share.  Who knows? You may even light the fire of the next generation family historian.

by Robin Foster © 2014, Genealogists.com. All rights reserved

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Written by


January 17, 2014
Wesley is the founder of hello@traceyourpast.com.

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