African-American History Month: Technology aids, improves genealogical research

By STACEY ADGER | Metro Monthly Contributing Writer

What makes us want to explore who we are? Is it that curiosity, as we age, to define who we are for ourselves and for future generations? Or is it something simpler, like trying to learn if we really are related to the one of the presidents of the United States, like some crazy relative maintains? Whatever the case, companies and corporations are enjoying the genealogy wave!

Dr. Arnon Hershkovitz of Tel Aviv University recently wrote about how technology has impacted the study of family history. Hershkovitz and his graduate class have been studying trends over the past decade. Due to the proliferation of genealogical web sites, repositories and other resources, finding information is getting easier.

Research sites like ancestry.com, familysearch.org and others, which are actively downloading records and information for the general public, are aiding the effort. Hershkovitz also pointed to the growth in paid subscriptions to the major genealogy information providers. Since 2009, subscriptions to ancestry.com have increased by 195 percent while Family Trees has experienced a whopping 563 percent growth during the same period. Joint ventures with shows like “Who Do You Think You Are ?,” “Finding Your Roots” and “Genealogy Roadshow” are helping to attract more new customers seeking to learn more about their ancestry.

Another explosion has come in the use of DNA testing. Ancestry and Family Tree both offer tests. African Ancestry, National Geographic, and others, are offering test kits ranging in cost from $50 to several hundreds of dollars. For a swab of the inside of your mouth or a saliva collection tube, you can find out what your ethnic percentage breakdown is. . . . and that often comes with a surprising twist you may not have expected. The results, depending on how extensive the kit you purchase, can help you trace back just a couple of decades to hundreds of years, but to find those answers will take more than just that.

“Genealogy is like putting together a jigsaw puzzle with a missing piece, you are always looking for the missing piece,” said Margaret Cheney, president, Ohio Genealogical Society, based in Bellville. “As with any story you start charting what you know, and then once all of that is recorded, it is time to start looking for what you don’t know that will help fill in your story.”

There are a variety of online fee-based and free sites where you can get information. As mentioned, http://www.ancestry.com is a fee-based service while http://www.familysearch.org is free but you have to create an account to access some information. Other sites include; http://www.rootsweb.ancestry.com, http://www.cyndislist.com, and http://www.afrigeneas.com. The National Archives’ Chronicling America newspaper resource and http://www.news.google.com/newspapers are all helpful sites.

Granted, there is a lot of information which has been digitized and is online, genealogy has never been, nor will it ever be, just a click of a button to get all you need. Usually the main branch of your county library has a section designated for genealogy, with books, microfilm and access to some online library versions of Ancestry.com, Freedmen’s Bureau records, Fold 3 (military records) and other important resources. Often, as in the five county area, you have library staff that has been trained in the resources available in their facilities, but you also have knowledgeable volunteers from genealogy and /or historical societies who are available to guide you. Keep in mind, their job is to assist you – the leg work rests with you. You may also find volunteers in county courthouses to help you wade through the mountain of deed books, property titles and marriage, birth and death records.  Before heading out, make sure you have your basic information together and call first to see when help is available at the branch you want to visit and if there are any restrictions (food, drink, cameras, etc). Before you go, check online or call to see what type of materials various history centers, state universities and special libraries have and if there are fees. In the Buckeye State, The Ohio Genealogical Society in Bellville, holds many one of a kind collections, a large collection of county histories, yearbooks and other research materials. Housed in the Samuel D. Islay Library, it offers a computer lab with national and other well-known databases. Access is free to members or a $5 daily use fee. Valuable resources like the Carnegie Libraries in Pennsylvania, Heinz History Center, Western Reserve Historical Society in Cleveland, Allen County Public Library in Indiana all may hold answers for you as well.

If you are researching in a particular county or area out of state, it may be beneficial to join their genealogical or historical society. You can gain a better understanding of the area you are researching, where resources might be and who some of the researchers in those chapters are. Again, they will not do your work for you (there are usually genealogists/researchers who are available for a fee for that type of work), but can guide you. They often have newsletters which are good to follow upcoming seminars, lectures or research opportunities which may arise which are not available to the general public.  Also, check out the archives of state universities where your research is taking you.

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