We are going through a transition in our genealogy work. Bob started recording family history a couple of years before he retired, and mostly was working on his family. Last spring, after we became full-time travellers, we stopped at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, but we weren't ready to focus on genealogy investigations - we had too many places to visit.
This spring we decided to try out some serious genealogy as we moved about, to see if we liked it. Well, two months have passed, and we have found we do like working together and patching together a plausible history of our pioneer ancestors. We hope eventually to travel to Europe to backtrack even earlier there.
Working steadily, the two of us can read a lot of books, search a lot of newspapers on microfilm, check a lot of censuses, visit a lot of gravesites, take a lot of pictures, meet a lot of previously unknown and interesting relatives, and generate a lot of data.
We realized that our project was like a Ph.D. dissertation, and we suddenly found ourselves wanting to upgrade our software, put more memory on the laptops, and, most important, review and standardize our entire way of working - how we record citations, how we gather and enter data, etc. So we've had to go back and customize our genealogy software to leave a good track for those family members who may follow us and use our work. We agree about the goals of our research (we want to try to create biographical sketches about our forebears -- not just names and dates). Meanwhile, we continue to visit interesting places Wisconsin State Historical Society as we pursue our sometimes elusive family.
We started with the knowledge that Elsa's grandparents came from farming families in Kansas, families which had moved gradually west from Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and Wisconsin. We are moving gradually eastward, backwards along their path.
This week we are back at school -- at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, Wisconsin, to be precise. We park at the nearby "ramp" (the Madison term for parking garage), collect notebooks and laptop, and walk up State Street between rows of kiosks which at lunchtime will sell Cuban and Thai dishes and fruit and various juices and other stuff for those willing to sit outdoors in the 100-degree heat. We pass the University bookstore and the memorial library and spot Lake Mendota in the background.
Our destination is theWisconsin State Historical Society, an imposing building with worn marble staircases which began as the University library, well over a hundred years ago. Now it houses an impressive collection of documents, books and microform material and is open at no charge to the public six days a week.
On the second day we saw a big wooden gizmo in a display case, full of gears and such. When we investigated we discovered to our amazement that it was a device constructed by John Muir to wake him up by lighting a lamp and tilting his bed. It then reached down and pulled out a textbook (they were small thin volumes of a uniform size) from one of ten or so slots, opened it up for reading, and kept it there for the prescribed amount of study time, whereupon it would clunk and whirr and replace that textbook and pull up the next. See photo. Seems that Muir was much more than a naturalist. John Muir Study Robot
The library is an odd conglomeration of new and old materials and technology. A Federal documents collection fills perhaps a quarter of the library, not counting the material now being released in electronic form, with old, beautifully bound material shelved next to more mundane boxes and stacks of more recent publications.
The reading room is immense, its high ceiling deadening sound and providing light over the heavy old tables, including several rows of computers and printers. The card catalog is being transferred to MadCat, the computer version, but we noticed one gentleman diligently updating records on the catalog cards as the library struggles with its current two-tier approach.
Out of sight but filling much of the rest of the building are the book stacks. The library's goal is to acquire as much genealogy and local history material, from all over the United States, as it can. The stacks, like the rest of the collection, are open to the public. After an hour browsing the card catalog we armed ourselves with call number notes and a walk through the stacks.
We found family histories, from professionally published biographies and memoirs to notebooks containing hand-written narratives and hand-drawn family trees. We found an entire floor of local history materials: county histories, bicentennial celebrations of cities, and stories of various ethnic groups like the Cornish immigrants. African-American history is a particular strong point, even including records of passengers on slave ships. There are atlases, dictionaries, indexes without end. A serious historian could happily spend years here.
This library is busy, the sign-up sheets reveal addresses all over the country, and people read one anothers' names and strike up conversations to see if they have common interests.
The equipment here is an amusing, albeit sometimes frustrating, combination of new and old. Not far from the jazzy internet terminals and state-of-the-art photocopier for open books is a veritable rats' nest of hand-cranked microfilm readers, patched to a fare-thee-well, many marked with permanent-looking Out Of Order signs, and all hidden in little nooks and crannies near the rows and rows of microfilm and microfiche cabinets.
For lunch we've found good sandwiches in the Wisconsin Student Union Ratskeller, and then back to the library. We feel like college students again. We probably read too much, but we're too old to change! And our discoveries keep motivating us.