The state of Ohio has an active and effective genealogical society, with branches in many towns. Some Ohio courthouses are the best we've visited - modern, spacious, with room for genealogists to poke around the old records. Late nineteenth-century obituaries in small towns tend to be flowery and full of genealogical detail. The small towns have lots of helpful volunteers. We weren't prepared for Cleveland, with its far flung, sometimes chaotic data repositories. Here are some of their facilities:
The Western Reserve Historical Society, touted as the primary source for genealogy and local history. Just finding the parking lot requires superior skill. Then we had to buy museum tickets (good at five locations) in order to use the library. They indoctrinated us in their rules and regulations. Their catalog is half-computerized, half-cards; also it doesn't tell you where to find the materials. You have to try the open shelves first and if your book isn't there they will try to find it for you in the closed stacks. Catalogs are only as good as they are complete; without long lists of names, the entries are too general to be useful. By the end of a frustrating afternoon we realized that between parking and admission and 50-cents-a-page copy charges we had spent almost $30. Everything we had accomplished we could have done for free in the city library. Still, for specialized materials, such as a collection of 22,000 photographs of old Cleveland houses, this is an interesting location. Moreover, as we were to discover, this was the only area library which had significant numbers of family histories.
The Cuyahoga County Courthouse, where we looked for land records from the 1800s. The data is there, some of it on microfiche, some in the great old ledgers. They are transferring the information to microform and computer records and so the workrooms are filled with document boxes and empty shelves where record books have been shipped to the basement, to the archives, or to Columbus. Fortunately our records are so old nobody wants to use them, so they will be the last to go out.
The Cleveland Public Library, where we found census information, maps, New library wing and some additional data. Microfilms and microfiches are in the Microform Room, while books are in the various departments (some in closed stacks) in an enormous, elegant, almost luxurious library which now covers an entire city block. But the Library appears to support local history rather than genealogy; this is apparent when you discover that the printed census indexes are on the sixth floor of the East Wing, a five minute walk away from the census films on the ground floor of the West Wing. Maps and photographs were in two additional departments, and the library had decided not to keep any family histories. There is a beautiful index for Cleveland newspapers, but it omits about a century starting in 1875! "Try Fairview Park," the librarians told us. We picked up a brochure showing the many places one could visit around Cuyahoga county to find materials on genealogy and local history.
All the libraries have something called the Cleveland Necrology File. This is a microfilm of an old 3x5 index card file, on which were pasted clippings of death notices. It also includes some information from some cemetery records. The pencilled comments on some of the cards didn't microfilm too well, so you may not be able to get the year of death. The identity of the newspapers that published the death notices is usually missing. But worst of all is that the information is virtually useless. The Cleveland papers (perhaps like many other big city dailies) made an editorial decision that if you weren't rich or famous, then all you got was name, residence at death, and place and date of funeral. No bio, no survivors, nothing. From a genealogist's point of view, this makes small towns much better places than big cities like Cleveland.
With all the population moving to large cities, and with fewer and larger newspapers (no obits in USA Today or the Wall Street Journal, hey) maybe we will have a brave new world in which some dot-com folks will open up an obituary web site, where families can post an old-fashioned obituary; it would stay up for a couple of months, then be archived where genealogists could access it for a small fee. Just an idea.
The Lakewood Public Library, where we found our first batch of city directories and microfilms of the Lakewood newspaper. We thought that perhaps the local newspapers would print more detailed obituaries. After getting accustomed to the sun glaring through the uncovered window behind the microfilm reader, we discovered that the Lakewood papers had tons of personal information - weddings, parties, comings and goings - but again no useful obituaries. In fact the funeral homes got to placing paid ads just to let people know who had died. "Try the Fairview Park Library," said the librarian.
The Cuyahoga County Archives, a curious establishment located in a Victorian brick house in the old part of the city (in fact not far from Liberty Cuyahoga County Archives Street!) We're both familiar with government archives; nobody wants to pay for the costs of saving the information properly, so bankers' boxes are piled in the halls and closets, old records are torn and marked and crumbling, and (in this case) the staff couldn't care less (although they're cheerful and talkative). They seem to have whatever the county offices don't want to keep; boxes of index cards, a few drawers of microfilm and microfiche, lots of old court records, including probate records, a shelf of city directories. Even the furniture appeared to have been handed down from one county office to another and then given to the Archives. They apologized for their copy of the Cleveland Necrology. The three films we tried were all broken apart, torn, with some of the information from the beginning of the reel missing. It was too difficult to continue, so we left. "Try the Fairview Park Library," said another researcher in the archives.
The Highland View Cemetery, which keeps the old index books for the twelve cemeteries maintained by the city of Cleveland. It reminded us of the archives.
The Lakewood Bureau of Vital Statistics had one valuable piece of information for us: Elsa's grandmother's death certificate. We asked for some other vital records, and learned that there are several dozen locations in the county the old ones might be found, but the new ones (since 1909) are all shipped off to Columbus, and none are kept locally. So if we would just hop in the car and drive 125 miles south . . .
Nobody seemed to find it strange that a researcher must trek from building to building, institution to institution, through miserable traffic to unsavory neighborhoods. Several workers at the libraries on this list were curious and asked questions about how we worked, apparently not having met genealogists before.
Epilogue - the Fairview Park Library
Evidently by some community consensus, the Fairview Park Public Library, which sits towards the far western edge of the county, has been designated the genealogy library for all of the Cuyahoga County Library System (which does not include the Cleveland City Library). We walked into this modern building and up an open staircase to the second floor, half of which was devoted to genealogy. Here there were at least eight nearly-new microfilm reader-printers, the best we've found in dozens of libraries. Moreover, the copies we made from microfilm were free. They had a large collection of film, and stacks of local histories and genealogical references. We could have worked there happily for several days, but we still found information at each of the other locations that was available noplace else. And nowhere in Cleveland did we find the volunteer-produced cemetery directories that have been such great help to us all over the country.
We're wondering whether Cleveland is an isolated example of how to do things poorly, or whether this is a characteristic of large cities. We're hoping the former is the case!