Friday, April 24, 2015

Family History Library: Crushed by a Waterfall of Knowledge

I recently took my first trip to the Family History Library in Salt Lake City.

I have wanted to make that trip for so long, and I finally got a chance to go. I'll be the first to tell you that I expected a Shangri-La of records, where I would not be in want of discovery because it would simply be everywhere. I imagined my most productive day magnified a thousand times. I couldn't wait to be crushed by a waterfall of knowledge.

As usual, how little my fantasy resembles reality was a comedy of errors from start to finish. I never imagined I could be so prepared for an experience, yet be so entirely unready.

How I Prepared

I use Microsoft Access 2013 for all of my cataloging, list making, and report generating needs. This includes creating a research list of books and microfilm specific to the Family History Library. I generated this list over a long period of time, until the cost of requesting all of the microfilm for use in my local family history center exceeded the cost of a trip to Salt Lake City.

I checked every roll of microfilm to make sure it was stored on-site at the Family History Library. A certain portion of their collection is stored off-site at the Granite Mountain Records vault, and needs to be requested in advance. My research was focused primarily on verifying vital statistics of my father's lines in Virginia and North Carolina. Nothing exotic or difficult. While the volume of stuff I wanted to look up was probably beyond my grasp for a first time trip, nothing I desired was exotic enough to present a real challenge.

No. It all fell apart... because I am human.

This could have been us, Family History Library, but you playin'

Mistake #1: No Experience Using Microfilm

My first mistake was focusing the bulk of my day on microfilmed records, when I have only used microfilm twice in my entire life. The first time I was 16 and especially helpless because I was having my first real repository experience. The lady who brought me to the Cecil County Historical Society looked up the obituary for me, and that was the end of it. The second time I looked up an obituary for my grandfather at the public library when I was 17, which I don't remember being at all strenuous.

But then again, I'd never seen a demon in my life quite like this machine.

My version of genealogy hell is having to load and unload one of these contraptions for eternity

The missionary at the desk showed me how to load the reels onto the machine, and it couldn't have appeared more simple. But I swear, I found every wrong combination of ways to insert microfilm into that accursed machine. In a choice that should have been a 50/50 shot, I somehow turned the odds against myself even more. If I was lucky enough to get the film loaded onto the machine, the images would be backwards, upside down, or both, and I couldn't figure out what I was doing wrong.

So I'd try to pull the reels off, and they'd be on there so tightly I'd have to give them a good tug. One or both of the ends of the reel would fly out of my hands and tumble to the floor. I'd pick them up and try again. I spent more of my time loading and unloading the stupid machine than actually finding records.

Once I'd find a record I wanted to copy, I'd have to pull it off of the infuriating the machine, take it over to the ScanPro, a slightly less infuriating machine, and somehow get the reels onto it. Then I'd have to find the image I wanted all over again. Then scan the record, print it, and rewind the film. Walk back over to my little microfilm cubby of darkness... then go back to get my microfilm spool I left on the ScanPro... every... single... time. Without fail.

I was reaching Infomercial levels of stupidity, and it was only 11 o'clock in the morning.

Mistake #2: Numbers are my Enemy

Anyone who has used is probably aware that they are super at providing the roll numbers for their microfilm collection. If you've ever found an indexed entry for a family member, and wanted to look up the original on microfilm, you're in luck. Check the bottom of the page, and there will usually be a film number and a reference ID number to help you do it.

The film numbers on the U.S. and Canada film floor range from 5 to 9 digit numbers. For someone like me who has a hard time reading numbers without transposing them horribly, digging through those drawers was not a pleasant experience. I'm still trying to figure out how the numbers of the outside of the drawers corresponded to what was in the drawers, because it was never all that clear to me. I tried to figure out a range as best I could and started yanking two or three drawers open until I finally found what I wanted.

It was a slow, cumbersome process in which I ended up pulling three wrong rolls by accident, and having to put them all back. Which on its own is not a huge deal. But all of these mistakes were starting to add up in terms of lost time.

Mistake #3: Fine Print

Once I plowed through every single roll of microfilm I had on my list, I'd been in the library for five hours already. I hadn't eaten, which was a huge mistake. I had about an hour or so left to look at books. So I headed up to the third floor where the books are supposed to be...

SPOILER: True to her word, my name was actually in the book

I was searching for this book. As I headed over to the 929 section on the third floor, I saw they were all reference books. I knew I had to be in the wrong place, so I asked a missionary. He said to head to the first floor. Back to the elevator I went...

So I head over to the shelf where the book is supposed to be. As soon as I get to the shelf, I can tell something is wrong. There are too few books on the shelf for this to be the right place. So I go to find someone to help me.

We pasted the call number I had copied from the FamilySearch catalog back into the website... and for whatever reason, the computers in the library were bringing up every book but that one I wanted. I've never seen a call number cataloging system like theirs, and I wasn't impressed by how difficult it was making a very simple process. I also had to spend a good five minutes convincing the woman helping me that I wasn't nuts, the book I wanted existed, no that other book there is not it, and no it wouldn't be digitized because it was published in 1996.

Eventually, however, she did arrive at the cause of the problem:

If the book you want is labeled as High Density, it means the book you want is stored in a part of the library you are not allowed to access. You have to head down to floor B1 and ask someone at the window to retrieve the book for you. Give them the number in the green circle. My example here is 0293154. Trust me. There's no less than 20 minutes of my life I could get back had I known this information. They will pass you a clipboard and ask you to sign out the books you're using. When you're done, take the books back to the window.

Mistake #4: Budgeting Time

I knew this was going to be difficult for me the entire time I was planning this trip. Time management is a particular weakness of mine. But I recognize that the only way I'm going to get better is by gaining more experience in research settings.

Current Status: This
That said, I honestly wish I would have gone after the book first. I wouldn't have gotten as many copies from the microfilm, but the microfilm records didn't provide any additional insight like I thought they would. Had I gotten less accomplished, I'd still be in the same place I am right now. Now I know that the indexes from FamilySearch haven't left anything out. What you see on the index is what you get on the original image, at least for every record I tried find.

This one book ended up being the best find of my whole trip. But I had already been on so many goose chases that by the time I had the book in front of me, I only had 30 minutes to use it before I had to leave.

So I whipped out my new camera and started taking photos of the pages. It did a fantastic job. It was the first thing I was able to do without a struggle all day.

The book was massive. I didn't have the time or the desire to photograph the whole thing. So I checked the index and copied the other sections of the book most relevant to me. It was a good decision.

Overall, I'm glad I put myself into this situation. All of it gave me experience, and served to make me savvier than I'd been before. Knowing what I would do differently now is exactly what is going to make next time so much better.

Until then, I need to go recover...

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Genetic Genealogy for Beginners, Part 2

For part 1, click here!

This round, we'll be talking about:
  • How to read chromosome browsers
  • What matches looks like
  • False matches (IBD vs. IBS)
  • Matching criteria from different testing companies

Next time...
Introduction to!