Reimagining Genealogical Resources in the Era of COVID-19

Dana Landress is a PhD candidate at the University of California, Berkeley. She received a CLIR Mellon Fellowship for her dissertation, “Diagnosing the South: Pellagra, Public Health, and the Political Economy of the Cotton South” (currently in progress).

When institutional closures began this past spring, many of my colleagues fretted that their research would come to a halt, fully impeded by the closure of libraries and archives across the globe. For a time, I shared these concerns as I contemplated how many additional semesters I might need to “make up lost time” on my dissertation research. It was only recently that a colleague reminded me that our network of scholarly connections is vast, and that it transcends institutional, geographic, and indeed, physical boundaries. As we strive to keep archivists and researchers safe, it is possible to continue research in creative and surprising ways.

The past six months have been an especially fruitful time for me to review a number of genealogical resources that were on my radar, but largely unexplored, during archival field work. For more than a year, I had prioritized sources located in physical archives, while operating under the assumption that digital resources would be readily available online at any point in time. In retrospect, I underestimated just how many primary sources relevant to my dissertation were actually available online. Here, I’ll describe some of the genealogical resources that have been critical in reorganizing my personal research archive during the pandemic, and I will explore how “the problem” of non-digitized sources might also be viewed as an opportunity to cultivate principles of archival accessibility and resource-sharing.

The genealogical platform that has yielded the most data for my project in these past few months is the free website FamilySearch. Operated by the Mormon Church, FamilySearch contains millions of primary source documents gathered from all over the world, some of which are indexed, many of which are not. By navigating to the site’s catalog, users can search for documents by location, from the municipal level to the national level. From there, sources are arranged by category. While generally organized to appeal to genealogists, a quick search for record categories yields results including, but not limited to: property and probate; military and wars; travel directories and almanacs; naturalization and citizenship; voting registers and records from the Freedmen’s Bureau. For my own dissertation research on the history of public health in the U.S. South, I have compiled a large dataset on disease demographics from the thousands of vital records available on this platform. Such a diverse array of collections could likely yield many dissertations, while at the same time making archival sources more accessible during the pandemic and beyond.

Localized genealogical resources have also yielded surprising and interesting avenues for dissertation research. Recently, I obtained a free out-of-state public library card, which provided access to over two centuries of digitized state newspapers, available to anyone with a library card number. This newspaper database had originally been sponsored by a local genealogical society, in cooperation with a county public library, to provide access to obituaries for family research. However, because the library had access to entire newspaper sets, the archivists had elected to digitize entire newspapers rather than just the obituaries section. Given that the newspapers were in a searchable pdf format, it readily yielded thousands of results on local hospital construction, disease outbreaks in the county, and the cooperative efforts of social organizations to support a burgeoning local public health infrastructure at the turn of the century.

The same librarian who generously approved my application for a public library card also operates a local history and genealogy reading room at the county library. In an effort to make the archives accessible and to keep researchers informed of library happenings, he maintains his own professional website dedicated to updating patrons on all of the resources that the library has digitized. He also works closely with archivists at the state library and the county courthouse to digitize archival records that otherwise would not be accessible. During the course of my own dissertation research, this librarian provided me with scans of local hospital cemetery indexes and digitized probate records from the nineteenth century. In an effort to follow patients throughout their lives, I coupled this information with census data and vital records that remain readily available on genealogical websites. By piecing together information from local public libraries and online genealogy resources, I have been better equipped to track patients outside of purely institutional contexts.

While we all face different challenges during the pandemic, I believe that historians collectively now have the opportunity to reimagine research in the era of “stay at home.” By mobilizing the vast amount of primary materials that have been digitized via online genealogical platforms and beyond, we do our part in keeping the archives safe and accessible during the COVID-19 pandemic. Genealogical research databases remain largely untapped by academic historians, and they offer an incredible diversity of records that are largely accessible online. In my experience, the genealogy community tends to exemplify the ideals of research-sharing that could be immensely beneficial to researchers working on a variety of topics outside of family history. By harnessing these resources and establishing principles of research-sharing, I believe that historians and other archive users have the invaluable opportunity to simultaneously build their personal research archives, and build their research communities, even as we remain at home in the era of COVID-19.

 

This is the fourteenth piece in COVID (Re)Collections, a series exploring responses to the COVID-19 pandemic by library, cultural heritage, and information professionals. Stories are proposed by the authors/contributors and reflect their personal experiences and perspectives at the time of submission. Learn more about the series and share your own story here.