Thursday, September 14, 2023

Release Your Research Skills
Out Into the Wilds


After years of enjoying the speedy success of researching our roots using the commercial entities I sometimes refer to as genealogy "big box" stores, it seems our research muscles are atrophying. With the "easy" family history details which show up regularly in computer-searchable census enumerations and other digitized vital records, we forget how to release our research skills out into the wilds and wildernesses of real life paper. This week brought an occasion to reacquaint myself with the fact that there are plenty of resources out there which are not locked away in the computer world of genealogy city lights and subdivisions.

Like many other groups, our local genealogy organization coordinates what we call "Special Interest Groups." These are smaller circles of members who get together to focus on one particular aspect of our family history research. We are probably the only society outside the state of Tennessee which hosts a Tennessee Special Interest Group, but that's just a research interest several of us share.

This week was our monthly gathering and, as usual, the conversation was lively. Several of us are researching the historic Washington County, and one member had brought several photocopies of pages from a book she had found years ago. The book, unimaginatively entitled History of Washington County, Tennessee, contained biographical sketches of several of this member's ancestral families.

The question was: how to locate a copy of this book once again? This member had only stumbled upon it year ago at a library while visiting a friend in Southern California. Since that is a trip of over three hundred miles, she was not likely to return, simply to look at the book once again.

I thought I'd try my hand at helping her locate another copy. My first stop: Internet Archive, where both staff and volunteers have uploaded an impressive amount of written material over the years—but there was no result for my search there. Taking the cue from the location of the library where the woman had first found the book, I went to the library's online catalog to see if the book was still in circulation there. It was—a good sign.

Confirming the book's title, and now from the catalog also gleaning the date of publication and name of the authors, I had more details to lead me toward the next step in my adventure. The "authors" turned out to be a genealogical organization back in the area of current-day Washington County called the Watauga Association of Genealogists. I found an online entry explaining the history of the group. Then I headed to the Association's own website to see whether they still sold a version of their book, since it was published in 1988—not quite to the point of being in public domain, but hopefully not too long since their last printing—but they did not.

Next step in the exploration: check to see which libraries closer to home might have the book in their collection. Enter to discover that a Family History Library nearby did indeed have a copy of the book.

That, however, was not all. WorldCat also pointed me to other books with similar titles. I realized I might as well make note of these other potential resources for our Washington County research, so I saved that listing as well. One of the books on this topic was a more recent publication, and while I thought I'd be interested in buying that one, sticker shock prevented me.

Meanwhile, since another topic in our Tennessee meeting was the family photos shared in those ubiquitous "Images of America" books, I promised to bring what I thought was my copy of the Washington County book published by the printer, Arcadia Publishing. However, I was mistaken; instead, I had their book, Erwin and Unicoi County. Close, but not the same location. So I went to Arcadia Publishing's own website and looked up all the titles they offer on Tennessee topics. There are pages and pages of resources—even more books to follow up on, check reviews, and possibly purchase.

The conversation in our meeting moved next to resources for finding old letters, journals, and other memorabilia from bygone years in Tennessee. Archives were a main topic—and another one which nudges us off the grid of big-box genealogy subdivisions into the wilds of our own exploration. There can be lots to find in these off-the-beaten-path resources for historic material. Using ArchiveGrid or the National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections (NUCMC) at the U.S. Library of Congress may—if you're lucky to have the right ancestors and the knack of finding usable material—lead to more information on your family.

After our meeting, I realized it felt good to flex those research muscles and go outside the box and off the grid to search for material I was seeking on my family's roots. There is plenty of material out there. It just takes far more persistence and know-how than simply sitting at a computer being spoon fed "hints" from a subscription service. Yes, these are the wilds of genealogical research, but sometimes we need to feed that sense of research adventure and strike out on our own.


  1. Great work!! I too love using my research skills to help others :)

  2. Don't forget HathiTrust for digital books, too. Often you can check out a book for an hour at a time.


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