01 April 2013

Paraphrasing Bill Clinton: It Depends on What You Mean by "Online"

In this post I mentioned Erica Dakin Voolich and her wonderful family heirloom, which she first wrote about here. Erica's followed up with another post about the beautiful scrapbook made from a bound volume of the Congressional Record, and she was kind enough to count me among the people who contributed to figuring out why her ancestor might have possessed a copy of the Congressional Record.

Because a picture pasted into the scrapbook had come unglued, we could see that the volume contained a transcript of a House [of Representatives] discussion from "December 14" of an unknown year. The month and day were visible in the top right corner of the page on the left side, but the year on the opposing page was still hidden. Erica had already given some thought to what that year might be, basing her estimate on the pictures inside the scrapbook and a footnote on the page that revealed the partial date.

Erica had also tried to locate an electronic copy of the Congressional Record. The Library of Congress has made digitized issues from the 43rd Congress available online through American Memory, and more recent issues can be found through THOMAS (another Library of Congress site) and the Government Printing Office. This volume was not part of the American Memory collection.

I thought that even the one page we could see held a lot of potential clues for narrowing down the date, so I encouraged Erica to consider what genealogical information[1] is about: people, places, and events in context. The event that had the most potential, in my opinion, was the discussion itself, which occurred on December 14. We had the surnames of several people who'd been present at that discussion, and one of them, a Mr. Frye, was kind enough to refer to the states his colleagues represented. That information alone was enough to convince me that we could figure out which year(s) all four men had served together in the U.S. House of Representatives.

The Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, 1774-Present that once existed only in print is now a searchable database. Using only surnames and placenames, Erica and I were able to determine that the four representatives involved in that discussion could only have served together during the 45th Congress. Erica then contacted a librarian, who sent her digital copies of the page from the scrapbook and the opposing page with the year on the top left corner, which turned out to be 1878.

The librarian who provided Erica with those digital copies also mentioned two electronic resources, HeinOnline and ProQuest Congressional, both of which contain digitized versions of less recent issues of the Congressional Record. This is a good reminder that so much material is available online, as long as our definition of "online" includes proprietary databases we can access through libraries. All the Googling in the world wouldn't have turned up those specific pages of that particular issue of the Congressional Record, but Erica still got them, and they were free for the asking.


[1] In scholarly genealogical circles, information is either primary or secondary, but information has to be about something. In the process of assigning subject headings to books and other items, cataloging librarians perform subject analysis to determine what those items are about. As far as I can tell, genealogical information is about people, places, and events in context. These are the essential elements of a genealogical narrative.

Copyright © 2013, Madaleine J. Laird. All rights reserved.


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