29 March 2013

The Genealogist's Favorite Question: Does Anyone Know What It Is?

I've noticed over the years that my "lone unicorn" approach to information seeking puts me in a distinct minority among genealogists. At conferences and society meetings, on email lists and social media outlets, I've observed hundreds of genealogists asking different versions of what I now think of as The Genealogist's Favorite Question:

"Does anyone know . . . ?"

I'm one of those people who takes things literally, so when I hear this type of question, I already know the answer, no matter what comes after the ellipsis. And just in case you were wondering, the answer is almost always yes.

Yes. Someone knows. Someone always knows!

The more time I spend with genealogists, however, the more I realize that their Favorite Question isn't meant to be taken literally. They aren't asking a close-ended, yes-or-no question, even though that's what it sounds like to me. Genealogists don't just want to know if someone knows. They want that someone to come forward and provide the information they seek. That's not all they want, though.

I've often doubted the effectiveness of The Genealogist's Favorite Question. I mean, the responses people get . . . let's just say they vary widely in terms of accuracy and relevance. The weird thing is, genealogists don't seem to mind!

Information scholar Crystal Fulton's insightful observation about people who pursue genealogy as a serious leisure activity finally shed some light on this phenomenon. This sentence was a revelation to me: "Because the goal of researching one's family tree is to learn about people connected by family relationships, people as sources figure prominently in the process of this hobby."[1]

Now I get it. When genealogists ask their Favorite Question, they aren't just seeking information; they're seeking connections! My friend Gena Philibert-Ortega of Gena's Genealogy gave me a golden opportunity to explore the matter a little further when I spotted her recent tweet:

Even though there's no question mark at the end, this is definitely The Genealogist's Favorite Question in disguise. It caught my eye because I had some thoughts on how to track down circulation statistics for the Congressional Record. As it turned out, Gena wasn't asking for herself. Another blogger, Erica Dakin Voolich, had made a fascinating discovery about a family heirloom, which you can read about here.

Erica asks a couple of questions in her blog post, one of which is a classic iteration of The Genealogist's Favorite. Can you spot it? Erica also asked a more specific question about why her ancestor would have a copy of the Congressional Record. I don't want to ruin the story for you, so that's all I'm going to say for now. Erica has a follow-up post in the works, and so do I.

Helping Erica with her family history mystery was a lot of fun for me, and I thank Gena for helping me make that connection. And yes, you read that correctly. People have never been my go-to sources, but I still value human connections. Perhaps a lone unicorn can change her ways. Does anyone know?!


[1] Crystal Fulton, "Quid Pro Quo: Information Sharing in Leisure Activies," Library Trends 57, no. 4 (Spring 2009): 754, http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/lib/summary/v057/57.4.fulton01.html.

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

27 March 2013

Found in a Finding Aid: Evidence of a Relationship

When I first started looking into the life of Sadie Peterson Delaney, I hadn't gotten serious about genealogy yet. I'd written some biographical profiles for a book on Irish American history,[1] but the author who hired me for that project didn't expect me to delve into original records. All the typical sources of genealogical information were still unfamiliar to me back then, so I hadn't gotten around to looking for Delaney in census records and such until recently.

Because census records are easily available to me through Ancestry.com, they're usually the first resource I consult when I begin to investigate a person's life. I'd already located articles written by and about Delaney, so I had a pretty good idea of where she was living during the decennial census years. I'd even made a timeline of significant events from Delaney's life. Unfortunately, I hadn't developed the genealogist's habit of citing sources, so the timeline I put together back in 2002 provides no hints about where I found the information.

Now that I've taken the time to retrace my steps and do some more investigating, one of the events on my timeline appears to be incorrect. And much to my surprise it wasn't the census that cleared things up!

I'd always assumed that Sadie had a daughter by the husband she divorced in 1924,[2] probably because I'd read that Delaney "married Edward Louis Peterson in 1906 and had one daughter, Grace Peterson Hooks, in 1907."[3] Some of the census records I found seemed to support my assumption, while others cast doubt on it.

In 1910, Sadie M. Peterson lived with her parents (James and Julia Johnson) in Poughkeepsie, New York. She was married, but husband Edward Louis and daughter Grace were not enumerated with the Johnson household.[4] In 1915, Sadie Pettison [sic] and Grace Peterson both lived with the Johnson family, with Grace listed as the "granddaughter" of James Johnson, head of household. Edward Louis Peterson did not appear to be a member of the Johnson household at that time.[5] In 1920, Sadie Peterson still lived with her parents in Poughkeepsie. Twelve-year-old Grace Peterson went from "granddaughter" to "boarder," and Edward Louis Peterson remained conspicuously absent from the household.[6] Ten years later, Sadie Delaney had moved to Tuskegee, Alabama, and lived with Rudicel A Delaney, her second husband. Grace H. Peterson was there too, listed as "daughter" to the head of household.[7] By 1940, Grace no longer appears to be part of the Delaney household in Tuskegee.[8]

Sadie Peterson Delaney worked at the Harlem branch of The New York Public Library (NYPL) before starting a library at the veterans hospital in Tuskegee, and a collection of her papers can now be found at the Manuscripts, Archives, and Rare Books Division of NYPL's Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. A finding aid for Delaney's papers contains information about the collection, including the name of the person who donated it. Apparently, the Sadie Peterson Delaney papers were a gift from "Mrs. Grace P. Hooks, Dr. Delaney's stepdaughter."[9]

Now that certainly puts a new spin on things, doesn't it? So much for all my assumptions. What a find, and in a finding aid, no less! Not in the papers the finding aid describes, but in the finding aid itself. Interesting . . . and quite unexpected.

I'll definitely have more to say about this discovery in the future, but for now I'll point you to my friend Gena Philibert-Ortega's blog. Gena's been keeping busy this month with her 31 Days of Resources for Researching Your Female Ancestor series. Check out her latest in Women's History Month 2013: Finding Aids.


[1] Edward T. O'Donnell, 1001 Things Everyone Should Know About Irish American History (New York: Broadway Books, 2002).

[2] Betty K. Gubert, "Sadie Peterson Delaney: Pioneer Bibliotherapist," American Libraries 24 (February 1993): 124, http://www.jstor.org/stable/25632815.

[3] "Sara P. Delaney," Gale Biography in Context (http://www.galegroup.com : accessed 11 Jul 2011); citing Notable Black American Women (Detroit: Gale, 1992).

[4] 1910 U.S. census, Dutchess County, New York, population schedule, Poughkeepsie Town, enumeration district 76, sheet 12B, dwelling 220, family 259, James Johnson household; digital image, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 26 Mar 2013); citing NARA microfilm publication T624, roll 937.

[5] 1915 New York state census, Dutchess County, population schedule, Poughkeepsie, page 19, street [blank], house number [blank], James Johnson household; digital image, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 26 Mar 2013); citing State Population Census Schedules, 1915 (Albany: New York State Archives).

[6] 1920 U.S. census, Dutchess County, New York, population schedule, Town of Po'keepsie, Arlington, enumeration district 63, sheet 2B, dwelling 40, family 41, James Johnson household; digital image, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 26 Mar 2013); citing NARA microfilm publication T625, roll 1098.

[7] 1930 U.S. census, Macon County, Alabama, population schedule, Precinct 1, Tuskegee Institute, enumeration district 44-20, page 60 (stamped), sheet 2B, dwelling 47, family 49, Rudicel Delaney household; digital image, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 26 Mar 2013); citing NARA microfilm publication T626, roll 36.

[8] 1940 U.S. census, Macon County, Alabama, population schedule, Tuskegee, enumeration district (ED) 44-2, sheet 3B, visitation 56, Richard Delaney household; digital image, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 26 Mar 2013); citing NARA microfilm publication T627, roll 55.

[9] Finding Aid for Sadie Peterson Delaney Papers, 1921-1958 (http://www.nypl.org/ead/3605 : accessed 26 March 2013).

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

24 March 2013

Chasing Footnotes: My Favorite Search Technique

I'm a notorious footnote chaser.

It takes me forever to read any text that contains superscript numbers. It takes me even longer than forever with endnotes, because I'm constantly flipping back and forth between the text and the bibliography and notes at the end of the article or the back of the book. The other day, for example, I finally started reading a book that Gena Philibert-Ortega told me about over a year ago: The Passport in America: The History of a Document, by Craig Robertson.[1] The second endnote for the Introduction is like a mini literature review, and it made me want to stop reading immediately so I could track down each of the nine items mentioned within.

I don't remember exactly when my footnote chasing habit began or how I learned about the technique. Perhaps it's a skill that evolved naturally, an outgrowth of my relentless curiosity. Whatever the case may be, footnote chasing has definitely served me well in my search for quality information.

In this post I mentioned Sadie Peterson Delaney, a librarian who pioneered the practice of bibliotherapy to treat veterans of World War I in Tuskegee, Alabama. The "selected bibligraphy" at the end of an article about Delaney[2] not only led me to a newspaper column written by Eleanor Roosevelt,[3] but to a number of articles written by Delaney herself.[4]

Once I decide to take a closer look at an item mentioned in a footnote, I have to figure out how to locate that item, and then the chase is on. At least it's good exercise!


[1] Craig Robertson, The Passport in America: The History of a Document (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).

[2] Betty K. Gubert, "Sadie Peterson Delaney: Pioneer Bibliotherapist," American Libraries 24 (February 1993): 130, http://www.jstor.org/stable/25632815.

[3] Eleanor Roosevelt, "My Day," transcript by the Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project (http://www.gwu.edu/~erpapers/myday/displaydoc.cfm?_y=1957&_f=md003698 : accessed 24 Mar 2013); citing original column distributed by United Features Syndicate, 18 Jan 1957.

[4] S. P. Delaney, "The Negro Veteran and His Books," Wilson Library Bulletin (June 1932): 684-686; Sadie Peterson Delaney, "The Place of Bibliotherapy in a Hospital," The Library Journal (15 Apr 1938): 305-308; and Sadie P. Delaney, "Time's Telling," Wilson Library Bulletin (February 155): 461-463.

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

21 March 2013

Fending for Myself: Why I've Learned My Way Around the Library

In yesterday's post I wrote about how I'd made "one of my rare visits" to my local library's reference desk and ended up submitting my first interlibrary loan (ILL) request. I also mentioned that I'd become "so used to fending for myself that it had never occurred to me to let someone else handle the details" of tracking down the column I so desperately wanted. I didn't elaborate on why I prefer to figure things out for myself in a library setting, but I know the habit started early in life.

The first library I remember going to was located in a little town not far from the Tri-Cities area in Washington. I must have been around four years old at the time, and thanks to Sesame Street, I was already reading. During one trip to this library, a book on a display shelf had caught my eye, but for some reason I hadn't taken it home. A new display was set up by the time I returned, so the book I'd hoped to check out that time had been reshelved. I remembered the title, though, so I actually asked a staff member to help me find it.

In retrospect, I'm not sure how I worked up the nerve to do that, because I was terribly shy as a child. I must have really wanted that book, or maybe it was the staff member who approached me. At any rate, I found myself asking about Litter—The Ugly Enemy. I must have been nervous, because I seem to recall that my question came out very quickly, with all the words mashed together:


I had to repeat myself when the staff member couldn't decipher my garbled request:


I upped the volume, but the speed remained constant.

At some point I finally managed to make myself clear and left the library with Litter—The Ugly Enemy: An Ecology Story in my hot little hands. And what a page-turner it was! (Not really. I only remember the title and cover image.)

Looking back, that encounter has all the trappings of a successful information-seeking experience. I communicated an information need and eventually received the book I didn't know how to find on my own. But did that long-ago event contribute to my current "lone unicorn" approach to information seeking? I believe it did.

Four-year-olds aren't exactly known for their crystal-clear communication skills, but I remember very clearly the frustration I felt when an adult didn't understand me. Being misunderstood happened often at that age. So many thoughts went crashing around inside my head that I wasn't able to express, because I didn't have the words. And when I used the words I did have to the best of my ability but still couldn't manage to get my point across, the frustration was nearly unbearable.

I'd like to think my communication skills and vocabulary have improved significantly since then, but sometimes I wonder. Last summer I was pretty sure I'd asked a library staff member why a certain book wasn't on the shelf in their non-circulating reference section. He appeared to be listening, but this was the answer I got: "Yes, the reference section's over there." Say what?! Obviously, the only words that got through to him were "reference section." Even though I have a more impressive vocabulary than my four-year-old self, it's still frustrating to be misunderstood.

That's why I like to cut out the middleman whenever possible. I hate relying on information waiters who tune out when I'm in the middle of placing my order, so I've learned to serve myself . . . and what a buffet it is! As the lone unicorn of the library, I know where all the good grazing spots are, and I feast often and well.

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

20 March 2013

The First Time I Got ILL: Interlibrary Loan

Reading Gena Philibert-Ortega's blog post about Eleanor Roosevelt's "My Day" column was like being transported back in time to the Southern California library where I placed my first interlibrary loan request. I'd been doing biographical research on Sadie Peterson Delaney, a librarian who left her post at the New York Public Library during the height of the Harlem Renaissance to start a library at the veterans hospital in Tuskegee, Alabama. Jim Crow laws were still in effect at that time, so Delaney's sense of mission must have trumped any concerns about her safety and the loss of freedom she would surely experience. The woman had some serious guts, and I wanted to learn everything I could about her.

I'd already learned[1] that Eleanor Roosevelt had written about Delaney in "My Day," and I desperately wanted to find that column in My Day: The Best of Eleanor Roosevelt's Acclaimed Newspaper Columns, 1936-1962.[2] I located the book in the reference section at my local branch of the County of Los Angeles Public Library, but unfortunately, this "greatest hits" compilation didn't include the column about Delaney. Interlibrary loan to the rescue!

If you've never taken advantage of interlibrary loan, also known as ILL, you're really missing out. And if you've never heard of this service, I'm not surprised. Libraries don't seem to go out of their way to advertise it, perhaps because it's expensive. For them, I mean. For you, it's a bargain! In a nutshell, interlibrary loan is a way to gain access to items your local library system doesn't have in its collections. You can also use ILL for document delivery, which is what I did.

I knew I needed to locate one of the newspapers in which Roosevelt's widely syndicated column had appeared, but I couldn't figure out how to do that. The book's Preface and Introduction contained no hints as to which newspapers had run the former First Lady's column, but the author of the article I'd read earlier[3] cited the New York Post. I knew my way around article databases, but did my local library system subscribe to one that included New York Post articles from 1957? That didn't seem likely, so I made one of my rare visits to the reference desk.

(I say "rare" because when I'm at a library, I like figuring things out for myself. That's just me, though. It's always appropriate to ask for assistance, especially when you're stumped, as I obviously was.)

I spilled out my problem to the librarian at the desk, who listened attentively, nodding and smiling while I bombarded her with questions. Then I noticed the piece of paper she'd been trying to give me. She told me to write down my contact info, the name of the column, and the date it had run.

I blinked. That's all I have to do? I thought. That's way too easy. I'd gotten so used to fending for myself that it had never occurred to me to let someone else handle the details! Once I wrapped my brain around that idea, I filled out the form and handed it to the librarian, who assured me that someone would get in touch with me soon.

Within a week, a library staff member called me and said the item I'd requested would be waiting for me on the hold shelf behind the circulation desk . . . and it was! I finally had my photocopy of Eleanor Roosevelt's column about Sadie Peterson Delaney, and I don't think I was even charged for it.

It's been at least a decade since I made my first ILL request, and the column I so desperately wanted can now be found online.[4] History students at George Washington University are making "My Day" available as part of the Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project (ERPP), and The White House Historical Association has posted an introductory video about the Project on YouTube.[5]


[1] Betty K. Gubert, "Sadie Peterson Delaney: Pioneer Bibliotherapist," American Libraries 24 (February 1993): 124-130, http://www.jstor.org/stable/25632815.

[2] Eleanor Roosevelt, My Day: The Best of Eleanor Roosevelt's Acclaimed Newspaper Columns, 1936-1962, ed. David Emblidge (New York: Da Capo, 2001).

[3] Gubert, "Sadie Peterson Delaney."

[4] Eleanor Roosevelt, "My Day," transcript by the Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project (http://www.gwu.edu/~erpapers/myday/displaydoc.cfm?_y=1957&_f=md003698 : accessed 20 Mar 2013); citing original column distributed by United Features Syndicate, 18 Jan 1957.

[5] Eleanor Roosevelt "My Day": Introduction, YouTube video, 4:12. Posted by the White House Historical Association, 9 Apr 2011, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QD3aBAcg4i8.

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