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Introducing the Second Largest Genealogy Collection in the United States

Summer Research Trip: Allen County Public Library

You already know the one library that immediately comes to mind when we think about genealogical research - the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah. But do you know about the second largest genealogy collection in the United States?

My first visit to this collection was this month, and now I'm wondering why I waited so long. The library with that collection, the Genealogy Center of the Allen County Public Library in Fort Wayne, Indiana, is worth your time no matter what location your research is focused on.

First, let me introduce you to this library. According to the FamilySearch Research Wiki, "Allen County Public Library's Genealogy Center is the second largest genealogy research collection in the United States and the largest in a public library."[1] The collection includes books, periodicals, microforms, and subscription and local databases. Allen County Public Library's (ACPL) materials are available on Internet Archive and FamilySearch and the ACPL website through a digitization effort. It may seem strange to think about traveling to Fort Wayne, Indiana, to do genealogical research. Still, through the vision of a previous library director, the idea of serving genealogists grew to include this vital collection.

Gena Philibert-Ortega and ACPL Genealogy Manager Curt Witcher
Gena Philibert-Ortega and ACPL Genealogy Manager Curt Witcher

I talked to current Genealogy Center Manager Curt Witcher about this important collection and asked him the question that maybe you were thinking. "Why should people come to Fort Wayne to research?" Genealogy Center Manager Curt Witcher says that it should be your genealogical research designation for three reasons:

  1. An extensive printed collection
  2. Databases
  3. Excited, experienced staff

There's no doubt that Allen County has an extensive printed collection. You can see that as you walk around their location on thesecond story which includes moveable bookcases to make room for all that material. It's easy to dismiss a physical library when so much material is available online. Witcher stressed that although they are actively digitizing content, a large part of the collection is protected by copyright, so in order to research it, you would have to view it in person.

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Like other libraries you may visit, the Allen County Public Library has databases, some for on-site use, and others available to anyone. While I usually head straight to subscription databases when I go to a library to research, in this case, I was especially interested in the databases ACPL created that are free for all. From the ACPL website, go to Explore Genealogy > Our Resources to explore both free and on-site databases. Of the free databases, the web page explains: "The Free Databases have been compiled by the library and its various volunteer corps or have been given to The Center to post on the web for free use by all. Each database can be searched separately. "What are these databases? A few include:[2]

  • Microtext Catalog: A searchable listing of microfilm and microfiche available at The Genealogy Center.
  • African American Gateway: Includes information from the United States, Canada, and the Caribbean, and well as a few other countries. The links to websites in this gateway are paired with a bibliography of resources for African American research in The Genealogy Center collection.
  • Family Bible Records: Features transcriptions and images from family bibles donated to The Genealogy Center. Details include births, marriages, and deaths, as well as information from items inserted in the Bibles, such as newspaper clippings, photographs, and funeral cards.
  • Family Resources: Unique family histories and family files submitted by researchers who have granted permission for their material to be hosted on The Genealogy Center website.
  • Genealogy Center Surname File: The file can be searched to identify others researching your same surname. Contact information is provided to encourage collaboration. Contributors to this file are Genealogy Center patrons.
  • Native American Gateway: A resource for those exploring First Nations family history. Information on how to begin such research, links to materials from the National Archives and links to popular data are complemented by a continually updated listing of resources held by The Genealogy Center.

Curt Witcher's last reason for researching at the Genealogy Center was the "excited, experienced staff." The librarians at Allen County Public Library know genealogy. They are there to help you find a resource, provide help to answer research questions or even the best place to eat for lunch. Their support allowed me to utilize the library better and to find what I needed. Librarians are an essential asset to any research project, and there is no doubt that ACPL librarians are experts in genealogy and their collection.

Where else can you find ACPL content? The Genealogy Center is working hard to add digitized content online. Digitizing efforts via Internet Archive and FamilySearch focus on materials such as family histories, school newspapers, and manuscript collections not otherwise available. Allen County Public Libary digitized items in partnership with Internet Archive can be found on that website. You can also view ACPL's digitized items on the FamilySearch Digital Library. You can search the Digital Library's entire collection or just items from Allen County Public Library.

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I asked Curt Witcher what tip he had for those planning a trip to the ACPL. His response was one that isn't a surprise but is crucial to making the most of your trip, "visit ACPL virtually before you visit physically." Curt added that you'll have a better in-person experience if you come to the library prepared than if you don't. I couldn't agree more. The ACPL website provides ways to plan your visit, from exploring the card catalog, exhausting online sources, and watching videos that answer questions about researching at the Genealogy Center. Don't forget to peruse the online collections at FamilySearch and Internet Archive so that you aren't traveling to view something available and downloadable online. I agree with Curt, but I also want to add that you should speak to a librarian as soon as you arrive at the Genealogy Center. You will find things so much more quickly once you receive a map and location guide for the collection.

I think the one crucial take-away I had from researching at the ACPL was that their collection is "Not an Indiana collection." Yes, they have a lot of Indiana resources, after all, they are located in Indiana. But they have so much more. The majority of the collection focuses on the British Isles and North America, but they continue to add materials that cover other locations. One of the newest additions to their collection is South African materials, thanks to a new benefactor.

During our interview, Curt Witcher kept saying, "everybody has a story." It was apparent that he believed that our work as family historians involves documenting that story, no matter what it is. The ACPL is a place to do that and I look forward to returning.

[1] "United States Archives and Libraries," FamilySearch Research Wiki (https://www.familysearch.org/wiki/en/United_States_Archives_and_Libraries: accessed 10 August 2021).

[2] "Free Databases," ACPL Genealogy Center (https://acpl.lib.in.us/explore-genealogy/our-resources: accessed 10 August 2021).

 

Gena Philibert-Ortega is an author, instructor, and researcher. She blogs at Gena's Genealogy and Food.Family.Ephemera. You can find her presentations on the Legacy Family Tree Webinars website.

 

Comments

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I count myself fortunate to live less than two hours' driving distance from the Genealogy Center at the ACPL. I am so ready to visit again! Can't say enough about how positive and helpful the genealogy staff is. They are wonderful! Also wonderful are the Tuesday (2:30 pm) and Thursday (6:30 pm) Zoom webinars each week.

Is the genealogy collection in one location (branch) or it is all downtown? What's the address?

It was nice to see this article. My parents traveled to Fort Wayne, Indiana in 2015-2017 to volunteer digitizing manuscripts. Many of the books they were digitizing were old books from the 1700's on loan from Great Britain. Some of the books were so fragile, they had to be very careful avoid damaging something with each page turn. They couldn't say enough about InternetArchive.com and the vast collections that are found there. Once while visiting my parents, they gave me a tour of the basement workroom and also the whole floors of books dedicated to the ACPL's family history collection. It was enormous. This place is truly a genealogical hidden treasure.

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