Your Ancestor’s Many Names

Your Ancestor’s Many Names

This is not a blog post about cookbooks or food history. But it does use a cookbook as an example.

This is a blog post with an important search reminder. That reminder is: You need to search for your ancestor using more than one name for that ancestor.

Whenever I give presentations, I stress the importance of searching websites using name variations for an ancestor. These name variations could include initials, creative spellings (misspellings), abbreviations, and nicknames. If it is a married female ancestor, you must consider not only her birth name but also variations of her husband's name/s. During certain time periods women, but not all women worldwide, went by Mrs. [his name].

Sometimes as we search one database or record set and find our ancestor, we assume that’s it and there’s no need to continue our search. After all, we found what we need. But in reality, when we think of a database that contains something like court records or historical newspapers, it’s possible that our ancestor could be mentioned more than once and in different ways.

A cookbook that I’m studying reinforced the need for exhaustive searching when we conduct genealogy searches. The 1916 Eastern Star Cookbook from Huntington Park, California includes the names of women and men who contributed recipes.

As I went through the cookbook, I noticed that some women were mentioned multiple times and by different versions of her name.

Consider recipes submitted under these names:

  • Laura Brewer
  • Laura M Brewer
  • Miss Brewer

Now Laura and Laura M might very well be the same woman or it could be two different women. Miss Brewer is still a possibility for Laura. But I would need to research all three to verify. If it’s not the same woman, it could be a relative. That too would need to be further researched.


One woman is listed four different ways in this cookbook:

  • Ollie Cowdin
  • Ollie I. Cowdin
  • Mrs. Ollie Cowdin
  • O. C.

One name variation that is missing is her husband’s name, Mrs. [His name] Cowdin. Now if I were to continue this research on a genealogy website, I would also want to search for her using these and her other name variations based on her maiden name.


Why does this cookbook example matter? Although most of us for the most part go by one name throughout our lives we need to consider that a name can appear in any number of ways for various reasons or no reason at all. Taking that into consideration, we need to keep a list of name variations for our ancestors and use that to search for them in genealogically relevant records.


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.


5 Online Genealogy Freebies You’re Missing

5 Online Genealogy Freebies You’re Missing

There is no doubt that genealogists like free stuff. While not everything is free in genealogy (nor should it be), you can access some excellent guides, articles, and other genealogically relevant items at no cost.

Aside from free genealogy websites, there are other freebies that you can download or view online to enhance your genealogical education or provide tips and resources to find that brick-wall ancestor. Most of us are familiar with free websites such as Cyndi’s List and Linkpendium but what else is out there that you might not have considered? Here are a few items I’ve found that you might want to bookmark.

1. The National Genealogical Society Free Resources



Are you a member of NGS (the National Genealogical Society)? If you are, you know that they provide membership benefits including their publications. But do they offer anything for free to the genealogy community? Yes! And those free resources benefit all genealogists. First, go to their webpage, Free Genealogy Resources. Two items to pay special attention to are the NGS Magazine Complimentary Articles and the NGS Monthly Complimentary Articles. These articles can help you with everything from research methodology to learning more about reading an NGSQ article.

2. The Ancestor Hunt QuickSheets

Ancestor hunt

The Ancestor Hunt is a great place to find links to online newspapers, but in actuality, the man behind the website, Kenneth R Marks, offers more than just links and videos about newspapers. Check out his Quick Reference Guide link for "quicksheets" on genealogical records such as probate, pensions, naturalization, and cemetery records, to name a few, as well as lots of historical newspaper information. He currently has 40 of these guides to help you with your genealogy.

3. The National Archives Palaeography Tutorials


One aspect of research that can be difficult is reading older handwriting. If this is one of your stumbling blocks, you'll want to check out the National Archives (UK)'s palaeography tutorials. Their webpage explains that “This web tutorial will help you learn to read the handwriting found in documents written in English between 1500 and 1800." Tips, tutorials, practice documents, and reference sheets for money and measurements make this a must-have for genealogists.

4. PhotoTree One-page Guides


Have vintage photos that you are trying to date? Not sure if they show great-grandma or her mother?'s Identifying Photographic Types webpage includes 1-page guides to identify 19th-century photographs. Scroll down to the Photograph Characteristics section and click on the photograph type to learn more. This page with information about Daguerreotypes includes the various components of the framed photo so that you can understand everything about it, including what you can’t see in the photograph case.

5. The Newberry Library Research Guides


Make sure to check library websites for guides that can benefit your research—case in point, Chicago's Newberry Library's Research Guides. Although the library is in Chicago, these guides are a variety of genealogically relevant topics from Adoption records to Catalog Search Strategies, Germanic Genealogy, Jewish Genealogy, and Royal Lines. Most likely, a search through the approximately 80 guides will reveal at least one guide you could use to enhance your research.

Yes, there's no such thing as a free lunch, but some generous genealogists and organizations provide free content that benefits the genealogy community. These five examples are just a few to explore.


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.


Learning More About Genealogy Sources via Historical Fiction

Learning More About Genealogy Sources via Historical Fiction

I am a big fan of historical fiction stories set in the 19th or 20th centuries. I think the way that the authors incorporate historical research with invented dialogue can teach us as family historians interesting ways to tell our ancestor’s stories.

These historical fiction accounts might also uncover genealogically rich sources that we hadn’t considered before. Most of these novels have been researched by using genealogical databases and historical newspapers. In some cases, they are inspired by a specific source. That’s the case with the book, The Book of Lost Friends by Lisa Wingate.

The inspiration for this novel comes from “lost friends” advertisements placed after the American Civil War. These advertisements were placed by the formerly enslaved who were looking for family members that they had been separated from, hoping to reunite their families.

Lost Friends 3


These advertisements appeared in various newspapers but The Book of Lost Friends is based on one newspaper, in particular, the Southwestern Christian Advocate. According to the book,

In their heyday, the Lost Friends ads, published in the Southwestern Christian Advocate, a Methodist newspaper, went out to nearly five hundred preachers, eight hundred post offices, and more than four thousand subscription holders [in Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Arkansas]. The column header requested that pastors read the contents from their pulpits to spread the word of those seeking the missing.

The newspaper encouraged those that had found family via the advertisements to report back. As Lisa Wingate writes, these advertisements “were the equivalent of an ingenious nineteenth-century social media platform.”[1]

Lost Friends 1
The author was introduced to the Lost Friends ads via the Historic New Orleans Collection which hosts a searchable database of the ads with digitized copies courtesy of the Hill Memorial Library, Louisiana State University Libraries. The database introduction explains that it includes 2,500 advertisements that appeared in the newspaper between November 1879 to December 1900. Researchers can search the database ( by name, year, or location.

Lost friends 2

For those interested in reading the Southwestern Christian Advocate, it can be found online via the institutional subscription newspaper databases offered by Gale. To learn more, see the Library of Congress Chronicling America’s newspaper directory.


[1] Wingate, Lisa. The Book of Lost Friends. (New York: Ballantine Books, 2021)p. 378. Additional information about subscribers comes from the database homepage at


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.


How To Read


I know you read the title of this blog article and probably rolled your eyes. After all, most likely, you know how to read, and you might do a lot of reading. I know that, but much of what we need to read for genealogy requires more than a mere skim. It requires an in-depth study of the materials.

Maybe the better question for me to ask is, “how do you read?”


Now I know this subject might seem odd for me to write about. However, I think we have all faced times when we let our minds wander while reading or where we just couldn’t understand the point of the text. I think this often happens because we treat reading as a “passive” pursuit instead of actively engaging with what we are reading. When we actively read, we engage with the text and ask questions, make notes, and maybe even look up facts or sources. When reading non-fiction for genealogy (books, journal articles, thesis, dissertations), you must do more than just “read” the text.

Gather your Tools

Yes, reading requires tools besides your reading glasses and the material you are reading. When I read, I have a highlighter, a pencil or pen (I prefer those pens with five different colored inks), and post-it notes (tabs or notes, whichever you prefer).

True confession time. Yes, I write in my books.


Now, obviously, I don’t do this to library books or books I borrow from friends. But if it’s my book and I own it, it’s fair game. After all, it’s MY book. Since childhood, we are taught “don’t write in books” “don’t dog-ear pages in books.” All good advice for borrowed books or the family heirloom book in your home, but it doesn’t matter for others.

If you can’t bring yourself to do this, they sell clear post-it notes that you can write or highlight. That might be an option. Other types of bookmarks (such as metal book darts) might be an answer for “marking” what you read. You can also choose to take notes in a notebook or via a computer program. 


You Don't Always Have to Read from the Begining to the End 

Aside from not writing in our books, we are also taught to read consecutively from page one to the end. Some readers find sections of a book optional, such as the introduction, acknowledgments, or index. When in reality, depending on the work, you may be better off skipping around a bit. You may be able to skip around to chapters that have more to do with what you’re interested in.

I recommended that if you’re reading a journal article such as NGSQ or the NEHGS Register, don’t read the article from start to finish. Instead, read the introduction and the conclusion. This tells you what the author sought to do and what they did. Now read the author bio. What is their background? This tells you something about where they’re coming from, their experience, or their take on things. An author who worked as a scientist will address a problem slightly differently than one who spent a career as an artist. Now, finally, read the footnotes or endnotes. Why? Read more about this below.

Study the Footnotes/Endnotes

I admit it, one of my favorite parts of a non-fiction narrative is the footnotes/endnotes. These are the part of the text that tells you the extra. It’s like frosting on a cake. Cake is good, but frosting makes it better.

Footnotes/endnotes provide additional information that may not go into the body of the text but are an important aside. They tell you about the quality of the research. From these source citations, you can see what the author looked at and, even more importantly, what they missed. These sources are additional resources for you to discover that might inform your research.

Related to the footnotes/endnotes is a bibliography. I go through the bibliography, highlight the books I need, and place a checkmark to the left of those I already own. When I was in graduate school, we loved bibliographies because they help us identify what scholarship is already out there on a topic. The same is true for genealogy. A good bibliography can help me learn more about a family, a place, or an ancestor’s life.


One of the techniques my high school-age kids learned in their English class was to annotate what they were reading. They were to take notes in the margins of their books, with the end goal being that when they later flipped through the book and read their notes, they would remember what the book was about. It’s sort of like your own personal Cliff Notes of the book.

So as you read, take time to annotate. Highlight text, underline words or sentences and make notes in the margins. Interact with the text, don’t just passively read it. Active reading will help you learn and retain more.

How Do You Read?

You’ve now heard what I think about reading. There are articles and books about how to be a better reader than you may want to explore. The article Getting the Most from Case Studies in the National Genealogical Society Quarterly by Thomas W. Jones helps to break down how to read a peer-reviewed journal article which is very different than a popular magazine article. You might also be interested in the blog post, Eight Tips for Deconstructing an NGSQ Case Study by Melissa Johnson. How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading by Mortimer J Adler and Charles Van Doren explains strategies for reading various types of books.

Let me know in the comments how you tackle what you need to read.


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.


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.


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.


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 ( accessed 10 August 2021).

[2] "Free Databases," ACPL Genealogy Center ( 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.


Library Essentials: What Do You Take on a Research Trip?

Library Essentials: What do You Take on a Research Trip?

You’ve probably read my previous posts detailing my summer of library research thus far at the Family History Library and the Clayton Library. This summer I will have researched at genealogy libraries, public libraries, and academic libraries in four different states. That’s a lot of research. There are some mistakes I made along the way and things I forgot. My question for you is: what is a must-have for your library research trip?

Going to the local library is a lot different than heading to a neighboring state to research at a major genealogy library. The preparation is different and the things you need to pack and remember can be different. And that can also depend on what is available at that library. For example, I didn’t make one photocopy at the Family History Library but that’s because I used a flash drive and my cell phone camera. In years past I made enough photocopies to need extra room in my suitcase.

When I take a research trip, what I take depends on:

  • What is available (research and technology wise) at the library
  • What I’m researching
  • How I’m getting to the library and eventually returning home (that impacts how much I need to carry)
  • How many days I’ll be researching
  • How I will get there (driving, walking, public transit)
  • What I’m going to eat.

Yes, eating is important. Straying hydrated and eating somewhat regularly (more so if you have health issues) is important and in the case of my latest trip it was an issue since many nearby restaurants were closed (lesson learned, always have some sort of snack on you at all times).

So what did I take? It was interesting to watch other researchers and compare what they brought versus what I brought. Some rolled around small pieces of luggage with their information. Others had 3-ring binders. In my research bag I had:

  • A laptop and charger
  • My cell phone and charger
  • A flash drive
  • A notebook
  • Pens, pencils, and highlighters
  • Removable sticky notes and tags (for my notebook)
  • A list of what I was researching/Research Log

Research Trip Supplies

I also sent myself emails of information I thought I might need such as research logs, to-do lists, charts and GEDCOMs. I prioritized what was the most important and went from there. I assumed that “stuff” happens and there were certain items I may forget but I could purchase at a local office supply store. If my computer died or my research bag was stolen, I still had those emails I could access on my phone or on a computer at the library.

Every night in my hotel room, I went over what I knew, what I found, and where else I needed to look. Sometimes this differed depending on what new-to-me sources I found or a librarian suggested.

Now how did I prepare? Well, I spent time deciding what family lines I would research. I then went through the library catalogs to find items that were not found elsewhere and not online. I made that my priority to research those things. I also chose multiple projects knowing that sometimes things don’t work out. In one case, a microfiche was lost and so I was unable to use that much-needed resource. Always search the catalog before going to the library.

Now it’s your time. How do you prepare for a library research trip? What do you take with you? Has that changed over time? Please share your experience in the comments below.


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.


Summer Research Trip: The Family History Library

Summer Research Trip: The Family History Library

You've probably read online that the Family History Library in Salt Lake City re-opened July 6th. During the last year I’d been promising that as soon as the Library was open I was going to travel to Utah to research. I didn’t make it to the Library on opening day but I was there a few days later.


This isn’t just a re-opening after the COVID shutdown, FamilySearch used the closure to make improvements. They aren't quite done with some of the construction but that doesn’t affect your ability to research. As of this writing, the break room that you can use to buy vending machine food is not open (it will be back in August). In addition to that, my experience was that many nearby restaurants, within walking distance, were closed temporarily or permanently because of COVID. To avoid frustration, make sure to call and inquire if a restaurant is open and their hours of operation as well as if they are serving dine-in customers or to-go orders only. Some popular restaurants near the Family History Library are not open including those in the Joseph Smith Building.

Gena Philibert-Ortega at the newly opened Family History Library. Photo courtesy of Gena Philibert-Ortega.
Gena Philibert-Ortega at the newly opened Family History Library.
Photo courtesy of Gena Philibert-Ortega.

The Family History Library is currently in "stage 1" of their opening. Meaning that they are only open Monday-Friday from 9am to 5pm. So if you’re in town on the weekend, you may want to make other plans. The Salt Lake City Public Library is open on the weekends and it is a beautiful building if you're a library fan like me. You can order a ride service or you can take Trax to get there. Stage 2 of the opening will include Wednesday evenings and Saturdays.

What’s New at the FHL?

So what’s new at the Family History Library? Much of the change is in the “look” and technology of the Library. New technological tools, brighter working areas, computer stations, and table space for researcher use are the most obvious changes. I visited the library months before the COVID shutdown and the changes are noticeable. Technology such as microfilm scanners, book scanners, and multiple screen workspaces are available. If you don’t like technology, that’s ok. There’s plenty of table space to use with electric outlets for your own computer or mobile devices. If you’re like me and would rather use an old microfilm reader, you still can in a special room, but for everyone else, individual computers with microfilm scanners are available. 

New Workstations at the FHL. Photo courtesy of Gena Philibert-Ortega
New workstations at the FHL. Photo courtesy of Gena Philibert-Ortega

The ground floor is still the discovery area where visitors can learn more about family history. As you can probably guess, this floor was the busiest during my time at the Library. It was filled with families and tourists looking to discover their ancestors. The 2nd floor holds the US/Canada Microform Collection. Floor 3 is where you will find US and Canada books (they’ve added even more books, 50,000 were added donated in 2020!).


Family History Library Discovery Area
Family History Library Discovery Area.
Photo courtesy of Gena Philibert-Ortega

For those doing international research, B1 is the floor with the international microfilm collection as well as the map collection (check out the lighted map table and all those maps!). Although this floor is for international collections, all of the microfiche, no matter what country, is also located on this floor. B2 is the International book collection.

No matter what floor you are on you’ll find the technology that you need. But there’s also the old tried and true technology like photocopy machines. Gone is the photocopy area which you probably won't miss considering the other tools like book scanners. Even though there aren't a lot of photocopy machines, if you do need to make a copy, all photocopies are free! I overheard one volunteer state that if you still have a copy card with money on it, just exchange it with them for a flash drive.


Family History Library Discovery Area. Photo courtesy of Gena Philibert-Ortega
Book Scanner at the Family History Library.
Photo courtesy of Gena Philibert-Ortega

Now, what if you need help? That’s no problem. Use a Family History Library computer (there's a Help icon) or your cell phone to take a photo of a QR code that allows you to summon help. Help, when you need it, where you need it. They come to you and if they can't help they will find someone who can. Each floor also has a resource desk where you can ask for help with research, using the Library, or the technology.

Get Help at the Family History Library
QR Code to summon help at the Family History Library.
Photos courtesy of Gena Philibert-Oretga

Prepare Before You Go

I have a few suggestions for preparing for a trip to the Family History Library.

  • Like all library trips, consult the Catalog before you arrive.
  • Make sure you identify more than one family history research project to work on. That way if you run out of ideas or you become frustrated with one family line you can move on to the next.
  • Prioritize your research using materials only available at the Library (books, microforms, or record images that are restricted to viewing only at the Family History Library or an affiliate).
  • Spend some time at the computers using the subscription websites available at the Library. The Family History Library Portal (available on FamilySearch computers under the Genealogy Websites link) is different than the Family History Center Portal. While they do share some of the same genealogy subscription websites the Library has more subscriptions.
  • If you need a break from research you can take advantage of what the first floor offers such as private interview booths and large family history pedigree chart printing (you must have a tree on FamilySearch to use this service).

I do want to say something about research “success.” Researching at a large library doesn’t always mean you’ll find answers to your research questions. Yes, I did find some materials I needed. One of my favorite finds was a 70 page will, only available online at the Family History Library. But I also didn’t find quite a bit of what I was looking for. That’s ok. I spent time reading articles and books, I searched subscription websites I normally don’t have access to, and I studied records that I’m not as familiar with. No library visit is a waste if you are learning something that will help you in the future. At the very least, you now know what records your ancestor does not appear in. 


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.


Summer Travel and Research Vacation at the Clayton Library

Are you ready to get out of the house and do some research? I am and so I decided to make this a research summer. Fully vaccinated and with a stack of masks, I headed out on a road trip to see what I could learn about my ancestors.

My first stop was the Clayton Library Center for Genealogical Research in Houston, Texas. The Clayton began in the former home of William Lockhart Clayton and his family. Today its collections have expanded and reside in that home and a main building on the property.


What does the Clayton have and why should you care if you’re not doing Texas research? Librarian Sue Kaufman, Clayton Library Senior Manager explains “Visiting the Clayton Library is a great place to springboard your research. Our international collection of materials includes books from all over the United States and beyond. You will find answers to your research at Clayton in our geographic collection, our published collection, or with our expert staff.”

Like most genealogical libraries, Clayton is not restricted to materials only about the area it serves (Clayton is a branch of the Houston Public Library system). Clayton curates a national and international collection. Its onsite collections of books and microforms include all 50 states and various countries. This collection consists of

  • 100,000 books
  • 3,000 periodical titles
  • 70,000 reels of microfilm (from National Archives and FamilySearch).


They also have a digital collection that can be explored either from the Houston Public Library Digital Archives website or partially via the FamilySearch Digital Library. One highlight of that digital collection is the city of Houston death certificates from 1874 to 1900.

The library’s main building has two floors. On the first floor you will find U.S. and International book collections as well as computers to access various subscription websites, the library digital collection, and catalog. One the second floor you will find the library’s collection of family history books which includes a finding aid for the microfilm collection.


Online databases available at the Clayton include:

  • 19th Century US Newspaper Digital Archive
  • African American Heritage
  • Ancestry
  • Findmypast
  • Fold3
  • Genealogy Connect
  • Heritage Connect
  • HistoryGeo
  • MyHeritage
  • NewspaperArchive

For those with Texas roots, Texas specific databases can also be accessed. You can view the entire list of databases available through Houston Public Library online. Many of these additional databases are genealogically relevant but are not “genealogy websites” including the American Civil War Research Database and the Dallas Morning News Historical Archive. Probably the best kept secret is while the Houston Public Library My Link library card is free, non-residents can apply for one by paying a $40 yearly membership. Why would you do this? Remote access to many (not all) of the subscription websites available from Houston Public Library. To learn more, see their MyLink card web page.

In addition to everything that can be found in the main building, the original library, the Clayton houses a city directory collection and more microfilm.

Prior to traveling to the Clayton, I recommend that you peruse the online catalog to find what is of interest to your research. The online card catalog is found on the Houston Public Library website. Once you conduct a search, you can limit your results to the Clayton. This search includes all of Houston Public Library’s branches so to avoid frustration, limit your result’s list.


Don’t forget to email the librarians for specific questions about the collection. A great way to plan your trip and make the most of your research time is to connect with a librarian and ask questions and get suggestions for your research. An introduction to the Clayton presented by Sue Kaufman in 2019 can be found on the BYU Family History Library website.

How was my trip to the Clayton? I had two major successes while I was there. I searched a microfilm of court records and found a lawsuit my 3rd great-grandmother lost. She was ordered to pay over $200 in the 1890s to the plaintiff. A hefty sum for a widow with young children. Now I need to keep searching to find out more about that lawsuit and what it was about. I also found a book about the city she lived in. That book was released in a limited printing and the copy originally at the Family History Library was lost years ago. Luckily for me, Clayton had a copy I could look at.

Libraries are important. Checking multiple libraries for information about your ancestor is vital. To continue my research vacation I will next stop at the newly re-opened Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah. I’ll let you know what I find!


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.


A Deep Dive Into the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA)

Genealogists use a LOT of websites. And we all have assumptions about what certain websites can offer our research. However, researchers need to rethink their assumptions about the websites they use. That was brought home to me recently as I researched a Mexican American cookbook writer and found one of her books, fully digitized in a place I never expected. The Digital Public Library of Ameria (DPLA).

The Digital Public Library of America is a website that I know well. I use it quite often, looking for images, community cookbooks, and other records. I was looking for a photo of my research subject, Elena Zelayeta recently and thought there might be one on DPLA. But then I came across the unexpected, a digital copy of two of her books. Having access to those books helped me enormously as I was preparing for a presentation about her life. 

What is DPLA?

According to their About page: "The Digital Public Library of America empowers people to learn, grow, and contribute to a diverse and better-functioning society by maximizing access to our shared history, culture, and knowledge." They do this by working with partners to make millions of materials from libraries, archives, museums, and cultural institutions available to the public in one catalog. You can read more about DPLA and their partners at their About page.

So what is DPLA not? It's a resource that brings together digital items from U.S. repositories. Now that doesn't mean there aren't materials for other countries. It just means that the repositories are U.S.-based. For genealogists, this means access to repositories with genealogy relevant information like the National Archives (NARA).

DPLA Partners

One last thing, DPLA doesn't "own" the items in the catalog. It's a collaborative catalog that makes searching easier. You search, look at a results list, click on the item of interest, and from that page, you can then go to the page of the repository that owns the item.

Why do you need DPLA?

I'm a big believer in "you don't know what you don't know." And I think that's especially true in genealogy when you can be surprised by records you didn't know existed or in places you didn't know to look. Because DPLA brings together partner institutions and their collections, you can find material from repositories you may not have expected to hold items you need. In addition to that, "digitized items" found on DPLA can span documents, ephemera, books, periodicals, photographs, maps, and even photos of material items.

Searching DPLA

As genealogists, we tend to search websites for an ancestor's name, but in all likelihood, unless your ancestor was well known, you probably won't receive results from a name search on DPLA. (I realize that I did find an item based on a name search, Elena Zelayeta, but I was also searching for someone who had written six books.) Expand your search to include:

  • Where your ancestor lived
  • An occupation
  • Organizations they were apart of
  • Their church or religion
  • A historical event

DPLA SP Results

For example, I searched on the keywords "Southern Pacific," which is where my grandfather worked. I received over 16,000 results. That's way too many to look at! I can use the tools found on the left-hand side of the screen to refine my search (remember that most library and archive catalogs feature that "refine" box). Because my grandfather would have been working for the Southern Pacific after 1945 and before 1990, I narrowed the date and place (California), which brings me down to a manageable 97 results. Now, I can use other options to narrow the search even more, but this seems like a reasonable number of hits to peruse.

Now I'm not expecting to find something specifically for my grandfather. This isn't a genealogy website that has databases with indexed content. My grandfather wasn't "famous," so I doubt there is anything in DPLA listing him. However, it's always a good idea to do an exhaustive search and to make sure there was nothing.

In this search, I'm looking for images that I can use to tell his story so that his descendants get a better sense of his life.

DPLA SP image

Once I find an image I'm interested in, I can click on it to learn more and then click the blue button "View Full Item" to see the item on the partner organization's website. This will provide more information about the item and any copyright restrictions. Because something appears on DPLA doesn't mean it is not under copyright protection and can be used in a publication online or off.


Lastly, I want to point out my favorite feature visible in this screenshot at the top right. I can add items I find to lists I create for the subjects I am researching. This provides me an opportunity to curate a list of items I'm interested in and to save it to the "cloud."

DPLA List button

There are limitations to these lists. Unlike other types of online lists that require you to sign into a website (think Google Books, MyLibrary, or WorldCat), this one recognizes your browser. So the limitation is that you cannot retrieve your lists if you use DPLA from another computer. About the feature, DPLA writes:

Revisit, revise, and add to your lists anytime by visiting in the same browser you used to create them. To protect your privacy and avoid collecting personal information like names and emails, we designed this tool to work in conjunction with your device's internet browser (Chrome, Firefox, Safari, etc.) rather than requiring a DPLA account. Your lists are private because they only exist in the browser you use to create them. To use and add to your lists, just be sure to use the same device and browser each time you visit DPLA.[1]


Are you Using DPLA for your Genealogy?

There's a real benefit to family historians as more digital collections become available. DPLA makes it so easy to search numerous partner institutions in one place. And you never know what you're going to find.


[1] "Save your Favorite DPLA with New List Feature," DPLA ( accessed 28 June 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.


Who Wrote This? Analyzing a Diary (part 2)

If you remember from my lastpost, Starting Research: Analyzing a Diary, we were looking at how to analyze a diary to prepare for research. I suggested some things you may want to ask as you contemplate a diary analysis. Here's the process I followed for my analysis.


Initial Analysis

I purchased the diary from eBay so there wasn’t much available for the provenance of the diary and I failed to ask the seller about the item to see if they had any additional materials from the estate. (This is a mistake I rarely make now. I always ask for details.)

The diary is a cloth-colored date-type book from 1927 that was given out by National Surety Company. It reminds me of a datebook where each date includes room to write appointments or other text. While the outside cover is damaged the inside is not except for missing pages that appear to have been torn out.

Inside the front cover in pencil is the name “Martha L Krentz." It’s possible this was the owner but I’m not sure if she is also the person who wrote in the diary. More on that later.

Entries are done in pencil and pen and although there is room to write something for each date in 1927, the entries do not correspond to particular dates and in some cases, they are dated several years before and after 1927. It’s not a chronological diary.

Entries include everything from vital record information (names, and dates) to everyday events, the weather, to money owed. There appears to be no “order” for these entries and some pages are blank. In some cases, there are pages torn out.

This diary isn’t what I typically think of when I think of a diary or journal. It’s not chronological and it doesn’t seem to have any kind of specific order. Although it does include some entries about what happened on a specific day, it also includes vital record information and even notations that are more worthy of a scratch piece of paper, such as adding up money owed. So with that, I need to start asking some research questions.


The name Martha L. Krentz appears on the inside cover. The first pre-printed page, January 1st, has the word Births handwritten and includes “Father John Beck” and “Mother Louisa Rottsted.” So it stands to reason that whoever wrote in this diary might be the child of these two parents. But it could also be the parents of a spouse. In addition, under their vital record information is a list of children, none of which are a Martha. However, she does make an appearance on a different page. So it’s important not to make assumptions and to instead note everything that is found.

January 1st Vital Records 1

I’m not convinced the diary writer is Martha because another page dated February 21, 1915 states “Herman, Martha, Irving, and I took walk through Cazenovia [?] park People were sitting in Park and Veranda.”

Martha goes out with Martin

Martha is referred to in other entries in the third person “Martha stopped work…Martha gave us.” It’s possible that the diary has two writers or Martha’s name on the inside cover is there for some other reason. We could try to analyze the writing to get some answers about whether the writing is done by one or two different people.

Silver wedding anniverary present from martha

This diary writer chronicled events important to her including the death of her husband and their 25th wedding anniversary. The two entries for the silver anniversary may provide us a clue to the diary writer. She writes that Martha gave “us a silver vase…engraved to Mother and Dad, December 20, 1930 and Irvings and Martha’s Picture framed.” If Martha L Krentz is the daughter of the diary writer? Researching Martha might give us the name of the writer if it is indeed not Martha herself.

Continued work on this diary would include transcribing and/or abstracting and then research. Because the diary is rich in names and dates, it’s possible it provides genealogical information that could be researched and verified and ultimately, perhaps, lead to the whereabouts of a descendant.

Surnames found in this diary include:

  • Krentz
  • Beck
  • Rottsted
  • Mitchell
  • Gissert
  • Galligar
  • Radimacher
  • Wendt
  • Eberhardt
  • Wells
  • Libeck
  • Lynch
  • Engle
  • Kepchen
  • Dietzel

In this 2nd analysis step, we can spend time writing down what we know and don’t know so we start to ask research questions. Some of my questions include:

  • Who is Martha L Krentz (and is Krentz her maiden or married name)?
  • Who is the diary writer?
  • Are the listed parents on the first page the diary writer's parents?
  • What city is the diary writer in?

If you’re interested in learning more about using diaries and letters in historical/genealogical research, see Making Sense of Letters and Diaries by Steven Stowe.

What have I missed? What questions do you have? What experiences with historical diaries do you have? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.


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.