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.


Starting Research: Analyzing a Diary


I love historical records. And it’s probably no surprise that I especially like to read, analyze, and study the records that women left behind. Even when it’s not my ancestor, it helps me to understand a different sense of place and time. And it helps me as a researcher to learn about the history of a specific place leading to additional research questions and records that the source points to.

So let’s take a look at a source and work on an initial analysis. This source is a diary I bought off of eBay. It’s a little different because it’s not written in chronological order (despite the diary have a printed chronology) and it’s not in a traditional “diary” book.

Before we get started, how would you start analyzing a source that you know little about ? Some things I would look for and describe include:

  • The provenance of the source (if known)
  • The look of the source (bound, loose papers, handwritten, typed, etc.)
  • The date(s) of the source (publication date, handwritten dates, etc.)
  • The author of the source
  • The place of the source
  • Initial observations of the content (names, topics)

What would you look for to start your analysis?

After examining the item I would take some time to transcribe or abstract the information to make it readable and easily accessible for further study and analysis. My experience is that when you transcribe/abstract you pay closer attention and notice things that you don't with just a passive read.

Looking at the cover and the title page of this item, what do you notice? Is there anything missing? What questions do you have?

Cover Titlepage

Here are a few pages from the diary. What do you notice?

Births Births2 Calendar

Diaries aren’t just a record of the owner but they include information about their FAN club. (Friends, Associates, and Neighbors). Because of this, it is a valuable community source, not just an individual family source. In this particular diary, there are some pages that include the names and events affecting other people like this one.


Finally, what research question(s) do you have? What are you curious about? 

Remember, we aren’t doing research at this point. We are simply analyzing what we see so we can go on to learning more about what the diary reveals. So we will hold off doing a search for these names until a future blog post. Once portions of the diary are transcribed we can start looking at what to research and where.

I’m interested in hearing your experience in working with historical diaries. Please share 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.


The Bright Lights of Genealogy - Learning to Focus

The Bright Lights of Genealogy - Learning to Focus

Do you chase bright lights and shiny objects as you research genealogy or slip down the proverbial rabbit hole? It's easy to do, and I think most of us have been guilty of chasing a bright light or two.

When I was researching papers for my college degrees before the Internet, it was a pretty simple process. I used microfilm, books, periodicals, and the occasional database. I wrote down what I found on index cards with the source citation and then organized them to write a paper. When I began researching genealogy, I used a similar system.

But fast forward to today, I can go online to search for a female ancestor in a census, and the next thing I know, I'm researching 19th-century conchology and women collectors, which then, of course, leads me to wonder what books exist on the topic. And then, of course, I need to do some newspaper search. Surely there is a YouTube lecture done by a marine biologist on the subject of 19th-century women collectors of shells and seaweeds.

Well, you get the point. Often the simple genealogy question leads us in all kinds of directions. The value of the Internet is all of the information you can find. The drawback of the Internet is all the information you can find.

I'm not saying all bright lights are bad. It's important to ask questions as we research. And those bright lights can help us find sources we need to learn and tell our ancestors stories. But they can also distract us from our original research question.

So how do you avoid getting distracted as you search for your ancestors? During the height of the COVID pandemic, countless online articles excused our inability to focus on the stress, anxiety, and uncertainness. It was hard to focus when we were living amid a pandemic. There’s no doubt about that. However, now that things are getting better will our focus also improve? My guess is even in the absence of the stress of a pandemic with all of the great information at our fingertips, the answer is no.

As we search for our family history, how do we focus so we can find what we are looking for and plan additional research?

How do you focus on the task at hand? I have a few suggestions that help me though I can tell you that I definitely have my moments where I am not as disciplined as I would like.

Have a Research Question

I can’t emphasize enough the importance of having a research question and not just aimlessly researching. If you have a written research question and a plan, when those distractions happen, and they will, you can ask yourself, “what was my research question?” That might help you to go back to the matter at hand.

Keep a Research Log

I’m a huge fan of research logs. A research log provides an opportunity for you to document your research. But over time, it also helps you to see where you left off should you need to stop researching or chase a bright light. It doesn’t matter what kind of research log you keep (a pre-printed form, spreadsheet, table, etc.). What's important is that you keep it, keep it updated, and refer back to it.

Stick a Pin In It

I can sympathize with everyone who has trouble focusing. I can go from looking for information on my World War I ancestor to wondering what it was like to be on a World War-era naval ship in less than 2 minutes. When you have those bright lights that call out to you, but you don't have the time to deal with it, what can you do? Stick a pin in it.

What I mean by “stick a pin in it” is that I write down that great idea/distraction and come back to it when I can. I keep a list of notes in my iPhone Note app. That way, I know I won't forget (otherwise I will), and I know I can look it up later, whether that is tomorrow or next month. Once I have revisited it, I delete that note from the app (and add it to my research log or genealogy software, if appropriate). You might want to use a to-do list, a reminder app, or a notepad. But whatever you use, write down those great ideas and revisit them when you have time.

Give In To It

Yes, of course, there are times where I can't resist that bright light, and I go ahead and chase it. Sometimes that stops the ongoing temptation and distraction to just meet it head-on. Take a break and spend 30 minutes to an hour. Set a timer so that you can go back to what you were doing when the time is up. Otherwise, you might find yourself still awake at 1 am pondering your latest distraction.

I will admit that I set several alarms on my phone for my day to remind myself when to end/start tasks I need to complete. I find that by not having to worry about the time, I can get more done.

How Do You Dim the Bright Lights?

I’m interested in how you address the bright lights that invariably shine as you research your family history. Do you have a tip, app, or process that helps you focus? How do you keep focused on your family history? Let me know in the comments!


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.


Solving the Mystery of S. Ada Miller (Part 3)

If you have been following the story of S. Ada Miller you know that we started with a political card, asked research questions, and then did some research into S. Ada Miller and her children. If you haven’t been following along, you can read our journey so far in Part 1 and Part 2. Now, let’s go back to where we started. Was Ada Miller a County Recorder in Ames, Story, Iowa?

Solving the Mystery of S. Ada Miller (Part 3)

If we use her death certificate as evidence, then yes, she was a county recorder. However, it appears that her time in this position was short-lived since she died in 1923 and it appears she may have been elected around 1920.

We’ve exhausted the census. So where do I look next to verify her occupation? Since I am doing this from home without the benefit of in-person research, I decided to search digitized newspaper and book websites.

I found S. Ada Miller listed as the Recorder for Story County in the 1921-1922 Iowa Official Register[1]. She’s also listed in the 1923-1924 Iowa Official Register that I accessed through Hathi Trust does show S. Ada Miller as the Recorder for Story County.[2]

Iowa Official Register 1923 Hathi Trust

So I know she served right up to her death but I don’t really know anything about the election that gained her that government position.


I really didn’t find much in relation to online newspaper for S. Ada Miller. I did find mention of her membership and role in Degree of Pocahontas (remember the antique dealer mentioned that in her sticky note attached to the card. I also found some information about her role in this fraternal order in a search of Hathi Trust. But I decided to not explore that more since really want to focus on her occupation as county recorder.

One newspaper article from December 28, 1923 announcing her daughter's marriage gave a hint about S. Ada Miller’s government career:

Paul Critz and Miss Ruth Miller were married at the home of the priest of this parish Christmas eve. She is from Ames and is a daughter of Mrs. Ada Miller who was for years county recorder of Story county, and the daughter was her deputy. When her term of office expired, she became secretary to Col. Shaffer of the military department of Ames College...They had no wedding, on account of the recent death of her mother. They simply came to Washington and had Father Haragan [?] perform the wedding ceremony...[3]

So Ada was “for years” a county recorder and her daughter Ruth assisted her (Ruth would have been a teenager during this time). That doesn’t give us much to go on but suggests that perhaps she was a recorder prior to 1920 and her daughter was a part of that career. Other records might indicate the first election she won and her tenure as a recorder.

Ada's Story

Ada’s story is an important one that could provide insight into the working life of women in the early 20th century. However, for now, this is where I am ending my search. I don’t doubt that there’s so much more to be found. But my initial goal was to learn more about a card I purchased at an antique store and I’ve learned answers to some of my questions. I look forward to revisiting Ada’s story when I can.

Reader, did you find anything more about Ada? What do you know about county recorders during this time period that might add some context to her story? Please let me know in the comments.


[1] “State of Iowa 1921 – 1922 Official Record,” pg 323 available at Hathi Trust:

[2] “State of Iowa 1923 – 1924 Official Record,” pg 260 available at Hathi Trust:

[3] Alex Miller's Column. Washington County News and Comment on Current Events. Quad-City Times (Davenport, Iowa) 28 December 1923 page 14. Newspapers .com


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 Approach a Genealogy Mystery with Just a Few Clues

As I browsed in an antique store one weekend, the two faces jumped out of me. That wasn’t an easy task since the card they appeared on was virtually hidden in a locked glass cabinet tucked inside a yellowed plastic envelope, and a 1950s envelope obscured part of the card. When I got someone to unlock the cabinet so I could take a look my first thought was that S. Ada Miller had to be a woman and that this might be a political campaign piece for a woman seeking to be elected at about the time of the 19th amendment.

How to Approach a Genealogy Mystery with Just a Few Clues

The card shows two children and states “Two Reasons why I am a candidate for the office of county recorder. S Ada Miller. Ames Iowa.”

Post-it 1

Post-it 2

On the back, the antique dealer wrote on a small post-it note that she had found an S. Ada Miller in the 1913 Record of the Great Council of Iowa-Degree of Pocahontas “she is listed as Great Keeper of Records.”

Quite frankly at $3.00 it was worth a risk to purchase it and learn more to satisfy my curiosity.

How Do You Start?

How do you start to research someone that you only have a few clues for? Well, first you note what clues you do have. In this case I knew:

  • Her name was S. Ada Miller or perhaps she went by Ada Miller
  • She was a woman (remember the antique dealer had already Googled her name and found her in a fraternal society, more on that below)
  • She possibly had 2 children (though it could be her grandchildren or some other relation)
  • She lived in Iowa (though maybe not Ames so I need keep that in mind)
  • She possibly was alive in the early 1900s judging from the photos.
  • She ran for a county government position and possibly held that position.

So what do I not know and have research questions about?

  • What did the “S” in her name stand for and did she ever go by that name or simply Ada?
  • What time period did she live in?
  • Was Miller a married name? If so, what is her husband’s name?
  • Are the two children pictured her children, another relation, or just children with no relationship to her?
  • Did she live in Ames, Iowa?
  • Did she become a County Recorder?
  • Why did she run for County Recorder (the card gives a possible clue)
  • Can I learn more about this item?

Now that I’ve identified what I know and my research questions, I need to start considering where to research. An obvious first step is to conduct a search on a genealogy website and see if I can locate her in the U.S. Census. If I can find her, that might confirm if she had children, a spouse, her approximate age, and where she lived. It might also give me an occupation. However, it’s not uncommon to find working women listed as a “housewife” in the census so I can’t make an assumption that the census will help with occupation.

Once I find her in the census and get that information I can then move on to other sources. For example, I should look for:

  • Vital Records (for her and possible children)
  • City Directories
  • Burial
  • Government Records (that might confirm her work if she was elected)

Because she ran for a city government position, I should expect to find her listed in newspapers. So I need to look for articles about her in online newspaper websites. I would also look in digitized books for possible local and family histories, directories, county reports, and other location-specific items.

Besides possibly being involved in government I know that the antique dealer found her name in a book or other records for the “Great Council of Iowa – Degree of Pocahontas.” The dealer didn’t say where this information comes from and I still need to verify this find. I’m assuming that the Degree of Pocahontas is referring to the female auxiliary to the fraternal order, the Improved Order of Red Men. This may mean additional records and at the least, it provides social context to her life. It also may mean she was married and her husband was in the Improved Order of Red Men fraternal order.

I can also expand my search by learning more about resources in Iowa by consulting the FamilySearch Research Wiki as well as specifically look in the FamilySearch Catalog for Iowa and the county for Ames, Iowa (Story). I do know that I will need to check:

  • Digitized newspaper websites
  • Genealogy websites
  • FamilySearch Catalog (and the Historical Records collection as well as the Digital Book Library)
  • Google Books

Before I start researching what else should I consider? Anything missing? What would you check? I’m interested in your thoughts and ideas.

In Part 2 we delve deeper into the case of S. Ada Miller.


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.