Think of it as giant puzzle.
Except instead of neatly cut pieces that snap together once you find the match, these pieces are fragmented, ink-stained and sometimes lost altogether.
For anyone doing genealogical research, these pieces are fascinating, though, and worth the hunt. Because love ’em or hate ’em, they are still your family.
Thanks to digitized records and comprehensive search tools that can be found online, these fragments of your past are a lot easier to gather than ever before. Today, millions of Americans — including lots of North Georgians — are discovering pieces of their past and learning a lot about their ancestors.
Take Lula resident Janice Bagwell, for example.
At a recent "Sitting up with the Dead" event at the Blackshear Place branch of the Hall County Library, Bagwell and about a dozen others had a seat in front of computers to dig up information from Ancestry Library Edition and HeritageQuest, two leading genealogical research websites. The library’s event allowed the researchers to stay at the library after hours — until midnight — and look up as much family history as they could muster.
Typically, computer use at area libraries is limited to an hour or two. But on this day, participants could munch on homemade goodies, print old Census records and spend a blissful six hours looking for family members long gone.
"I’m having a wonderful time with mine," said Bagwell, who has been able to find the history of her entire family, except for her father’s grandfather.
"At some point he seems to have vanished ... I think he probably might have moved around, and probably for good reason."
It seems he may have had a bit of a gambling problem, she said, given that he was once in jail for tax evasion. He also had a run-in with his brother-in-law.
"My grandfather’s father ... got angry with him and shot him and put him in jail, so I have a poem he wrote and somebody kept," Bagwell said. "His wife had died and he had to give his children to someone else to look after, and it was just a poem about having lost his wife and his children and how he was looking forward to the day when he got out and could make things right.
"I just think it’s so amazing."
But Bagwell was lucky enough to find that poem from another family member. When doing research online, it’s more likely you’ll find ancestors’ names on Census forms, birth certificates or even jail records.
There’s telephone directories, digitized newspaper clippings and specific databases for Jewish and black families, too.
"Here at the library, our resources are online," said Janine Cline, adult reference librarian at the Blackshear Place branch. "Through Galileo we have Ancestry Plus or HeritageQuest, which they can access here or at home."
The services are free if you use them in the library. And if you visit a library and use HeritageQuest, you can get a password that will give you access to the database from home, too. Both give users a searchable database of birth and death records, census records and military records, among other databases. Barbara Perry, the Blackshear branch manager, added that there are some reference books that show the basics of how to do genealogical research, but said the best resources are online.
"It’s the most effective way."
And if you’re a first-time researcher like Donna Ferrara, who came to the library to find information on her family’s Italian roots, it’s also a way to get tips from librarians and fellow researchers.
"I’m trying to find when both of my great-grandfathers came over from Italy," she said. "I’ve found my great-grandmothers, but I haven’t found my great-grandfathers. ... Most of the stuff I’ve tried to do at home, but I came in to have access to these websites that require payment, and to get help from others who are also doing research."
At it turns out, newcomers to researching family history are pretty common.
According to a study by Harris Interactive, 87 percent of Americans have interest in their family history. At Ancestry.com, which has been providing genealogical research since 1983 and today is the world’s largest online resource for family history, there are more than 1 million paying subscribers around the world.
"We believe that most people have a fundamental desire to understand who they are and from where they came," said Heather Erickson, senior public relations manager at Ancestry.com. Since 1997, the company has digitized and put online more than 4 billion historical records.
That means you can search for your great-grandmother’s name on a census form from, say, 1890, and actually pull up a digital copy showing all the names of everyone in the household. Or, you can see the doctor’s signature on a death certificate from the 1920s. Military records describe a person’s height, weight and eye color, giving you a better picture of what they looked like.
"Family history can take you on the journey of a lifetime," Erickson added. "Not long ago this would have meant literally traveling to libraries and other locations around the world to scroll through reels of microfilm. ... Today it’s amazing what you can learn about your ancestors — and yourself — with just a little digging online."
Back at the computers, Susan Ady was searching for records of her grandfather. Supposedly, she said, he was a Baptist minister. But her grandmother would never talk about him.
"You were never allowed to mention his name and if she did, she would call him ‘Mister,’" said the Gainesville resident. "So I really don’t know much. I never got to meet him. My dad never really talked about him."
Hopefully, she said, the records she uncovers online will tell her a little bit more about him.
"There’s not a lot that I know, and I’d really like to find out," she said. "I hope it’ll tell me something, because I think it’s a great heritage."
Nearby, other researchers took notes as they filled up notebook paper with dates and names, slowly piecing their stories together.
Just before unveiling the potluck dinner she and her fellow librarian had cooked, Cline noted that everyone who logged on to the genealogy websites was there to also enjoy what others found, too.
"They enjoy the camaraderie; there’s no distraction, they’ve found babysitters," she said. "They’re here to solve mysteries. It’s like putting a puzzle together."