Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Digging Up Family Roots

By Deborah Horn

     At some point during most holiday dinners, the conversation shifts to family history -- some are just short recollections about the time cousin Bobby fell out of the large oak in grandma's front yard, while others are detailed, like the time Charles, a divorced uncle living on Guam, worked with famed researcher and filmmaker, Jacques-Yves Cousteau.  
     Passed from generation to generation, some stories are lost, while others become the fodder of legend.
      Pine Bluff/Jefferson County Public Library Reference Manager, Jana V. Mitchell, says researching family histories, including written accounts, is fast becoming America's number one hobby. 
     "It's not a glamorous hobby but it's addictive," she says.  And for those who have no idea how to start a genealogical search, she says, "It's easy.  Start with yourself, then your parents and grandparents."
     In addition to documenting any oral information they have to offer, such as family stories, ask them to share any documentation they have, including old Bibles, photographs, newspaper clippings, old boxes filled with "stuff" (a treasure chest for the serious genealogist) and birth, marriage and death certificates.

      So, at the next family reunion, talk to your relatives and ask them to share any information, whether oral or otherwise.  If they're not willing to part with their hard copies, Mitchell suggests making copies. 
     Storage is key, she says.
     While Mitchell likes keeping her family history research organized in a binder, because it's easier for her to access, she says, "There's no right or wrong way to store your information.  I've seen people keep their information in a shoebox.  The main reason for careful storage is so a person doesn't repeat their research."
      Speaking of research, Mitchell says the Pine Bluff Library has an entire section, known as the Arkansas Section in the Genealogy Department, devoted to the state's history.  It also includes a number of family histories, geographical information, the Pine Bluff Commercial on microfilm and more.
     Don't overlook the value of online research.
     While Mitchell says ( and Search For Ancestors ( are great resources, there are local sources worth checking out, such as the library's genealogy and obit website ( and
     While locals come year-round, Mitchell says many of the people who visit the Genealogy Department come during the summer when their kids are out of school.  She suggests planning ahead so a family researcher can make the most of their visit.
     Facts and dates are great but Desha County Museum Director, Peggy Chapman, suggests visiting graveyards where members are buried, and for a more personal look at the era when your grandmother came of age, she suggests checking out local museums.
      It's not institutions like the Arts & Science Center for Southeast Arkansas at Pine Bluff that specialize in art, but smaller museums that are often the benefactors of household and commercial goods and other items.  For instance, at the Desha County Museum, there are a number of buildings outfitted like an old grocery store, church and old homestead.  Inside the main building, there are clothes from the famous flappers, handmade baby garments, and an early Victrola record player and telephone -- each the latest technology of its day.
     "If nothing else, your kids can experience life before cell phones," Chapman says.
     Also, she says she tries to collect information on important locals like Robert Moore, House Speaker of the 88th General Assembly. 
     She also keeps local publications on file, as well as a couple copies of Goodspeed.  Basically, this book is a condensed history of the state, its counties and individuals. 
     "These are often extremely useful when researching your family history", she says.
     Like Chapman, Mitchell says people should not be shy about asking for assistance when starting their genealogical journeys.  "We're happy to help, " she says.