Ask any genealogist – they’ll say researching family history begins and ends with stories: tales from Ellis Island, settling the frontier, fighting in the Civil War. These stories, and more, are all being told over and over again at a library in Independence, Mo. – but if you’re there, all you’ll hear is silence.
“This is the largest free-standing public genealogy library in the United States,” says Cheryl Lang, manager of the Midwest Genealogy Center.
The 53,000-square-foot center is fairly new, relatively speaking. It opened in 2008 as part of the Mid-Continent Public Library, which Lang says has a long history of supporting genealogy research. She gave me a tour of the center– the same one any person could ask for when they arrive.
Lang estimates this center alone has three-quarters of a million microfilm images, most of which are only available there. The center also has books, an archive of genealogy magazines from around the country, historical maps and digital resources like a subscription to Ancestry.com. They also have a small army of volunteers that are constantly digitizing books, holding seminars– there’s even a woman who can translate documents written in old German dialects.
Lang calls this her “dream job” – she’s been researching her family history for more than 30 years, and is a librarian by training. Over those three decades she’s seen firsthand the changes in genealogy, mostly in the past few years.
I spoke with her and two other professional genealogists who frequent the center. They all have seen technology advance their work.
“I’m very big in my Facebook group," says Kathleen Bradnt, who has her own company called A3 Genealogy. But I’m also big in Twitter, and Google+, and LinkedIn, and Pinterest. So those are just a few, and it’s amazing how many followers you get, plus, of course, our blogs.”
Brandt has found new technologies to be helpful in family history research – especially among certain demographics where the traditional “paper trail” of census records, land ownership and other forms of documentation may not be as helpful.
For example, look at the descendants of slaves. Before the Civil War, most African Americans did not take last names and were not counted in the census. The advent of DNA testing allows individuals to find genetic matches not only to other people in the United States, but also to populations in Africa. Most tests compare your DNA to samples taken from around the world.
“And that is why I use a lot of DNA on my African American clients," Brandt says.
About 10 percent of Brandt’s clients are African American. An African American herself, she took the test for those same reasons. For her, this scientific approach turned up a few surprises, like it has for so many others.
“We were shocked to find so much Irish on my mother’s side, and on the free colored side,” she says.
DNA may be the newest, and maybe the most definitive scientific approach, but it isn’t the only modern advancement in genealogy. The Internet has made resources available to anyone with a connection, says another genealogist, Beth Foulk.
“Because we’re in this age of easily accessible technology that makes accessing records so much easier, you don’t have to go to the microfilm to get started, the barrier to entry is just nominal," Foulk says. You can get started and you can find your way around and get records and get your feet wet and get excited about it so much easier than you used to be able to.”
It’s that nominal barrier that has drawn more people to genealogy – including a rising number of young people, she says. So long as there are living people there will be those researching their family history.
I got out and walked around the library – it wasn’t packed, but there were a considerable number of people there for a weekday afternoon. Kari Barger is sitting at a desk between two bookshelves. She has documents strewn in front of her, a binder thick with paper and a few maps laid out. It’s only her first at the center, but she had already been working for over half a year.
“All of these pieces of paper, I’ve gotten from the internet. Everything up to this point, I’ve found online, and I have quite a wealth of information," Barger says.
Barger says she used websites like FamilySearch.org and Ancestry.com to get started, and these are the tools genealogists say are breaking the barrier to entry of research. But they’re also bringing people together to collaborate, and even reunite.
“It’s not just records that are coming online, of course, but it’s people that are connecting online," says Crista Cowan, a head genealogist with Ancestry.com.
"We see people making connections every single day with second and third cousins, fourth cousins, they’re finding pictures of grandparents and great grandparents that they’ve never seen before, that they never knew they were related to.”
Cowan says social media is also playing an integral role in connecting people, information sharing and even bringing families back together. Midwest Genealogy Center manager Cheryl Lang reconnected with a Dutch branch of her family on Facebook – I even was able to find relatives in Germany the same way.
But, what is the future of genealogy? What will our descendants look for when they look for us?
“Oh my goodness, I don’t even know," says Cowan. "If you think back 30 years ago, and just look at we’ve done the last 30 years, looking forward, even if we just continue on that trend, that’s really exciting to me.
"To know that more records are going to become available, to know that more people are going to be connected, to know that more areas of the world might be opened up.”
Beth Foulk also anticipates today’s social changes to create new challenges for future generations.
“The other [thing] the next 2-3 generations are going to have to challenge with is the changing definition of the family unit. Can you imagine doing a family tree, where you not only have blended families, but you’ve got two mothers, or two fathers? Whole new challenge," she says.
So if you find yourself digging through piles of books looking for your great grandfather Johann, or trying to figure out where grandma Louise was born, maybe think about holding on to those family photos, expired driver’s licenses or plane tickets you use today – your descendants may thank you one day.