The Genealogy Center | Exploring the Midwest Podcast Episode 33

Last Updated on October 12, 2021 by Jody Halsted

October is Family History Month, and I am thrilled to partner with The Genealogy Center at Allen County Public Library and Visit Fort Wayne, Indiana to bring you tips to help you discover your family's history.

This episode of the podcast is sponsored by ancestry.com. Every family has a story, and ancestry.com has the largest collection of online family history records to help you discover yours. See what records you can find at familyrambling.com/familystory.

My guest is Curt Witcher, Director of Special Collections at the Allen County Public Library.

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Entry to The Genealogy center at the Allen County Public Library in Fort Wayne, Indiana
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About The Genealogy Center in Fort Wayne

Located inside the Allen County Public Library in Fort Wayne, Indiana, The Genealogy Center is the second-largest family research collection in North America, behind the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah. But The Genealogy Center is the largest collection in a public library.

“We have about 1.2 million physical items in the collection, but that's not all,” says Witcher. “We actually license every major genealogical database so if you're here, you not only have access to the 1.2 million physical items but you also have free access to all those major databases that you would find in different libraries across the country.”

The third part of the “trifecta,” as Witcher calls it, is the engaged and knowledeable staff. “With all of us, we have a couple of centuries of genealogical research experience, and we will get geeked out about helping people find their stories,” says Witcher. He says the staff are experts in matching people up with the right data to help them find their stories.

Piles of books hide genealogists at The Genealogy Center in Fort Wayne, Indiana.
Piles of books hide genealogists.

What You'll Find in The Genealogy Center

The goal of Fred Reynolds when he began The Genealogy Center was to provide “a place where people could find their stories.” While some items that were collected “BC” (“before computers”) has been digitized, much of the information hasn't made it online yet because it just isn't important enough for aggregators to invest in putting it online.

“I like to say we have the ‘best of both worlds,' ” says Witcher. “We still have hundreds of thousands of items on microfiche or microfilm. We have the legacy medium like print and microfilm, and print will never go away. There are thousands of books every year being published in paper, not online. So we have the best of both worlds.”

Everything at The Genealogy Center is free, except if you want to make a paper copy. You can even scan documents to a flash drive for free.

Databases like ancestry.com, newspapers.com and others that can become expensive to subscribe to are free at the Center. Plus, there are others that you likely haven't even heard of that can be helpful. “We really enjoy making those available because they can really help people out,” says Witcher. “We can bounce from ancestry.com to other databases to our book collection, all through the knowledge of the staff we have here.”

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Free access to online databases is available at The Genealogy Center

Genealogy Tips for Beginners

TV shows like “Who Do You Think You Are” make genealogy look easy (and very exciting). But, it can be a bit overwhelming, somewhat difficult, and even disappointing.

“I love these TV shows,” says Witcher, “because they get people excited about genealogy. But they pick particular stories that look easy, and you can't fit all of your research into the 47-minute or 16-minute show.”

So how should you begin your genealogical journey?

  • Start with a question. Whether you want to know more about a paternal grandfather who was dead before you were born or want to know more about a cool last name in your family, it all starts with a question you want to answer about your family's history.
  • Gather as much data as possible. Find all the stories and information that you can. And record the source where you found the information so you can find it again.
  • Once you've gathered information, analyze it. Find what's pertinent. And see if you can find your next question.
  • If you get stuck researching a distant relative, come back a generation or two. “I like to say ‘look around more,' ” says Witcher. “So maybe you found a census record and a vital record, and now you've identified the parents . And then you kind of roll around a little bit through the databases and you find a couple more vital records and maybe a few more census records and you have the names for the next generation.”
  • If you feel like you've hit a “brick wall,” quit focusing on names and dates and focus on the stories. “So instead of doing that sort of laser focus, I'm just going to try to trace my way back to my first ancestor, the information. The ancillary or the supplemental information you can pick up as you're trying to find all the data for each generation will oftentimes be the sledgehammer that will break through that brick wall that you initially had when you were just on this sort of sprint to get back as far as you could,” says Witcher.
  • “There's no magic, and it's a process,” says Witcher. “And if we don't do it perfectly, no one's going to die, the world's not going to end. It's okay to go back and retract your steps.”
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Nicholas County KY histories

How to Document and Store Family Research

  • If you like using paper and aren't comfortable with technology, use paper. Just make sure it's not your only copy because floods and fires happen. Keep multiple paper copies or paper and digital copies, but don't keep them in the same place. Hand them out to relatives so if something happens, someone has a backup.
  • Sometimes you need to pause on the gathering and preserve what you have gathered. Don't skip this step in the process so you don't lose what you've worked so hard finding.
  • Genealogical data management programs such as Family Tree Maker (the most popular) have different features. Find one you like or use more than one. “I actually use three because I like to play around with everything,” says Witcher.
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subscriptions to genealogy and history newsletters from across the globe

Read about my first visit to The Genealogy Center

Other Services Offered at The Genealogy Center

Schedule a consultation with one of the genealogy librarians. It can be a telephone conversation, “or Zoom consultation where you could share your screen and you show us documents,” says Witcher. Call (260) 421-1225.

The Genealogy Center also began offering virtual programs during the pandemic and plans to continue these programs. Find schedules and resources at https://acpl.lib.in.us/genealogy.

Before a visit, Witcher suggests going to the website and looking around first. Witcher also recommends to “come here with a couple of questions, meaning I really would like to find something on this particular person, or I really like to work on this brick wall.” You can schedule a consultation ahead of time or ask for once when you're there.

Witcher adds, “Be prepared to enjoy yourself because it really is a very clean and comfortable space here in The Genealogy Center. And it's really a neat community. You will feel safe here. If you decide you need a culinary break, there are a lot of neat places in downtown to explore. So be prepared to have a good time.”

The Genealogy Center is open 9 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 9 a.m.-6 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 12-5 p.m. Sunday. It's located at 900 Library Plaza in Fort Wayne, Indiana.

Tin Caps Baseball in Fort Wayne
A beautiful night for baseball at Parkview Field.

More Tips for Visiting Fort Wayne, Indiana

Fort Wayne is a terrific getaway and has plenty to keep everyone occupied while you dig into your research!

Here are 5 Ways to Have Fun in Fort Wayne

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