Using Tips on Using Digitized Books–With a Focus on Local History

I spent part of last weekend working on a review for a new genealogical periodical, which will be edited by Liz Kerstens. Many of you probably recognize her name as the creator of Clooz and co-creator of GeneWeaver, former editor of Genealogical Computing, current editor of the NGS Newsmagazine and NGS’s online e-zine, Upfront. She’s a busy lady!

The first issue of the Digital Genealogist is due out in November, and I had promised Liz a review of a CD from Archive CD Books Ireland.

Archive CD Books are just what they sound like–books digitized on CD-ROM. These particular CDs use Adobe Reader to view images of the pages, and although the viewers are different, techniques for using these digital books can also be used to search the digital books online at Ancestry. Let’s take a look . . .

How To Find the Book You Need
The Family and Local History Collection at Ancestry is quite large and because of its size it can be easy to miss books of importance. With the addition of more than 300 titles back in late August, it’s quite possible that new materials are out there that can help you locate your ancestors and flesh out the family story.

There are a lot of local histories in the Family and Local History Collection that have been digitized. The trick is locating the books you need. The Card Catalog database at Ancestry is the best way to search for titles that may be of interest to your family. It can be found by clicking on the Search Tab and then clicking on the “Card Catalog” link on the right-hand side of the page under the section “Search Resources” or directly through this link.

I find the best results come when I put my search criteria in the Keyword field because it will pick up words in both the title and description.
You can search by surname, but it’s important to remember that if your ancestor’s surname is not in the title or the database description, the surname will not pull up any search results and you could miss something valuable. So don’t only go for the surname, include county, town, state, or even neighborhood names.

Search for information on migration patterns, local industries, significant historic events, and the overall economy of the area by searching for terms like “Irish settlement,” “War of 1812,” “steel industry,” etc. You can also try searches for organizations, church names, occupations, or military service.

One database I ran across was for The Boys of a Brooklyn Church in the Great War. The church happened to be the Bushwick Avenue Congregational Church. The entries for the soldiers from that church may be of interest to anyone whose ancestor fought in the same military unit with any of these boys.

Each entry lists rank, military unit, and many list training camps and battles fought. Take for example, the entry for:

WILLIAM HARRISON BYRNES. Private, Army. Company K, 116th Inf., 29th Division. Camp McClellan, Anniston, Ala. Sailed for overseas June 15, 1918. Center Defense of Alsace Sector, (July 25 to September 8, 1918; Meuse-Argonne Sector (October 8, 1918); Battle of Moolebrouck Hill (October 11); Battle of Molleville Farm (October 15); Battle of Bois de aumonte (October 22); Capture of Etray Ridge. Division released October 29, 1918, after 21 days of constant advancing against well trained Prussian guards. Mustered in May 3, 1918; died of pneumonia November 7, 1918.

If you had a family member who served in World War I from New York, you might want to do a search by military unit. The information you find on one of his fellow soldiers may shed some insight into his service as well.

This book includes items of interest for those whose ancestors served on the homefront too. For example, in the section titled “Bushwick Church and the War,” we get a peek at some of the goings on before the U.S. entered the war:

“A great preparedness dinner of the men of the church was held March 7, 1916. The war had been in progress for a year and a half; American citizens had been murdered by Germany and it was evident that our country would eventually be drawn into the conflict. The patriotic people of the United States were becoming concerned over the helpless condition of our nation, and over the disinclination to prepare that was evident in official circles. The country was divided between patriotism and pacifism. For a time the song, “I didn’t raise my boy to be a soldier,” was more popular than the “Star Spangled Banner.”

“About a month previous (February 9) the men had heard Police Inspector James E. Dillon tell of the preparations Mayor Mitchell, through the Police Department, was making to handle the emergency should the war come to New York. . . “

The war coming to New York? We typically think of WWI as “over there” and may not realize there was a fear of it coming to our shores.

This section goes on to detail a photo memorial set up for the soldiers from that congregation, volunteer activities with the Red Cross, groups sending packages and correspondence to the soldiers, etc. These paragraphs give us a sense of what was going on in many communities across the country.

The moral of the story is, don’t preclude a particular title simply because your ancestor is not in it. Browse through as many titles as you can and explore the contents. You may find a lot more than you think.

Don’t Search and Run
Once you find a publication of interest, explore it fully. When we’re working with a database, there is the inclination to just do a quick search for our family names and move on if we don’t get results.

Digitized books created using OCR and although this technology has come a long way, it is not a perfect science. Browse through a few pages of the book. Is the print clear, or blotchy and smudged? Thick print with heavy ink doesn’t seem to OCR as well as thin lines. Also, fancy fonts may throw the OCR off.

Plus there is the possibility of misspellings in the publication itself. Many of the books online at Ancestry have a browse function built in, typically using the table of contents. This is usually found on the main database page below the search box and description, and once you’re in the actual images, there is a drop-down box in the blue bar above the tool bar that will allow you to jump from chapter to chapter. 

Browse through this list, and also check the book’s index. You may find a name there that didn’t come up in the index. Browse the entire index for items of interest. Be a detective and see what clues you can find in the book that can shed a light on your family history.

Read introductions and prefaces and learn about the scope and the layout of the book. This may tell you what the criteria was for inclusion, or exclusion as the case may be.

Insights Into the Neighborhood
Many of these historical publications also include images. I found a neat drawing of the Fulton Ferry-Boat (1838) in a book titled Yesterdays on Brooklyn Heights. 

And I’ll leave you with what I thought was an interesting passage from that same title. It gives us a little look at life in Brooklyn as far back as 1821, at which time it had grown to a population of 7,175.

“. . . Amongst the very earliest rules and regulations entered upon the statute books were the following, which show the agricultural atmosphere pervading the little settlement at that time:

‘Sheep are not allowed to run at large under a penalty of twenty-five cents each.’

‘No bull is permitted to roam through the streets under fine of $5.00.’

‘Hogs must not run at large under penalty of $3.00 and pigs $1.00 each; informers to get 2/3 of the fine.’

‘Horses and carriages are not to be drawn faster than five miles an hour under fine of $5.00.’

‘No person is permitted to bathe in the waters of the East River between Jay Street and Pierrepont’s Distillery, between sunrise and sunset, under fine of $5.00.’”

Juliana Smith has been the editor of newsletters for more than eight years and is author of “The Ancestry Family Historian’s Address Book.” She has written for “Ancestry” Magazine and wrote the Computers and Technology chapter in “The Source: A Guidebook to American Genealogy,” rev. 3rd edition. Juliana can be reached by e-mail at [email protected], but she regrets that her schedule does not allow her to assist with personal research.

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3 thoughts on “Using Tips on Using Digitized Books–With a Focus on Local History

  1. I found this article to be very interesting. Old adage, “Never judge a book by it’s cover”. Never udge a title by it’s cover. I have found that so often in research. Never know what you will find inside that “not interesting” paragraph. Thanks for the reminder.

  2. I enjoyed reading this article. Lately, I have been trying to search through some of the online books and didn’t come up with as many results, but after reading the article and some extra tips, I came up with more info that I realized was there. Thank you!

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