It’s easy to get lured by the promise of unlocking our past through sites like ancestry.com, but doing so comes with its own pitfalls—including getting stuck with recurring credit card charges and even barking up the wrong family tree.
“There’s a method to doing genealogy, just like cooking, fixing a car, or crocheting, and if the method isn’t followed in family history, you might get attached to the wrong family,” warns Sue Kaufman. And as manager of Houston Public Library's Clayton Library Center for Genealogical Research—one of the top 10 of its kind in the nation—she should know.
“We try and collect at least one thing from every county and parish in the United States,” Kaufman says. “We’ve gone beyond that. In our international collection we try and collect things from Great Britain, Germany, Canada, Mexico. Our strength is the Gulf Coast.”
Theirs is a fact-based system, and information can be gleaned from wills, deeds, marriages, divorces, deaths, court minutes and records, church and cemetery records, tax information, colonial collections, and directories from the 19th and 20th centuries. Kaufman says they also have unusual resources including microfilm and documents that aren’t digitized due to copyright issues.
Kaufman says it’s the mission of her team to help interested persons get started by understanding the method behind the pursuit. For example, Harris County only began sending birth records to Austin in 1908, and marriage records weren’t sent prior to 1965. So one place to start would be the federal census, which is made available to the public after 72 years.
The library’s international emphasis is primarily in Europe, Canada, and Mexico, but there are still ways to track lineage in other cultures. For African Americans whose ancestors were enslaved, they can begin by looking at the newspaper articles, slave records, or passenger lists of ships. The depth of available documentation is often dependent on the record-keepers of a particular region, and there are some instances where people can only track their lineage back to the slave owner’s family, where the slaves were named, and where they were sold.
In those cases Kaufman says it’s important to keep the focus on creating that family story. “It’s really about the stories and passing down those stories," she says. "The stories are what makes the family come alive, and it’s what engages the rest of the family who are not necessarily interested in genealogy.”
Kaufman works with eight others at the Clayton Library and says that, while they’re all generalists, they each also have their own specialty. “We have people interested in urban research, lineage, Daughters of the American Revolution, or Daughters of the Republic of Texas. One of my colleagues [is interested in] slave ancestry, another person does free people of color in Louisiana, and of course the DNA—we have a couple that are really interested in DNA and the process,” says Kaufman.
DNA could yield clues for those who were adopted and don’t have any information about their birth parents. “It gives you your genetic genealogy,” says Kaufman. “What the DNA does is it allows you to find cousins and, again, attaching yourself to a tree.”
The Clayton Library also is a microfilm affiliate library for familysearch.org, the online presence for the Family History Library in Salt Lake City operated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints; that library's Granite Mountain Records Vault stores more than two million rolls of microfilm behind 14-ton doors said to be able to withstand a nuclear blast.
But is there a price to access these resources? “Everything is free, and we are here to help,” says Kaufman. That help comes in the form of an orientation and tour every third Saturday, though reservations are required. Come October, which is Family History Month, they’ll have extended hours, a series of lectures, and tips and tricks for effective researching.
The Clayton Library Center for Genealogical Research is a division of the Houston Public Library, 5300 Caroline, 832-393-2600. More info at houstonlibrary.org.