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  • Grassroots and Technology

    Ruby Coleman

    The other day I looked at a birthday cake on which was spelled out in frosting, “XXXX Is Older Than Dirt.” While I chuckled, I also mused that in some respects I am older than dirt when it comes to genealogical research. Without flat out stating my age, it is knowledgeable to friends and relatives that I have been researching ancestors for a long time.

    Grassroots Genealogy
    In 1961 it cost 4 cents per ounce to mail a domestic letter, post cards were 3 cents and air mail could be sent at 7 cents per ounce. If you were writing genealogical letters before 1961 you paid even less. Forty-five years ago telephone calls were still saved for emergencies and close family members. Gradually genealogists began using the telephone to contact researchers and relatives.

    As with other researchers, my early beginnings were listening to stories told by my grandparents and parents. While I lamented that my great grandparents were no longer living, I still was blessed with many family names, dates, places and accounts. Along with those came inaccuracies and a few fabrications ... but they were a start.

    The questions led to discoveries of family bibles, certificates of vital recordings, old letters, newspaper clippings and photographs. As I began asking more questions that could not be answered, the search broadened to courthouses, libraries and other places.

    There is still that “grassroots genealogist” in me that cherishes the moments spent not only with relatives now gone, but also digging through old family trunks and prowling cemeteries. These were experiences that cannot be achieved today on Internet. The thrill was being able to touch the old letters in the trunk, open the brittle paper and read them or sit on the grass beside an ancestor’s grave and touch the worn letters of the tombstone.

    Are we moving too fast in the genealogy race? I think not. We are moving in the right direction, but have to also take a step or two backwards to our grassroots.

    In 1976 Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs released the Apple I computer which was the first single circuit board computer with 8kb of RAM, a video interface and keyboard. The next year Apple Computers incorporated and released the Apple II. As a first for a personal computer, there were color graphics and an audio cassette drive for storage. In 1978 the 4kb of RAM was increased to 48kb and the cassette drive was replaced by a floppy disk drive. Two years later the IBM PC was available. In 1983 Apple was back in the running with the introduction of the Macintosh. Microsoft Windows was released in 1985. The computer was attracting attention as a household word and item.

    My first computer was purchased in 1985 and within a year or two I was logging on to Internet through Bulletin Board Systems (BBSs) on what I thought was a whiz modem of 2400 bits per second. By 1996 the computer was more popular than ever and genealogists were realizing the value of using it for information creation and storage. Internet servers and service providers let us know the world was available within our home at any hour of the day or night. We could contact each other and share information. Web pages were like visiting a library and finding thousands of books waiting to be opened. We were also creating and finding web pages relating to genealogy. E-mail allowed us to lick stamps only to pay bills (and now we can do that online). Cousins came out of the woodwork, only a mouse click away. Speeds became faster and wireless and computers contained more memory, all to meet our needs.

    Using Technology to Locate Books
    While it is still necessary to visit libraries, in particular those with genealogical collections, book collections can now be accessed online. Digital images have been made of many genealogical and historical books as well as family histories. They can be viewed and downloaded by specific page or pages or downloaded in entirety.’s Family & Local History Records contains enough digitized books to keep researchers busy for years. It is easy to search, however, requires more patience and time to download specific pages than other sites on Internet. I can be found at requires a subscription membership to access these records.

    Brigham Young University’s (BYU) Family History Archive can be searched by surname, author or title at Once a selection has been made, you can download portions, pages or the entire book in PDF format. The online collections of BYU can be searched at These consist of diaries, biographies, maps, images, family histories and a lot more.

    The extensive databases of New England contain many books and records that can be searched. Click on “Research” and then “View All Databases.” In particular I enjoy browsing the New England Historical and Genealogical Register, 1847-1996. Years ago I made lists of NEHGR articles that I needed to find at libraries. Now they are a mouse click away. Once an item is found, it is easy to copy it to your desktop or hard drive, or print it out for quick reading.

    Another interesting web page to visit is Google Books at Search by names, locations, events and time periods to open the door to more extensive research. This is similar to using in that you can add words, delete words, ask for exact phrases and refine your request.

    Not everything is on Internet, so don’t give up on visiting libraries. Great information on libraries of every kind ... academic, public, national, state ... can be found at the Libweb-LibraryWWW Servers web page, This is a great place to locate libraries, view their web pages, in many cases browse their online catalogs and decide if they have specific genealogical titles you need. Maybe a library trip is impossible, so talk to your local librarian about interlibrary loan. The book you need may circulate on interlibrary loan or perhaps copies can be made of specific pages.

    Using Technology in the Courthouse
    Genealogists are frequent courthouse visitors. The best research done in the courthouse is done personally. Logistically this is sometimes not possible. Contacting a courthouse by letter, e-mail or telephone is always a possibility. State Court Web Sites is an excellent web page for locating needed information pertaining to courthouses. It is beneficial to check out each state’s court structure chart. This is located at

    More information about the availability of records on a county level can often be found at the USGenWeb project state/county pages. Begin your research for this at Locate a specific state and then county to see what has been posted regarding court records.

    To learn more about counties in the United States, the web page is very helpful. This contains information on merged city and county governments. Courthouse research can be discouraging if you do not study the evolution of county boundaries. Grandpa may have lived in one county for ten years and another for twenty years, yet never moved off his land. Two books that explain county formation in detail are:

    The Handy Book for Genealogists, 11th edition. Logan, UT: Everton Publishers, inc., 2006.

    Ancestry’s Redbook. 3rd edition. Salt Lake City: Ancestry Publishing Company

    An interesting web page, Evolution of United States County Boundaries, shows county changes in animation. This is found at Click on “link to the gif” to start the animation.
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