“As my own interest in genealogy developed over time, the tools of my trade became the historical paper trail and the endlessly fascinating science of ancestral DNA tracing. Forty years later, technology has revolutionized this work, making the historical paper trail more accessible than ever through the digitization of census records, tax and military records, slave schedules, and wills…” — Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
We are delighted to announce a new subscription to a very useful and popular resource, Ancestry Library Edition [MyLMU login]. A resource that gathers together vast numbers of primary source records about the masses of ordinary people. A way to explore communities and social networks, far in the past, that have left behind only a few traces. A revealing look at the sort of information that religious groups and governments found important to record and keep permanently.
Who will want to use this resource? Researchers in history and various social sciences, for sure, as well as anyone curious to begin or to continue their own family history, or even the history of their home or neighborhood. Unlike the personal subscription to Ancestry.com, however, Ancestry Library Edition doesn’t include the functionality to create our own account and set up a family tree.
The national and state censuses are time machines that take us to geographically related communities in the past. We can literally walk up and down streets and see who lived next door to whom, and what their occupations were. But more than that, they can be used to investigate how governments and bureaucracies decide to define, construct, and manage information about race, culture, and geographical spaces. Birth and death certificates provide helpful examples of just how complex primary sources can be, and how multiple creators collaborate. Who reported which information on a death certificate? How accurate is their information likely to be? Is the entire death certificate a primary source, or just parts of it?
Getting Started with Ancestry
We don’t need a person’s name to begin using Ancestry. Just like the library, Ancestry has a catalog of all the primary sources available to us, a searchable listing of all record collections. You’ll find it under the Search menu. The browseable list defaults to “date added” and shows the newest record sets. The ones I’m looking at right now are mostly from American states like Wyoming, Oklahoma, Michigan, Louisiana, and Hawai’i, and they cover records about birth, military service, the Freedmen’s bureau, marriage, divorce, local censuses (lots of US states and territories carried out their own censuses), tombstone records, and even something called the Honor Roll of Kalamazoo County.
Once I choose a record set, I can either search by name, or continue browsing the images provided. The Honor Roll turns out to be a record of World War I, and that makes it a primary source for a number of different research questions. For example, how were gender roles depicted in the context of military service and war effort? Who got to be on an honor roll, anyway? What can the art and language in this artifact tell us about what its creators and consumers wanted to believe about the war aims and America’s role in the war? The Honor Roll looks a lot like the college and high school yearbooks of its time, with the grown enlisted men playfully referred to as “boys” as if the devastatingly brutal conflict were some kind of intercollegiate competition. Each entry is short but comes with birth date, parents’ names, and a thumbnail service record that is just begging for a geolocation digital scholarship project.
Here’s an example of how Ancestry can help inform local or institutional research. Not long ago, I happened to be looking for a particular Loyola University alum in the 1941 yearbook. In reviewing the photos of that year’s students, I noticed a student named George H. Minamiki. I glanced again at the date on the yearbook. Less than a year before the infamous Executive Order 9066, it wasn’t hard to guess what was in this young Lion’s near future. But I wondered what else I could learn. Searching Ancestry Library Edition by name, I find that the first result on my list confirms my guess: it is the euphemistically titled “Japanese Americans Relocated During World War II.” Just this one record provides a lot of information. Our alum of 1941 was born in the US, had never visited Japan, nor received Japanese language schooling, had a B.A., was born in 1919, and was sent to Manzanar after his own country arbitrarily and unjustly stripped him of his civil rights and began the internment process.
The next record on the list is George’s military draft card (pictured above): he dutifully registered for the draft on October 16, 1940. Here I can also learn some new details like height, weight, exact birthday, and next of kin: Tsura Minamiki. The third record on the result list is from the LA County Coroner’s Inquest Index, and is dated 2002. Is it the same person? The birth date is one day off. The next two records are obituaries. Those should be enough to clarify, but both of them seem to be from Japan, not Los Angeles. Frustratingly, these also seem to be just an index entry: the text of the obituary isn’t available. And that’s a reminder that genealogists–the primary consumers of Ancestry products–also utilize secondary sources like indexes pretty extensively. But the source citation for the second obit contains an intriguing clue: “Oakland Press, The; Publication Date: 24/ Jun/ 2004; Publication Place: Pontiac, Michigan, USA; URL: http://www.jesuits-chi.org/tributes/” (Internet Archive copy)
Discoveries Beget More Questions
Jesuits? Tributes? Just where did George’s Jesuit education take him in life? I should continue analyzing my search results, but my curiosity is overwhelming now, and I resort to Google. Our Lion was Fr. George H. Minamiki, SJ, of the Hiroshima province in Japan, but also with a career as an award winning faculty member at the University of Notre Dame. Now, at this point, I really want to see the censuses: Fr. Minamiki should appear on the 1920, 1930, and 1940 censuses (we can’t view the 1950 yet), and probably will be found on them with his family. His draft card named next of kin, and the obituaries mention a sibling survivor. What occupations did his parents have? And what can we learn about the effect of the incarceration orders on his family? What happened to them during and after World War II? The obituaries and tributes will focus on him, so without resources like Ancestry Library Edition, it would be very difficult to place Fr. Minamiki within the context of family and community.
The librarian in me can’t emphasize enough that preliminary background reading and research is a prerequisite to making full use of primary sources, and especially Ancestry Library Edition. Knowing what level of government created which records will help us find those records faster. Knowing the history of a local region might save a lot of time. Why, for example, would you not search for a census of West Virginia before 1860, or for Orange County, California registered voters before 1889? If we’re tracking a family or community across the decades using the censuses, taken every ten years in the US, why will there be a frustrating gap in 1890? If we choose to browse a Los Angeles neighborhood on the 1940 census, we’ll have to make a choice about which enumeration district we need – what? Maybe a detour through Ancestry’s Learning Center would be a good idea, and keep in mind that LMU librarians are always available by appointment and on our Ask-A-Librarian service.
Now it’s your turn – what can you find?
[Source for quotation: Ball, Erica, Kellie Carter Jackson, and Henry Louis Gates. Reconsidering Roots : Race, Politics, and Memory. Since 1970: Histories of Contemporary America. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2017]