Learn your family history with free genealogy tools from the library
Before my grandfather died, I spent hours sitting on the living room couch next to his easy chair, a small, black tape recorder in my hand. We talked about his life- his childhood in Bulgaria, his escape to a refugee camp in Greece, his experiences as an immigrant in Chicago. He told me stories I had never heard before about his father, his baby sister, and even the river he loved to swim in as a child.
Today, those recordings are some of my most cherished possessions, not only because they consist of family stories I will pass on to my own child, but because they evoke my own memories of the time I spent with my grandfather as he gave me the story of his life.
Collect Your Family Stories
1. Use AncestryLibrary from home. If you are interested in uncovering your family history, the library can help you get started. AncestryLibrary has extensive collections of census records; birth, marriage, and death records; immigration records; military records; and more. Normally, AncestryLibrary is only available inside the library building, but because of the pandemic, you can search it from home until the end of December.
Sift Through Historical Newspapers
2. Research digitized newspapers. Official documents help you outline a person’s history, but newspapers can provide details that let you sketch a picture of your ancestor’s daily lives. Digital newspapers are a great place to start. With your library card, you can search newspapers in Wisconsin, including many in Waukesha and Jefferson counties, on the Archive of Wisconsin Newspapers. In fact, more than 100 years of the Jefferson County Daily Union recently became available on the site. You can also search newspapers from across the country on Newspapers.com; access to both websites are available for free with your library card at www.bridgeslibrarysystem.org/databases.
Make Family History Fun
Here are four more fun ways to learn your family history:
3. Preserve family documents, photos, or videos through digitization. Several public libraries, including Mukwonago Community Library and Irvin L. Young Memorial Library in Whitewater, offer digitization services. Contact the library for more information.
4. Visit a family cemetery or search for family graves at Findagrave.com.
5. Host a virtual family reunion on Zoom and ask loved ones to share their family memories.
6. Learn about a family history that isn’t your own. Check out books or ebooks from the library on the immigrant experience, such as The Distance Between Us by Reyna Grande or Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie. Learn more about slave genealogies with the Freedmen’s Bureau Project or look up which indigenous Nation’s land you live on with the free Native Lands app. Ask a librarian for resources if you’re unsure where to start.
Are you ready to get started? No matter who your family was or where they came from, every family has a story. Find yours with the help of your library.
Written by Jill Fuller. A version of this article appeared in several local newspapers in October 2020. We are sharing those pieces here on our website a few weeks after each piece has been printed.