State genealogical director trains family archive hunters

Iowa Genealogical Society Executive Director Jennifer Ewing, standing, gave basic lessons in searching for information on family history at a free lecture Monday night at the Perry Public Library.

The holidays are over, so it might be a good time to take a winter pause and document some of the crazy family stories Aunt Rose or cousin Julie were sharing over roasted turkey and pie.

Maybe it was a hilarious story that doesn’t seem possible or an embarrassing history that we’d like to forget—is it true?

The Iowa Genealogical Society in Des Moines is one resource to help you navigate through the tales, facts and contradictions in your family history.

Monday night the Perry Public Library hosted expert researcher and executive director of the Iowa Genealogical Society, Jennifer Ewing.

The society sets itself the mission to “create and foster an interest in genealogy and to aid others in researching their family history.”

As with most projects in life, Ewing recommends first focusing on your goals. What is it you wish to accomplish in your research? Do you want to verify a family story, learn more in general, organize documents, create a family story? Whatever your goals are, they will direct how you proceed.

Offering many tips to the attentive crowd of about 30 in the library’s large meeting room, Ewing suggested that beginning genealogy researchers should:

  • Be flexible in the spelling of family names, ages and other details when conducting your research.
  • As your family history is revealed to you, keep it in the context of history — laws, customs, societal norms change across time.
  • Talk with your family, and let them know you are doing research. They might point you toward unknown letters, diaries or other documents.

The Iowa Genealogical Society not only consists of a large library collection but also offers classes and conferences along with providing access to records from across the United States and internationally, Ewing said.

A $35 annual membership provides you free access to the collection along with other benefits, including access to — the library version — which is also available locally at the Perry Public Library.

Ewing suggests that you begin by sorting any data you have by family and then by generation. Document, document, document. That was a point she hammered home.

Ewing shared some personal history, saying that at first she didn’t think completing forms was important, but now she’s a believer that it is critical to complete forms not only to keep the history organized but to help in other ways as well.

Completing forms can alert you to missing information, highlight inconsistent information or just help identify data that don’t seem right. Mom probably didn’t have a child when she was 10, and grandpa probably didn’t serve in the war when he was 70.

And while you may think you’ll just be researching family history, some data may take you down a path of researching changing county, state or even country lines. If the county line moved 125 years ago, then there may be family data in an adjoining county that you hadn’t considered.

With today’s readily available technology and social media, I hope that we’ve improved at documenting our family histories — taking pictures of grandpa and recording grandma. But when sifting the archives from the days before we all joined Facebook and started posting all aspects of our lives online, we can’t just google “Great-grandma Anna” and find her digital history.

The Iowa Genealogical Society is available to help you navigate through digital and non-digital governmental records, newspaper obits and more—including those documents in your basement.

Iowa Genealogical Society Executive Director Jennifer Ewing, right, gave basic lessons in searching for information on family history at a free lecture Monday night at the Perry Public Library..


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