Arriving in the Mid West has been a nice change to the hustle and bustle of New York City. Fort Wayne, Indiana is about a three hour drive east from Chicago. I had been advised a number of times to expect below zero conditions but it actually has not been that bad. Yesterday had a high of 2 degrees and today is expected to be the same with grey skies. Despite the talk of spring in the air (officially 21 March at 7:02 am), it is certainly very wintery. What really strikes me is ALL the trees have no leaves and the dry, brown of the ground which has been flattened with countless snow falls.
I feel very privleged to be able to visit Allen County Public Library – a leading library service. The Library has thirteen branches throughout the County with the main library here in Fort Wayne. The Library building (along with other branches) was upgraded in the early 2000s and takes up a whole block down town.
According to its website: “It seeks to inform, educate, entertain, and culturally enrich the entire community by providing books and other library materials, facilities, and professional services for free use by all residents.” Fort Wayne has been cited as the Best Read City in the United States by Places Rated Almanac, due in large part to the library’s collection and patrons’ use of it.
I was very impressed walking around the spacious library. It includes a gallery, which currently hosts an exhibition of quilts. The large children’s services area is impressive with it’s colourful Reading Tower and Learning Center. I was also interested in the teen advisory board that operates out of the Young Adult area where members of the young adult community are encouraged to contribute formal feedback to the library on this part of the service.
I had arranged to give a talk as part of the Genealogy Center’s speakers program. I had a small but very interested audience listen to my presentation on researching family history in Australia and finding American Ancestors in Australia. Afterwards I was able to meet with a number of staff and learn more about the library and the Genealogy Center.
I was a given a brief personal tour of part of the Lincoln Financial Collection including President Abraham Lincoln’s personal photograph collection consisting of images of himself and his family. This large research collection covers Lincoln’s life and years as President and the Civil Ear era. The once private corporate collection found a home at Allen County Public Library in 2009 after the local museum which housed it could no longer manage it. But the museum also wanted to increase the exposure of the collection and make it more accessible. The Indiana “bid” for the collection was successful for a number of reasons including the state of the art digitisation facility already at the library in partnership with Internet Archive, as well as the ability to host the collection as a whole, thus ensuring its own identity. Other bidding institutions would have “absorbed” the collection into exisiting Lincoln collections. While the Library received a lot of the traditonal library materials including books, photographs, documents, manuscripts etc – three dimensional objects went to the Indiana State Museum in Indianapolis.
The Internet Archive has a presence at the library. As one of 170 libraries in the country, ACPL is part of the part the Open Library Project (As is Yarra Plenty Regional Library who have “dipped our toes” with a couple of titles. See a list of participating libraries). Items are being digitised from the Lincoln Collection and the Genealogy Center.
The main reason for this leg to Fort Wayne on my tour was indeed to visit the Genealogy Center – one of the largest genealogy collections in the country – and it is hosted by a Public Library. I wondered at why this was so and learned that an early Director of the library in 1961 decided that a genealogy collection was a good idea – he did not have a personal passion for genealogy or similar, he just believed that it was a good idea as part of a good Public Library Service. He immediately established partnerships, at first locally, and then further afield, in order to copy genealogy related materials including Church registers, etc., and started to build the collection.
I was pleased to spend time and receive a tour from staff Librarians – the Center’s Manager and Manager of Special Collections, Mr Curt B. Witcher and Genealogy Librarian John Beattie.
Both gentlemen are clearly passionate about the Center – and also the Public Library of which it is part.
The collection is extensive. About 378,000 printed volumes and more than 589,000 microfiche and microfilm (this is not heavily used as it once was). About 1,000 – 1,200 items are added per month. This includes family histories. Americans are encouraged to share their research with the Center by donating it directly. As Curt described it, it is “a safety net under the wire” to preserve the many hours of research and records gathered by so many genealogists across the country.
When I first arrived at the center I noticed a duffle bag sitting on the counter at the Welcome desk and briefly thought how odd it was. It was explained to me later that this was a donation, they come in all forms, some very well organised, some not and it can be a challenge at times for staff too sort out, but neverthless a donation is always welcomed at the centre.
Copies of family histories are bound in house for shelving and a bound copy is returned to the researcher.
There is an extensive local history collection covering the whole country. Journals relating to geographic areas are usually bound and shelved with the monograph collection. Both the places collection and the family histories collections can be easily browsed on the open shelves but it is still advisable for researchers to consult the catalogue as well. Additional holdings cover Canada, Western Europe, Great Britain and Ireland. I asked John and Curt about old and interesting holdings and they agreed that some of their diaries hold great value, particularly one relating to the Civil War, written by a local Fort Wayne resident.
The Center has its own Technical Services department separate to that of the rest of the library, ensuring that staff become more specialised and familiar with the collection and items are processed faster into the collection (previously they were behind best sellers, etc). The Center also has its own website – separate to that of the library.
The Allen County Public Library and its Genealogy Center have been affected by funding restriction, especially following the impact of the recent GFC and new property tax caps. The Center has an endowment fund to which people are asked to contribute to.
The Genealogy Center contributes to the library’s “What’s Happening” program of events, which is issued every two months – although programming is usually planned six months ahead. I was sorry to have just missed their “March Madness – Genealogy Style” program with its “telling your story” theme. Every day for a week a session was presented ranging from “gathering & writing stories of your life” to “tracking heirlooms and telling their stories” to “insuring our story: recording & transcribing oral history”.
Traditionally “March Madness” is a famous basketball championship, now in its 75th year. It is an elimination tournament held each spring featuring 65 college basketball teams. What a great marketing idea to “tie in” with this well known event.
All researchers are of course welcomed at the Center and it can get busy in the summer months when bus loads of researchers arrive from “out of town” to use the library. The library also subscribes to many of the online subscription websites, which are available to use free in the Center. Finding aids and guides are available in order to get started and these are also available via the website. Experienced staff are also available to assist at all levels.
The collection is not only accessed by genealogists but also by property researchers, partly due to the collection of directories held, which often fill the gaps in between census records. In particular the Polk’s Directories, which are extensive.
The Center is very active in making some of its collection available online. To ensure this, digitisation programs and partnerships have been established with organisations such as Internet Archive as previously mentioned. Family History Books and WeRelate.org
The PERSI Index is also a project out of the Center and researchers can contact the library and for a small fee obtain copies of journal articles. Information about this can also be accessed via Ancestry.com
If you are interested in visiting Fort Wayne for yourself, consider a trip in August when the Genealogy Center will be hosting the Federation of Genealogical Studies Conference which includes a Librarians Day!