By Jeanne Rollberg
Could research in Pennsylvania, The Keystone State, provide the key to unlocking some of your ancestors’ pasts? If you plan to attend a conference there, such as the upcoming FGS one in Pittsburgh, you may easily supplement your visit with trips to outstanding nearby research facilities as well as museums and exhibits that provide historical context for family history.
Critical DNA research and many other family history and genealogical society topics will be woven into the the Federation of Genealogical Societies’ Building Bridges to the Past Conference in Pittsburgh’s David L. Lawrence Convention Center from Aug. 30-Sept. 2. (See: https://www.fgsconference.org/ .) There’s a pre-conference event for librarians on August 29, and many “star” speakers in genealogy will offer sessions.
Explore the Keystone State: Ready, Set, Go!
Among the facilities to visit in Pittsburgh is the Senator John Heinz History Center, which contains the Thomas and Katherine Detre Library and Archives. It is self-described as “Western Pennsylvania’s preeminent source” for researching regional history. The Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania at the Library and Archives there features some 700,000 photos, thousands of archived collections about families, organizations, businesses and industry, and critical historical maps and atlases.
The main branch of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh has large book collections, “family histories, family folders, local histories and genealogies,” according to the FamilySearch Wiki on Pennsylvania Archives and Libraries.
The Western Pennsylvania Genealogical Society (a local host for the FGS conference) web site shows the variety of online resource available to members and has descriptive information about its library that is housed there in the Carnegie Library’s main branch. The WPGS also provides research services for specified fees.
The Allegheny County Courthouse Department of Court Records in Pittsburgh provides current and historical information about marriages, criminal case files (some of which must be ordered from storage facilities). Check online at the courthouse web site about procedures, access, and fees.
Historical Context: Museums and Sites
Did your ancestors contribute to military service in or through Pennsylvania? The Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall and Museum, commemorating military service in Pennsylvania and beyond is adjacent to the University of Pittsburgh. The museum site says, “Our goal is not to idealize war but to honor and educate about the sacrifices during it.”
The city also features another military museum – USS Requin Submarine. It’s at the Carnegie Science Center, and you can visit this “uniquely immersive experience” to learn more about the World War II era military. The sub is the Navy’s first Radar Picket submarine. http://www.carnegiesciencecenter.org/exhibits/requin-submarine/
The Fort Pitt Museum replicates Fort Pitt, built by the British in the 1750s. Investigate information about it here: http://www.heinzhistorycenter.org/fort-pitt/
Were some of your ancestors outstanding athletes? Seek information and context about them at the Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum at the Heinz History Center. Pittsburgh was central to Negro League Baseball, and you can see exhibits, videos, and pitcher Satchell Paige’s glove there.
Are members of The Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) in your family history research? The well-known Friends Historical Library is at Swarthmore College about five hours away from Pittsburgh, but a Quaker group meets in a historic mansion near the University of Pittsburgh as well. More information is here: http://www.quaker.org/pghpamm/ Pittsburgh’s American heritage research and museum opportunities are impressive.
Jumpstart Research in Pennsylvania: Preparation
For visiting museums, archives, and libraries, take care to check out days and hours of research. Some may have extended hours related to the conference. On the other hand, some archives/libraries/historical societies have limited hours/days. You’ll need to know about those limitations, too, in case the facilities are research mission-critical.
Here’s an example of what appears in the WPGS “Tips for Your Visit” section:
“Search both the Western Pennsylvania Genealogical Society (WPGS) online catalog and the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh (CLP) online catalogs before you come. These two collections are distinct even though they are housed in the same room at the CLP Main Library.”
And another tip: “Bring information on your family of interest for your own reference, whether on a device or in written form. In the excitement of the search, it’s easy to forget essential names, dates and places.”
You’ll also want to know the research regulations at each library – may photos be taken with mobile devices? May handheld scanners be brought in? Are certain Pennsylvania collections you need off limits, or must researchers contact facilities ahead of time for access to some you need?
A rule of thumb for archival and library research is two hours of preparation for every one hour on site, so as to use facility time to your best advantage. Contacting a research entity ahead of time (at least two weeks, preferably) will help archivists or librarians help prepare best for the visit.
If you are attending the FGS convention itself, note that 27 tracks (areas of interest) are available. At the conference web site noted above, you can view the tracks and click on the areas by day. Planning individual convention days early is a good idea because of multiple competing sessions. Sample tracks include “African American,” “DNA,” “Members and Volunteers,” “Understanding Ancestors’ Lives,” etc. Exhibit hall maps for family history vendors at the convention are available at the same site.
If you develop western Pennsylvania research questions and plans, discover the nearby resources, comb the FGS program for key presentations, determine what historical sites to explore in Pittsburgh, the week of “Building Bridges to the Past” will be a success. If you are not attending the conference per se, but still are interested in available research in the Pittsburgh area, the tools described above are available at your convenience.
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