Something happened to me a couple of weeks ago. I haven’t wanted to say anything to you about it, as, well, it’s tough to admit one’s own genealogical shortcomings. And, yes, I haven’t wanted to appear more naff[1] than usual, but the truth is that I recently had to “do” genealogy the old-fashioned way, and I was a bit (no, really, quite) unsure whether or not I was still capable of doing just that. You see, for the last couple of years or so I’ve been whisking around my genealogical exercises a lot like George Jetson,[2] and the thought of getting back to basics – and maybe even using some of those old SASEs – was a bit daunting. (Please don’t tell my future fifth cousin “George” about any of this – I am related to his wife Jane “McElroy” Jetson on my mother’s side.[3])

Perhaps this apprehension is because I am “late bloomer,” coming to genealogy at the start of the 1990s and inheriting a lot of family history already completed by a dear cousin.[4] Like some of us, I started with my own research (more or less), as we all vaulted our way toward the study of family history with the dawn of the internet age. I can remember the first time I discovered familysearch.org and being amazed that such vital truths (and a few falsehoods) could truly exist. However, as the years have flown by since that time, I’ve started to notice a trend in the grist of my genealogical research. I’ve noticed that I have come to rely a bit too heavily on the “internet research” of others, finding those records posted to some website and then supplementing that research with what should have truly been my own.

[The] discoveries that we make on our own, indeed any of those discoveries that we might find for others to rely on – those are the true finds.

Now, I don’t know that this is necessarily a bad thing. After all, we’d never make any progress or get past the “third estate”[5] of our own ancestors if we didn’t rely on the larger share in the research and findings of others, but – and this is a big “but” – the discoveries that we make on our own, indeed any of those discoveries that we might find for others to rely on – those are the true finds. These self-wrought discoveries, they are the true “jewels in the crown” in our contributions to the study, and in our continuing quest to know just who we are and where we have come from.

And, yes, you know me too well, for as usual, I digress… You see, all of this boils down to wondering if I still know how to actually “do” genealogical research beyond the realms of a Google search. This all began when a call came in a couple of weeks ago from a friend in another state asking me to go to an area library to locate a semi-recent obituary from a local newspaper. I thought, wow, can I still do this? My friend explained to me that from his vantage point it appeared that not all of the obituaries for this local Sacramento, California newspaper were on-line. Curious about this too, I quickly discovered that my friend was quite correct.

So I revved up my engine, and made the trek to the main Sacramento library. I know, I know, you’re probably thinking, Big deal, he drove to the library. Well, out here in Westeros,[6] things like libraries (those that have anything in the way of immediate holdings) can be more than a few miles down the road. What I mean by this is that we (at least out here) often forget that a library is a thing of beauty, and often a luxury. Furthermore, as I discovered when I arrived at that main Sacramento library, even here amongst all these records and books, one thing still held indomitable sway. Yes, even here at the actual library itself, “the internet” still seemed to govern and rule over the terms of any and all research.

Arriving at the reference desk that day I asked to see the microfilm for the local paper from “1987.” (Question: Was 1987 really that long ago??) I explained that I had reason to believe that the particular obituary I was looking for had never been imaged or indexed – that it might still be on microfilm. I was immediately told that “all” of those records had been imaged and were on-line now – implying that my request was perhaps a mistaken one, and also likely futile at best. The folks at the library kindly (and laboriously) checked (yet again) all the same web-based sources that that my friend and I had, and yes, it appeared that there was no record of the obituary (or of the person) I was looking for “on-line” – in 1987 … or in any year.

A bit befuddled by this, and not wanting to leave any stone unturned (or to be impolite to the kind librarian), I asked again to see the microfilm of the Sacramento Bee newspaper for that year. I should mention at this point I was getting a bit of the “Oh, you poor silly old man gaze…” from the kind gentleman who was helping me. He explained that what I was asking was rather “labor intensive” in terms of research (for me) and, that if it wasn’t indexed or imaged online that well, it would no doubt be a waste of time. Really? Have you met our kind?

And there it was – just the impetus I had been looking for – a challenge to find something after being told it would be all but impossible – the challenge to do genealogy “the old-fashioned way”…

And there it was – just the impetus I had been looking for – a challenge to find something after being told it would be all but impossible – the challenge to do genealogy “the old-fashioned way,” even if it was to merely locate a humble obituary from but a few decades ago. I suppose I did shake in my boots a bit, as I hadn’t looked through microfilm in twenty or so years, and that the thought of actually “doing” research and not finding what I was looking for would be a bit too discouraging. Oh yes, and there were a few thoughts of Where for art thou Google? Why have you forsaken me??

However, I am pleased to report to you my fellow researchers that the obituary (and its fading image) did exist. After a few scrolls through the old microfilm (and some extra quarters in the parking meter), there it was in all its late ‘80s glory surrounded by sports statistics and furniture ads. It came into view without index, without any online image, and without any URL to guide it along the way. I nearly startled when I saw it, there, just waiting to be discovered the old-fashioned way, defiant in its hazy black and white, as if to say, I knew you could do it Mr. Jetson.


[1] “Naff” – used in this instance to imply more “ridiculous” than usual.

[2] George Jetson refers to a  cartoon character created by William Hanna (1910–2001) and Joseph Barbera (1911–2006).

[3]  “Jane McElroy” (1738–1826), who married John Stitt, was my alleged great-great-great-great-great-grandmother. I have ‘played’ on the Hanna-Barbera cartoon character’s name of “Jane Jetson” (wife of George Jetson) and their cartoon son “Elroy Jetson” for a supposed onomastic tie to my own ancestor “Jane McElroy.”

[4] Barbara Andruss Irwin (1922–2008).

[5] The “Third Estate,” as a descriptive only, used here for the “common people” in each of our own ancestries.

[6] “Westeros,” a land created by author George R.R. Martin, it is “a [fictional] continent located in the far west of the known world.”

About Jeff Record

Jeff Record received a B.A. degree in Philosophy from Santa Clara University, and works as a teaching assistant with special needs children at a local school. He recently co-authored with Christopher C. Child, “William and Lydia (Swift) Young of Windham, Connecticut: A John Howland and Richard Warren Line,” for the Mayflower Descendant. Jeff enjoys helping his ancestors complete their unfinished business, and successfully petitioned the Secretary of the Army to overturn a 150 year old dishonorable Civil War discharge. A former Elder with the Mother Lode Colony of Mayflower Descendants in the State of California, Jeff and his wife currently live with their Golden Retriever near California’s Gold Country where he continues to explore, discover, and research family history.

36 thoughts on “Legwork

  1. You rubbed it in to those librarians, right? I’ve heard that even when you travel to LDS in Salt Lake City, they just point you to a computer because it’s all online. But we know that’s not true, and now LDS has stopped circulating their microfilm. GRRRRR!!!

    I’m lucky to work at a university with a great interlibrary loan program (my favorite perk!), where they never question my requests for obscure materials. It’s a real satisfaction to make that one find that no one else has discovered yet! And it’s great to find hints from other people’s work, but ya gotta think through it and check.

    1. Ah Linnie, I am green with envy! Too lucky! It must be so rewarding and great fun to work and be connected to a university.

      I’m a little concerned about “non-circulating” microfilm. What the hay? I’m sure the reasons for this are sound but disappointing.

      We will cross our fingers for more imaging!

        1. As the LDS has explained in its announcements, the plan was to convert all the microfiche to digital with indexing. By the time the microfilm was pulled from ordering, most of the imaging had been done and was available online, as I recall. (Though some was being called in for imaging.) The original microfilm is being put into permanent storage in a mountain vault. I noticed about the time of the announcement that a great many records became available online that had not been there before.

          The change was triggered by the lack of availablity of new microfilm readers to replace old worn out ones, and the fact that microfilm is no longer being manufactured in the sizes and amounts that would be needed. And digital is so much easier to read!

          I am not a Mormon, but am mightily grateful for the effort the LDS has put into making these resources even easier to access.

          1. There’s MUCH that’s still not online at LDS and you now can’t borrow! Ran into one the other day that the navigation was so bad, I ended up having to find and download it elsewhere. Plus, a lot of it that IS online is locked down; you can only access it if you visit one of their branches, which is quite a trek for me.

  2. Jeff, I totally understand where you are coming from! Three weeks ago a friend whose family tree I manage and I visited Angeles Abbey Mausoleum in Compton, CA. This turned out to be the last of several cemeteries in the Long Beach, CA, area which we visited unsuccessfully over 2 years when ever he came to visit from Las Vegas. After calling and speaking to the owner first we set out to find this Taj Mahal in the middle of a city which has seen “better days.” We were led into the main building through locked doors and marble halls to his great grandmother’s crypt but told his grandmother and husband’s records couldn’t be found. After hearing that she was also called “Mattie” the owner said she’s in yet another “never” building. Sure enough, there she was. While taking a photo my friend’s focus revealed that the crypt on the right belonged to the missing grandfather! The owner/caretaker and his small crew take care of the facility as best they can with new plots wher local people may bury the ashes of their loved ones in a garden with an engraved stone “shared” by six others for under $2k. The relatives and families come in and visit and a bit of revenue helps keep the facility going.They still have lots of grassy area which is available in back of the Abbey buildings themselves.
    We all were elated with the findings that day!

  3. Thanks for this! Like many others, I’ve come to depend on the internet. I recently had a chance to delve into the microfilm at the Wisconsin State Historical Society, and after a long, slow search, I found the agricultural censuses I was looking for. Madison is a tremendous resource, and always worth the 300 round trip miles. Going again soon, I hope.

  4. Thank you for the tongue-in-cheek style article. Genealogy research can get so heavy and ponderous. I particularly liked the comment “have you met our kind?” Some people will just never understand the power of a mystery. No, not everything is on-line. Repeat this everywhere.

  5. The important question is…did you do the “genealogy happy dance” in the middle of the library??? That is one of the biggest rewards for discovering something “the old fashioned way”! :o)

  6. Hi Jeff: Some thoughts on your doing Genealogy the old fashioned way, to the idea of a SASE, we are lucky to even get a reply using that these days. Then walking into the source of the newspaper and asking for one in 1987, whether if be microfilm or print newspaper (there are a few years of those in bound copies around these days) your weren’t asking the person to do it for you, just that you wanted to have a look yourself. I have always found that sometimes what is not not in a Source is just as valuable. However to be discouraged to even have a look bothers me greatly. I was for 21 years in a location 1986-2007 doing exactly this kind of request SASE or people walking into a Library history room.., NEVER discourage a walk-in was my motto. However by phone I couldn’t do it immediately for the caller as some wanted, simply because I had a room full of people right there doing it themselves to take care of in Print Bound issues of newspapers and microfilm.. So I asked Please write, etc., etc., SASE please. Always tried to offer help where else they could look possibly by computer. But am so pleased to see you did find what you hoped to find indexed or not. AND 1987 isn’t so long ago, for Heavens sake:)

    1. Yes! I just knew that “1987” couldn’t be that long ago! 🙂 Thank you for that!!!

      Truly though – and I should have expressed this much better – the librarians were GREAT! They were trying to save me from what they really thought would be a fruitless labor, and / or a disappointing end. I think I am just naturally somewhat of an annoying old coot, and eventually their pity for my endeavor gave good results!

  7. I certainly agree. Laying eyes on something not otherwise known by the world is a real thrill, best accomplished by actual legwork. Compiling information is fun, but finding it in primary or ignored secondary sources is just the best feeling! Congratulations!

  8. Wow – as a librarian, I’m horrified that you were discouraged from doing what you asked. You weren’t making an unusual request and certainly weren’t asking the staff member to do it for you. Glad you were proven correct and that the obituary was in fact in the paper and you were able to help your friend 🙂

    1. Thanks Teresa – no, it was all good! They were utterly GREAT and just trying to save me from myself and possible genealogical “rabbit holes.” Librarians are truly our unsung heros in my book.

  9. Thank you very much for getting the obituary for me and your story of librarian resistance! Glad you were persistent!

  10. Loved your story! I’ve been working on my Marshall line exclusively for the last 3 years. I finally decided that I needed to go to the Geauga County Archives to have a look around.
    I’m sure glad I did! I found court records, land records, tax records and solved several mysteries after two visits to the archives and with the help of a wonderful archivist named Claire Wilson.
    She knew that I was searching for Marshall’s, so she pulled out a bunch of non-indexed 30 lb. land records books, and made a list of every Marshall land record beyween 1818 and 1860 …after my email asking about the POSSIBILITY of the land records even being in existence! She listed the Liber #, page # and grantor-grantee!!!
    I was able to find out who my 3rd and 4th great grandparents were, land records in 3 states for my gg grandfather. ..and where two of his siblings were located, after not finding them in any census between 1830 snd 1860.
    How they might have missed being enumerated, I don’t have a clue….but my bunch didn’t let any grass grow under their feet. My gg grandfather has records in 5 states…and my ggg/gggg grandfather has also has records in 5 states.
    Thank the Lord for librarians and archivists who make the time to point you in the right direction. ..or even help you dig! I also had a wonderful break from a clerk in Eaton Rapids, Michigan …who not only sent the land records I had requested, but actually went to Charlotte and got the WILL for my gg grandfather’s half brother. ..which pointed to Geauga county, Ohio.
    I will be forever grateful to these wonderful women! A gift card to a restaurant seems like a small price to pay for getting my research back 4 generations …after my cousins had searched since 1977…I was able to solve the mystery in 2018! Hallelujah!

    1. Karen – Thanks for this, “Thank the Lord for librarians and archivists who make the time to point you in the right direction. ..or even help you dig!”

      I could not agree more –


    2. Am thinking you may mean the County in Ohio? Wonderful you gave the Archivist credit, she really did go above and beyond. Usually that is the case Thankfully!

  11. I’m assuming you told the library’s staff – and especially the person who introduced you to the “labor-intensive” stuff – so that they could maybe add other obits to that all-encompassing index.

  12. Yes, online databases and indexes do have gaps. At the library where I work, our very extensive online Obituary Index is nevertheless known to be incomplete. One of the reasons for the gaps is that for several years we had a policy of only adding an obituary entry to the index if the deceased was a resident of our county. We’ve since changed the policy, thankfully, and we add those obits to our index as researchers bring them to our attention.

    The other reason for the gaps in our index is simple human error. Occasionally researchers find old obits for us, from a time when our policy was to add every single obit to the index. I’m very happy when genealogists are able to help us fill our lacunae. Sometimes they even volunteer additional data that is lacking in the actual obit, that enables us to update and enhance our index entries.

  13. For a more historical, rather than genealogical, project for which I might have to buy the microfilm from ProQuest, I checked the microfilm capabilities at my local library. And there the machine was in the rebuilt old main section of the original Carnegie Library–tallish, gleaming, attached to a printer and just waiting for my quarters to be inserted. I’ll see tomorrow if inter-lib loan can pry a microfilm copy of what I want out of some institution. They’ve been quite successful so far.

  14. I can’t resist to leave a comment about a cousin who has done extensive research in old ledgers, doctors’ records, church records and diaries from the 18th Century to uncover her African-American and Indigenous roots. We became cousins when she put two and two together and concluded that her 4x great grandmother, Mima Jemima, a free person of color, had a child with my cousin, a married white male, from that time. For years we had to say, “we think we’re cousins,” but now DNA has proved that we are. She has done incredible research by going through these documents that are not on-line. And most of her conclusions have come to pass.

    PS I’m guilty, too, and have just made an appointment at an historical society to dig into their records hoping to find clues as to my 4x great grandfather.

  15. The California History Room in the California State Library has an extensive Microfilm collection of California Newspapers. They have the Sacramento Bee through Dec. 2018 on Microfilm and current paper copies. Digital and Analog equipment is available for use. Open Mon. to Fri. 9:30-4 o’clock. Address is 900 N St., Room 200, Sacramento 95814.
    In addition it has a reading room open to the public. It’s a great place to do genealogical research.

  16. Even sources you may think are online are often incomplete. Example: I love documenting with old city directories in my large towns. They’re supposedly online at Ancestry for a particular year, but a name search turns up nothing. I scroll to the end of the online source, only to find out it stops at ‘M’. N–Z isn’t there because that year 2 directories were published. I’ve occasionally been able to find the second half (unindexed), but it’s always less of a hassle to just make a trip to the library.

    1. Linnie – its good to meet a kindred spirit here – I too thrive on old city directories!!! Yes, R.I.P. to “Microfilm Distribution Services Discontinued.” I guess time marches on??

  17. Jeff, I always enjoy your articles. My favorite quote “ Really? Have you met our kind?” That says it all! I always enjoy trying to solve a genealogical mystery or challenge. Thanks for sharing.

  18. I have a problem with people copying names, wrong names, that get passed into perpetuity as gospel when they are not. They assume there is documentation somewhere and don’t check. We have a group of 25 same DNA surnames differentiated by color. My group has 13 Y DNA matches, 3 perfectly. My brother’s is 3 markers off. We were able of separate one long time supposed ancestor by DNA that had been included for years. Many people have been using an ancestor, George Philip Groh/Crow b 1747 Germany for eons but we can find no proof that the sons every one assigns to him are his and he is indeed our ancestor. This has been going on since before DNA was a blessed tool. Perseverance!!!!

  19. My two happy-dance finds were finding my husband’s great grandparent in the census before it was indexed and you had to go through the town page by page (thank goodness it was a small town) and finding another 3rd great grandfather’s grave in Cohasset that hadn’t been indexed or photographed. It was a lone grave down a steep hill all by itself. It’s just not the same as finding it on FindAGrave!

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