Intern Post: Genealogy Unplugged

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Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, New York Public Library

Since beginning my internship at the New York Genealogical and Biographical Society, a miraculous event has occurred. I have begun to research using books, maps, and other physical resources at the New York Public Library. This may sound commonplace, but as a student of Generation Y, I have been able to excel through grade school and university by using the resources available on the internet…and only the internet. I’m not exaggerating—the first book I checked out of the library for a research paper was in my senior year of college. Everything from sparknotes, to e-books, to research databases can all be found online.

While the internet is a boon for genealogists working to discover their family roots, it can also be an Achilles heel. Think about it: you search on the internet for hours and hours, but the idea of traveling to look at physical repositories sounds tiring and potentially unfruitful. Why waste precious time in a stifling room, sorting through files when you could be in the comfort of your own home with air-conditioning on high?

Maybe this was just my general sense of procrastination talking, because once I began to actually use physical documents for research, I realized I could never go back. First, I got a library card. As a new resident of New York, I became an official card-carrying member of the New York Public Library. Just walking down aisles of dusty bookshelves has opened up new pathways for research in my mind. The Milstein Division of United States History, Local History and Genealogy has census data, immigration records, and other resources that I had not previously thought to explore—and folks, a lot of this stuff is not yet available online.

I have always been very passionate about genealogy. In a sentimental way, I believe that it is important to know where you come from in order to know where you are going. Since beginning my “new” research methods, or researching the “old-fashioned” way, I have been able to uncover new information about my family. I knew that gravestones could be a key way to trace dates for family members, but since I already had dates documented from census records and death certificates, I had never thought to actually travel to a cemetery.

It was only when I was reading a “real,” non-electronic book about Jewish immigration, that I discovered that Jewish gravestones from a certain period of time usually contain the name of the deceased’s father. I began searching for pictures of gravestones online, many of which are available through findagrave.com. I was thrilled to find a picture of the gravestone for my great-grandfather, Sam Stillman, who came over from Russia in the early twentieth century. Like most Jewish gravestones, this one was not written in English, but in Hebrew letters.

Dusting off my rusty Hebrew skills I began translating the headstone and discovered that Sam Stillman had the Hebrew name Schner Zalman, and his father, my great-great-grandfather, was named Dov Bear. I was elated to be able to go back a generation further into my family’s history. Next, I searched for his wife, Rachel, only to discover that her grave was not yet on findagrave.com. I sent out a request to have her grave documented, but I realize that in some cases, the internet has to reach its limit. It might be time to fish out my metro pass and travel to the cemetery. There are some things that cannot be found on the internet—let the genealogical search continue, this time in a non-virtual world!

-Jaimie

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