Sunday, October 14, 2007

"Hidden Treasures in the Library" with Penny Feike

I went to the San Diego Genealogical Society meeting on Saturday and heard the presentation "Hidden Treasures in the Library" by Penny Feike. The synopsis of the talk is here.

Penny's talks are different - they are sort of a stream of consciousness of research stories and personal experiences from over 40 years of genealogy work - nearly all of it done the "old-fashioned way" with repository visits, books and microforms. She speaks from her wheelchair and doesn't use overheads or projectors and only occasionally writes on the white board. You have to listen to what she says, enjoy and marvel at the stories, and appreciate Penny's wisdom and experience.

Have you ever heard of the "Historical Records Survey" done by the WPA in the 1930's? A survey was done of the holdings of government agencies and buildings in every county, and the lists made were then copied to the nearest National Archives branch and to the State Library. In Washington DC, there are copies at the Department of Commerce and the Library of Congress. The Family History Library in Salt Lake City has microfilms. Here is a link listing what might be available, and where, for California records.

The unique thing about these lists is that they tell exactly where the record was - such as "in the 3-story building next to the library, on the second floor, room 212, 4th book shelf from the north wall, 6 feet from the east wall, next to the land deeds." Of course, the records may have been moved by now, but the list provides a survey of what was where at the time of the survey. Penny told a story about using the list to find a particular record: she went to the court house, asked to see the record and showed the list to the clerk. The clerk says "I've never heard of or been in that building, I'll have to find out about it. Come back after lunch." After lunch, Penny went back and the clerk had the records for her to review and an "I've learned something today" look on her face.

Penny also mentioned that sometimes repositories, like a local or state library, receives a collection from a person or group, and if the collection has records from more than one county, it is filed under the State rather than with a catalog entry for each county. The researcher needs to look in the State listing in the FHL Catalog and not just the County listings.

She provided a useful tip to finding records kept by a Justice of the Peace or a Notary Public. They are often cataloged under the name of the person, not under a subject name. So how do you get the names? You check County Histories and City Directories for the time period of interest for the name, then search the FHLC for the person's name to find the records.

The most telling advice that Penny shared was "don't trust the reference books that provide an address or person for records" (such as a court clerk, or vital records clerk) along with "don't trust the negative response from a clerk." She had written to Doniphan County KS vital records office for a marriage record, only to receive several snotty letters from the clerk (she obtained the address from a reference work) saying they didn't have the record at that location. On a trip back from Chicago, Penny stopped at the court house, and visited the vital records office - and there was the person who sent the negative responses. She asked if the office really didn't have the records, and then asked if the clerk knew where the records might be. The clerk responded "sure, right across the hall in the court records." Penny went across the hall, talked to the clerk there, and was rewarded with the record she sought. A judge overheard Penny say how frustrated she was by the other clerk's attitude, and the judge called the clerk to the office and fired her on the spot.

Needless to say, Penny is one of San Diego genealogy's hidden treasures, and we come away from her presentations with several nuggets of useful information and an appreciation for her life's work.

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