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The Gift of Family History

With resources like Ancestry.com and 23andMe DNA testing becoming more prevalent, it’s commonplace for people to dig into their family histories to learn more about themselves. But birth/marriage/death records and DNA results only tell a part of the story. I recently decided to embark on a more intricate research journey for my 78-year-old father as a way to “gift” him information on his grandfather and great grandfather; and I, of course, started at the Library.

Growing up, my father’s family didn’t talk much about their history due to their Jewish heritage and some hidden mental health issues. Because of that, a lot of what I’ve found is completely new to him, and he’s really enjoying learning more about his family. My father has his Masters in Divinity and his great grandfather was a rabbi student-turned-Christian missionary to the Jews. This academic background makes all of the articles, plays, and manuscripts right up his alley.

As it goes with research, best laid plans often go awry, and my great grandfather’s eldest sister quickly took the forefront of my digging. She was an incredibly interesting person in her own right, having written plays, lecturing across the country, and publishing articles from everything from life in Palestine to astrology. No one in the family had physical or digital copies of her writings, so I decided to put my librarian skillset to use in order to track them down.

A play that she wrote in 1914 became my focus, but it was proving difficult to find. My breakthrough came when our Interlibrary Loan Specialist was able to borrow a copy of a 1930 dissertation from an institution in Amherst, MA. In that dissertation, there was a huge lead to where the play (a handwritten manuscript) might be, but I was unable to locate it. I finally reached out to the Library of Congress, and one of their Manuscript Reference Librarians answered my query in less than 24 hours with the information on where the play was located AND a link to the play converted from microfilm to a PDF file.

The Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress has custody of a large group of dramatic compositions that were submitted to the United States Copyright Office for copyright protection between the years 1901-1977, and it was within that collection that they were able to find my great grandaunt’s piece. Without the breadcrumbs I found using free resources available at the Natrona County Library, this may have remained hidden in the microfilms in a basement far away.

Even before this, my father has always thought that librarians can do anything. I tend to agree with him.

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