Dusting Off Genealogy Collections in Library School

Last semester, I took a course on Archives & Media which required one semester-long group project, focusing on creating a digital map of the route taken by the Brinton Entertainment Company. From 1895-1909, Frank and Indiana Brinton of Washington (Iowa) traveled from Minnesota to Texas with some of the first films ever created, including several films by Georges Melies previously thought to have been lost. People started taking interest in the Brintons after Michael Zahs (also of Washington IA) found a collection of films in his house and brought them to the University of Iowa Special Collections, and later to the Library of Congress. During the Brinton’s time, arts and culture were of utmost importance, in big cities like New York and Chicago but also in small towns. Every Iowan town had an opera house, and many towns had more than one. For this project, my group thought that we would be looking primarily in the Brinton collection, housed at the Special Collections at the University of Iowa. However, as we began, our project took another turn. Enter: genealogical research.

Genealogy hasn’t been discussed on Hack Library School much, because usually this type of service is not emphasized within the library school curriculum. Genealogy collections, also called local history collections, exist to preserve materials and serve users who want to learn about the history of their ancestors and their town. Some examples of record types found in genealogy collections are newspapers, birth and death certificates, deeds, maps, and census records. This material doesn’t circulate, but users don’t have to be formal scholars to access the collection. Though the Reference and User Services Association within ALA are optimistic for genealogy collections and state that “genealogy collections should be maintained by professional reference librarians,” most of the genealogy departments I’ve visited have been housed in the basement of public libraries and run by retirees and their grandchildren. Because of this, genealogy collections are more user-focused in their mission and usually not regarded as academic as an archive. To learn more about these misunderstandings between genealogy collections and archives, read Ayoola’s post here.

To complete our vision of the Brintons’ map, my group needed to find the name and location of each opera house where the Brintons performed. After finding little online, we began to call public libraries and historical societies in towns on the Brinton’s route. We got a few voicemails letting us know that the historical society would be closed until the spring (but would reopen with a town potluck)! If we did get an actual person on the other end, the staff were happy to help. Some referred me to other people in the town who had a specific interest in opera houses (sometimes, these people did not have a telephone or email address and the historical society staff had to act as a mediator). Other times, the staff knew exactly which opera house was popular during the Brinton’s time and where it formerly stood, describing local landmarks to me as I searched for them on Google maps. If they didn’t know about the opera houses, they were eager to do the research for me. My boyfriend was puzzled when I began to receive manilla envelopes filled with newspaper clippings mailed to our house, free of charge, from the Mahaska County Historical Society and the Heartland Museum. The biggest takeaway of our project became not the route of the Brintons, but rather the kindness of the small town historians who cared so much about their local history and were happy to share it with us. As library students, it was an incredibly moving and humbling experience to conduct this type of research with these helpful people.

Though all libraries and museums need help to stay afloat, genealogy collections, especially in small towns, are some of the most financially undervalued. So, how can you show your appreciation for genealogy collections? Use them. This includes the databases that the library purchases, like HeritageQuest, JSTOR, or Ancestry.com. Become an advocate. You could also be a volunteer for a local history collection in your town. The volunteers who oversee these collections may know about the content of the collection, but they may not know about preservation or conservation techniques that you are learning about in class. Educate your family and friends on personal archiving and why it’s important (this guide from the Library of Congress is particularly useful). But most of all, these collections need funding. Most of the county historical societies I contacted were only open one or two days a week. Some were not open at all, or simply open by request. If we want to preserve the history of our ancestors, we need to make sure that every archive– no matter how small– is getting proper care. Without support for genealogy collections, stories like the Brinton’s would remain undiscovered and would’ve never helped change the history of film.

What was your experience conducting genealogical research?

If you’re interested in hearing more about the Brinton Entertainment Company, check out the new movie Saving Brinton (2017).

Cover photo: “Small Town Opera House / Coca-Cola Sign” by Mahalie Stackpole. Licensed under CC BY 2.0.


Chloe Waryan is a MLIS candidate at the University of Iowa. She entered into the library field by way of urban public libraries, as a patron, a volunteer, and eventually an employee. She now works as a technical editor for an academic journal. Connect with her on social media or her website.

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