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Making the Past Personal: Heritage and Genealogy Technology and Programming
Posted On December 3, 2019
When a 1920s passport photo of a woman holding an infant appeared on the screen, tears sprang to my patron’s eyes: He was seeing his mother and grandmother for the first time. I instantly knew genealogy programming would be a hit at Benson Memorial Library. I have not completed a scientific study, but interest in genealogy and family heritage seems to be at a high point in today’s culture, and we should help people ride that wave straight into the library. By embracing traditional and modern technology, teaching patrons how to use both effectively, and expanding the heritage tools offered, libraries can help the past come alive for people of all ages who want to make history personal.

If you have never tackled genealogy or heritage programming in your professional life before, starting from scratch can seem daunting. How do I help people from such different walks of life with various levels of skill and often complex problems? Fear not! Technology has come a very long way in making it much easier to take on genealogy programming.

Don’t be overwhelmed by the number of ideas, resources, or programs presented in this NewsBreak. Use my examples as inspiration, simplify what you need to, change things so that they will be more applicable to your community and the amount of time you can devote to them, and give it your best shot.


You will be hard-pressed to find someone who is not at least somewhat familiar with Ancestry, the largest for-profit genealogy research service in the world. In operation since 1983, it has a library package available from ProQuest. Pricing varies, and quotes can be obtained by contacting the company directly. Ancestry Library Edition provides access to Ancestry databases to in-library users, whether on library computers or their own via Wi-Fi. Unlike a personal Ancestry subscription, Library Edition does not offer the ability to make family trees, contact users, upload DNA, or do anything else that is personal in nature. All information obtained must be downloaded, preferably onto removable storage devices such as a flash or external hard drive, along with notes taken during use. However, information stays private, and there is no chance of the next patron accidentally stumbling across the previous one’s family secrets.

For smaller or rural libraries, purchasing a large subscription such as Ancestry Library Edition could be cost-prohibitive. In that case, I suggest purchasing a personal subscription to Ancestry using the email address of the staffer you believe will be handling the majority of genealogy requests. That person’s screen name can still be your library’s name. Before my library received grant funding for Library Edition, I completed all requests by accessing Ancestry databases on this personal account. Ancestry’s Terms and Conditions specify that the service can be used for “professional family history research” as long as you do not excessively distribute or sell its proprietary materials. Library Land seems to be in the clear, but make sure you get the approval of your library administration before going this route.

Another database I turn to for genealogy research, although it is more advanced in that its controls are not quite as intuitive, is FamilySearch. A free account on FamilySearch opens up a world complementary to that of Ancestry. It is operated by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and often, if you are hitting a roadblock with Ancestry, FamilySearch is the next-best place to find what you are looking for. Creating an account is free, and more advanced patrons would be a good target audience for learning this tool.

Complementary to Ancestry and FamilySearch is While not every town or city has its newspapers digitized, if yours is included in one of the popular newspaper databases, it is worth investing in a membership. My local newspaper, The Titusville Herald, is digitized on, which is also my library’s microfilm provider, but there are other sites, including (an Ancestry site), the Library of Congress’ Chronicling America project, or Google News’ newspaper archive.

Obituaries are always my favorite place to start in genealogy research because you will narrow down birth and death dates and places and immediate family members. Without those foundational pieces of information, patrons will struggle to find useful results on Ancestry. With that data in hand, other resources can be fully exploited. For inspiration on how to streamline this process and start formulating an obituary index for your library, you can view the one we made at Benson Memorial Library using Google Sheets. We have more than 18,000 obituaries logged in our index, and it can be accessed from anywhere in the world and updated in real time. By directing patrons to this resource first, we can maximize our time helping with more difficult genealogical problems.


Not all genealogy technology and programming have to be software-based. One of our most popular technological heritage tools is our VHS-to-digital conversion station. We use the Elgato Video Capture attachment and included computer program to help patrons preserve their family memories. This tool works seamlessly when hooked up to a VCR on one end and a PC, Mac, or iPad on the other. The software is very user-friendly, and patrons of all ages have found it easy to use. The attachment can also be used with other recorders and cameras (microDV, miniDV, VHS-C with adapter) if the need arises.

While a bit of an investment up front, the video capture tool has become essential in our heritage collection. Converting video from various analog formats to digital by sending priceless family videos away to for-profit companies is not only terrifying, but costly. Currently, Walmart offers this service for $24.96 for a 2-hour tape. Providing this service at the library gives people the chance to reconnect with their past and encourages them to explore their heritage at no cost. There is no better feeling than teaching patrons how to convert their first video and seeing them overcome with emotion when hearing, for example, their brother’s voice for the first time since he passed away 20 years prior.

Technology tools combined with programming make for excellent community events. Hold classes about how to use your heritage-oriented databases, either on your library computers or on patrons’ laptops. Host an open house that showcases your genealogy tools. Patrons can come in and explore them at their leisure with no pressure to know how to use them. Giving them a chance to learn on a trial-and-error basis will help establish their comfort and willingness to use the tools again.

If you do not have any of these newer tools and do not have the funds to purchase them, try some heritage programming with tools you already own. If you have a microfilm or microfiche machine, advertise a program in which people can learn how to look at old newspaper articles, peruse census records, or read old town birth and death records. Some technology may be old, but it is still useful, and plenty of people do not know how to use it. Try to reach them by planning fun events focusing on finding their parents’ wedding announcement or seeing grandma in the census. Make the past personal.


Make sure you are well-acquainted with your library’s tools. If you want to focus your genealogy programs on online tools, spend some time with your databases. Figure out what kinds of searches work best and give the most useful results. If you are getting thousands of hits in your newspaper database when looking for someone’s obituary, try using some different limiters in your specific system. For example, with, the advanced search is where you should go first. My favorite search tool is the With the Exact Phrase box because it does the work of quotation marks (keeping phrases together) for you. Ancestry supports wild cards and truncation, so try some of those and see what your results look like. If a patron does not know if an ancestor’s full name was Samuel or Samson, try searching Sam*. If a grandmother’s name could have been spelled Elizabeth or Elisabeth, try Eli?abeth.

Play around with phrasing, date limiters, and more to figure out an optimal search technique so the process is streamlined and the experience of researching their genealogy in the library is maximized for your patrons.


Every town’s heritage and every family’s lineage are unique. Thankfully, there are also many similarities. If your patrons know their families have lived in the U.S. for at least a few generations, most of them will be starting with the same group of tools to create a genealogical foundation. Census, vital, military, and immigration records are the best places to start, in that order. (Click on the links for examples of programs I have done on each of those topics.) Most people understand the concept of the census. Reading the records is an easy way—handwriting aside—to introduce them to historical records. Patrons are also usually familiar with vital records: births, deaths, marriages, and divorces. These records lay the groundwork for more difficult searches.

Establishing concrete vital information on each ancestor is critical to following the person throughout time. Without question, patrons will ask about military and immigration records, some of which can be found online, and some of which must be requested through mail or can only be seen in person.

Other programs you can offer regarding genealogy cover DNA and how it works (see my example here). Some programs can be culturally specific to your community. Do you have a large Irish-American population? Teach people how to find Irish records, which are offered for free during St. Patrick’s Day week on Ancestry. (See my example here.)

Modifying programs to fit the needs of your community will result in the best, most exciting, and most interesting programs. When you are holding heritage or genealogy programs, resist the urge to do all of the research work for the patron. It is so difficult, especially when your patron is struggling. In order for patrons to get the most out of the experience, in addition to learning to use the tools so that they can replicate the process when you are not available, they must do the lion’s share of the work for themselves. Helping with a roadblock or stepping in when someone is overwhelmed is absolutely appropriate. But when Jean asks you for the fiftieth time, “Why can’t you just do it for me? You’re much faster on the computer!” remember my words and resist the urge. Teach patrons to search, and they will search for a lifetime; search for them and you will never get another thing done until you have traced their family back to Adam and Eve.

Take it slowly, and assemble in very small groups when you first start offering heritage or genealogy programming. Remind yourself to take it similarly slowly when you are teaching people of all ages how to use the tools. You are teaching them first to crawl, then to wobble, and, finally, to walk into the digital world of historical records for the first time. There will be roadblocks and problems you cannot solve. Give it time, try a new path, and, eventually, progress will be made. Or, sometimes there just is no clear answer. History is complicated, and families are even more so. Not every door has a key, as much as it pains us not to know what is behind it.

Start small. Use what you have. Add a few tools if you can. Get people interested in and acquainted with what technology and resources you can offer. Make the past personal for your patrons, and engage them in conversation about their stories and how we all fit into this big human family. Trust me, when you watch them be transported back in time, to a place where they finally have a chance to meet their great-great-grandmother who braved the sea to plant her roots in your town or hear the sweet melody of their grandfather’s voice after he’s been gone for 30 years, it is all worth it.

Jessica Hilburn is the executive director of Benson Memorial Library in Titusville, Pa., and the co-CEO of the Crawford County Federated Library System. She enjoys popular culture in libraries, true crime, and audiobooks, and she is passionate about advocating for rural communities and libraries, as well as broadband equity and information access. Her writing has been published by Information Today, Inc.; ABC-CLIO/Libraries Unlimited; Library Journal; The Oilfield Journal; and The History Press (which published her book, Hidden History of Northwestern Pennsylvania).

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