Sunday, January 20, 2019

"You Can’t Not Try These" Curt Witcher Presents

Saturday, January 12th at the San Diego Genealogical Society Annual Meeting the guest presenter for the day was Curt Witcher. 

Curt is the Allen County Public Library’s Senior Manager for Special Collections and the general curator for the Race and Fine Book Collection, managing The Genealogical Center and supervising the Lincoln Financial Foundation Collection.  I found Curt to be a very knowledgeable, engaging and humorous presenter with many examples of information.  Curt discussed many sources of records you probably never thought to look for.  I wanted to capture some of the highlights of information that resonated with me that Curt shared and try some of the techniques out on my own research.

Curt presented 4 sessions:

Session 1 was entitled Doing Effective Genealogical Research in Libraries.  Curt reminded us that “ Successful genealogical research requires that one have meaningful strategies for finding, collecting, organizing, and evaluating data.  The soundness of one’s strategies and the consistent manner in which those strategies are applied will in very large part determine one’s research success.”
  • Curt discussed the 5 types of Libraries: Academic, Private, Public, State and Virtual.  These will contain information about our ancestors and/or what was happening during their lives that adds to their stories. 
  • A technique to try when ‘searching’ on a new site is to first type in “Humpty Dumpty” and “Smith”.  Using this simple technique will demonstrate how the search engine for that site works.  Remember that not all search engines work in the same manner.  This will allow you to figure out the best way to search for the particular information you are looking for.

  • I felt the following chart that Curt presented was of great value to help me know where the best place to start searching for a particular record would be:

I will definitely keep this chart for reference when I am doing additional research.
  • Curt also reminded us not to just search for Surnames but to also search for a geographic area, ethnicity, religion or an occupation.  We limit ourselves in our searching if we are only looking for a Surname.  This was a common theme throughout all his presentations and a valuable reminder.
I have ancestors that lived in Iowa, so, I started by searching the University of Iowa website and found the following:

Well, bummer about the ‘very little information’ but I didn’t let that deter me.  I found the following which I thought was VERY interesting since my first ancestors in Iowa were farmers and since I love maps:

Unfortunately, these maps were a little too late for me but as I went through the rabbit hole I also found photos of many of the early settlers.  Unfortunately, mine aren’t there, for now anyway, but imagine if this is the only place you could find a photo.

Session 2 was entitled Mining the Mother Lode: Using Periodical Literature for Genealogical Research.  In this presentation Curt was able to show examples of valuable information we are missing if we are not using PERSI (The PERiodical Source Index).  As Curt told us “PERSI is the largest subject index to genealogical, historical, and ethnic periodical publications published largely in North America and the British Isles.”  WOW!  Such an amazing index and I have never used it, I’m ashamed to say.  You can use http://search.findmy to get started.
  • Curt also gave us some hints about the ‘search’ on PERSI and said it’s better to use either the ‘who’ OR the ‘where’ but not a good idea to use them together.  You can add a keyword like ‘vital records’ to help narrow your search.  Curt reminded us that our ancestors may not be named but the richness of information may be in the sources cited for articles.  These will be a treasure trove of ideas for further searching.
When I went in to PERSI and searched ‘Iowa’ I had 30, 860 results.  WOW!  When I added the county ‘Plymouth’ to the search I found the following:

WOW!  This could be a wealth of information about my early settlers.  PERSI is definitely worth using!

Session 3 was entitled Using Government Documents for Genealogical Research.  Curt told us about the amazing records that can be found in government documents if we take the time to search.  He reminded us that the federal government is the largest publisher in the world and asked us why we aren’t using this source on a regular basis for research.  We also need to know how to search for documents.
  • The Superintendent of Documents Classification System assigns each document a SuDoc number that refers to the government department or agency that issued the document.  Curt informed us that records will not often be found within the Department of the federal government where you might think they would be, so, we need to look in several areas.  He listed the following as some of the most important department designations that might be most helpful for us: D- Department of Defense, T- Department of the Treasury, W- Department of War and Y- Congress.
  • Curt talked about the 3 main classification systems used for records:  SuDoc used by the federal government, letters used by the Library of Congress and the Dewey Decimal System numbers used by libraries.  A good reminder when researching different types of records.
  • Two Indices you can use when searching for federal records are CIS U.S. Serial Set Index at and Cumulative Subject Index to the Monthly Catalog of the United States Government Publications, 1900-1971 at .  When searching look Guides to Historical Documents.
I decided to try and put in Plymouth County where my ancestors lived and found the following sources of information I can investigate for information:

Session 4 was entitled More Than Surname Surfing: Best Practices for Using the Internet for Genealogists.  Curt reminded us that “The Internet can be most effectively utilized if one employs search strategies that complement sound historical research methodology and assist one in finding all the data. not just what which is conveniently available.” 
  • My biggest takeaway from this session, because I am not regularly using them, was to use websites for the various libraries:  local city or county public library, state library of the state, state archives, state historical societies, state genealogical societies and US GenWeb site.
  • has more than ten million genealogy links by location and surname.
I went to the Iowa State Historical Society and searched for ‘Remsen, Iowa’.  I found the following mention of a book for the church I know my ancestors attended.  I wonder if I can find my ancestors in this book?

I also found the following that might have information on my Hamman/Hammond line:

General reminders from Curt-
  • Only about 5% of the available information on our ancestors is currently on-line.
  • When you go to a Library, Archive, etc. remember “Asking questions is an ART as well as a procedure.”  He emphasized his point with The Wooden-Match-Stick-Test (explain what you can in less time then it would take a wooden match stick being held in your hand to burn down) where brevity and clarity are so important when interacting with librarians, archivists, etc.
  • Curt told us frequently “You can’t not use these!” additional places for records.  How true he is!  I will post this on my computer to remind me to look at these other sources of data besides the common frequently used on-line sites.
I haven’t done much searching on-line at library sites but am now anxious to start searching many of these sites.  After Curt told us the importance of PERSI I now have it Bookmarked as a favorite on my computer.  He opened up so many more possible sources of information that I had never thought to search!  Now I just need the time to search all the leads I found.  Let me know of a new place you decided to search and what you found.

If you have any corrections, additions or stories to share I look forward to hearing them.
Enjoy the journey,

(Problems with Open Live Writer.  Please excuse image clarity issues)


  1. Thanks for the excellent summary of the seminar Debby. It sounds like I missed a good one. I have used PERSI in the past and also a couple of library websites. I use these and other sites you mentioned often? No. Should I be? Yes. Thanks for the reminder and also for the new info.
    Let’s hope Open Live Writer gets working correctly again soon for all of us bloggers.

  2. Thank-you Diane! I was amazed at the variety of different information that is out there beyond the typical on-line sites.