Thursday, March 31, 2011

New York State Birth Certificates: Genealogical Research Fact of the Day

Researching genealogy is often complicated if you don’t know how or where to look for information. If you are doing research on someone born in New York State, your first thought might be to look at their birth certificate for information. However, it is important for you, the researcher, to know that New York State did not institute birth certificates until 1881. Therefore, if you are researching someone born before 1881 your best chance of finding information, such as parents’ names, would be in church records. The census records might be another place you might want to look, but the early census records only list head of house by name. It isn’t until the census in 1850 that you would find all members of a household listed by name.
Here at the Schenectady County Historical Society we do hold church records (not for every church or all years), and we may be able to help you locate those records for which we do not hold copies. We also have access to census records through and have census indices among our collection.

Monday, March 28, 2011

The Grems-Doolittle Library, How to Get Involved

The Grems-Doolittle Library, as part of the Schenectady County Historical Society (a non- profit corporation, unaffiliated with Schenectady City or County). As a non-profit we do need help, and are not too shy to ask. There are many ways you can become involved with the Grems-Doolittle Library and help preserve the history of Schenectady County.
1.       TIME- We are always looking for volunteers, whether you are only able to commit weekly or monthly, or not sure if you want to commit at all, there are always plenty of projects for volunteers at the Library. We have tasks for a range of skill levels from photocopying and re-shelving books, to conducting research and organizing collections. We would appreciate and welcome your help.

2.       RESEARCH- If you are not free to volunteer at the Library, but you have conducted historical research relating to Schenectady County, whether it be on the history of your house,  the genealogy of your family, or a paper on local history, we would be interested in possibly adding your research to our library collection, providing future researchers with as much information as possible relating to the County.

3.       MATERIALS- If you have documents or books pertaining to Schenectady County, we are open to donations. People bring us old family scrapbooks, letters, certificates, yearbooks, etc. and we are grateful for an addition to the collection. No donation is too small. We do ask though, if you are considering making a donation, particularly if it is larger than a box of materials, that you do call ahead and schedule a meeting to discuss your potential donation. It is always good for us to talk about a collection, who collected it, identify people in pictures as ways of better understanding the nature of material.  (We will not always take every document offered to us and we don’t usually accept duplicates of material we already have or materials which are in poor condition.)

4.       THINGS- The library is always accepting new materials, which means we are also always in needs of basic office supplies for their protection and organization. We use a large quantity of archival quality boxes and folders. We also have a wish list of expensive items, such as a larger flatbed scanner for scanning early documents (which are often oversized) or video equipment to assist in our oral history collecting.

5.       DONATIONS- As part of a non-profit organization, the Grems-Doolittle Library is also always open to monetary donations. Donations can be given to Society operations, specifically to the library or directed at a particular project, such as the conservation of a document or map, or the maintenance of a collection.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Close-up on a Volunteer: Ann Eignor

Ann Eignor is another of our dedicated volunteers whose friendly face can be found in the Grems-Doolittle library at least twice a week. Ann has been volunteering in the library for over eight years. She originally began volunteering with us because she was looking to fill in her free time after retiring from being a school librarian. We seemed like the perfect fit, both because she was familiar with libraries and because she was interested in history. But the reasons she was first attracted to the library are not the only reasons she has stayed a volunteer for so long. Ann continues volunteering because she likes the people here.
Over her time with us, Ann has been involved in many projects. Mainly she has been responsible for the organization of the society’s original documents collection, which she works on with Mary Liebers. This is a never-ending task which involves filing documents into folders, organized by topics. Once a document is physically filed, it must also be added to our computer database. By putting the documents in the database, we can search for a keyword or topic, such as Union College or Proctor’s theater, and the database tells us about books and documents involving these topics.
Now that the documents collection is mostly organized and only needs to be maintained as new documents come into the collection, Ann and Mary have begun working with the maps collection, organizing the maps by location and also entering them into the database. Ann told me that besides the people she is working with, she most enjoys the satisfaction of being able to find library materials more easily because of all the time she and the other library volunteers have put into organizing the library collections in a more user-friendly way.

Friday, March 25, 2011

The Underground Railroad

The Underground Railroad provides an interesting and sometimes mysterious part of the history of the United States, which as interested adults and children of all ages for generations. The story of the Underground Railroad includes stories of compassion, daring, and lawbreaking in a period of American history fraught with conflict and tension.
On April  8-10 the Underground Railroad History Project of the Capital Region is hosting its 10th conference, entitled “Abolishing Slavery in the Atlantic World: the ‘Underground Railroad’ in the Americas, Africa and Europe and its relationship with us today.” The conference will be held at Russell Sage, in Troy NY and you should go to for more information and registration.
However, the URHPCR conference is only one way for you to learn more. Here at the Schenectady Historical society we also have material on the Underground Railroad relating to both the city and County of Schenectady, including newspaper articles, original documents, maps and several books dedicated to the topic.
If you or your child is interested in the Underground Railroad, stop by the Schenectady County Historical Society and learn more.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Ghostly Images

Ann Aronson is one of our library volunteers who is involved with our photograph collection. For the past few years, Ann has been scanning the Schenectady County Historical Society’s photograph collection, folder by folder. Having scanned the images, Ann then added them to Past Perfect, our digital database software. In many ways this is a very slow and tedious process. However, occasionally Ann stumbles across something interesting.
Last week she brought this picture to my attention.  The picture is of the old ferry which was in the Stockade. The ferry went between Schenectady and Scotia, led by a guy wire strung from shore to shore. Ferry Street in Schenectady takes its name from this ferry. The photograph probably dates between 1874 (when the “iron bridge” or “Scotia bridge” was built) and 1900. It was most likely from a glass plate negative.
But it is the image itself which is most interesting. If you look closely you will see the ghostly images of two children, a little girl on the left and a little boy on the right. The reason that the children look ghostly has to do with the primitive nature early photography. Early film needed a long exposure to light. So what most likely happened is that while shutter was open, the kids moved enough, and fast enough that they only made a partial image on the film, which is what created their ghostly look.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Kiss me I’m Irish

Feeling inspired by St. Patrick ’s Day? Interested in Irish heritage? Come the Schenectady Historical Society and learn more about Irish immigration into the city and county.
We have family files on many traditional Irish last names including O’Connell, McAlister, O’Hara and Flannigan to list only a few! And if your interest tends more toward general information about immigration we also have twelve books involving Irish history and genealogy as well as files on the Irish in Schenectady.
So come and try your luck…maybe you will find of pot of genealogical gold!

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

A Few Simple Tips for Doing Family Research

We research all kinds of questions at the Schenectady County Historical Society, however genealogy queries probably make up more than 50% of our research. Not only do we receive requests for information over the phone and through email, but we also have many researchers come to the library to use our resources themselves.
As a result of so much genealogical research, we have developed some strategies for effective and efficient family research.
Tip 1: Decide what questions you want answered about your ancestors. It is often easy to say that you would like to know everything about everyone, but it is easier to start off small, and build. Often people begin by wanting full names, dates of birth, marriage and death and sometimes the place of birth, marriage and death.
Tip 2: Start your family tree with yourself. Often people are looking for a link to colonial America, and they try to trace a family tree, from say George Washington, down to themselves. Often these people are not actually relatives. Instead, it is easier to start with yourself, work backwards, and fill in as much information as you know. Once you have something to build on, you can work backward more easily.
Tip 3: From personal experience, at least in Schenectady, religious affiliation often has no bearing on where two people get married, or have their children baptized. This is especially true for the early citizens of Schenectady. So just because someone was Catholic, don’t give up if you can’t find them listed!
Tip 4: Ask your relatives for help. Even if your living relatives are from the same generation as yourself, you never know what stories they might have heard or what they remember. It is often a good idea to keep track of confirmed facts and information passed on in stories. If you know someone was born on a certain date, but you only think the place was Schenectady, indicate this on your family tree by using different colored inks or a special symbol.
Tip 5: Share what you know. If you compile a family tree or collect information, don’t forget to share it with your family and your local historical society. Even if the information you collect does not go far back in time, it may still help researchers in the future to track down their relatives.
Hopefully these tips will help you in your search for information about your ancestors. Please contact us at the Society for more tips, or with more specific questions. And please remember to share your findings.

Monday, March 14, 2011

City Directories, Take a Closer Look

One of the amazing resources that we have here at the library is our collection of city directories, ranging from 1841-1968. In my opinion the directories are often under appreciated. Yes, they provide addresses for the residents and businesses of Schenectady, but if you take a closer look, they can tell us so much more about Schenectady than that.
The way I see it, the directories serve as a time capsule for a year of Schenectady history. They provide us with advertisements of local businesses, “The newest styles first, the best styles always, the Wallace Co.” in 1911 or “When you need protection go to Marcus Wing, Room 5 Ellis Building” in 1909 or “Subscribe for the Schenectady Gazette, Terms: $1.00 a Year” in 1885.
Each entry provides the full name of a resident and his/her occupation and place of employment. This means that the directories provide us with a great source of raw data, which can be used in a number of ways. We can look at last names in particular neighborhoods to determine ethnic majorities and how they change over time. We can also look at the kinds of occupations listed and how they change. We could also determine how many people employed in the city actually lived in the city itself. You can also use the directory to see how the city government was organized through the years, what departments it was divided into.
In a chat with Frank Taormina about the usefulness of the directories he pointed out that you can use the directories to establish connections between people. By seeing where people lived in relation to one another, and in a sense recreating the neighborhoods in which people lived, you can see how close people were. Often it is where people lived which lead to marriages and business partnerships.
So next time you are in the library doing some research, make sure you look in the city directories and they might give you some interesting pieces of information that you wouldn’t otherwise know.

Friday, March 11, 2011

When it is Spring in the Stockade, One Word Comes to Mind: Flooding

Spring may be just around the corner for us here in Schenectady, and in the Stockade that means one thing for sure, flooding. Every year, as the snow and ice melt on the Mohawk, the river levels rise and parts of the Stockade district are flooded. However, unlike the earthquakes that have just hit Japan and the tsunami in Hawaii, the flooding of the Mohawk is a predictable result to the end of winter.

The flood of 1914, location unknown
Here in the library the flooding of the Mohawk is well documented with newspaper clippings and photographs, including information that goes back as far as the 19th century. In 1832 a man named Louis John Barhydt was caught unprepared by the rising river and was forced to climb a tree, from which he was later rescued. The newspapers reported the worst flood in Schenectady’s history with two killed, hundreds evacuated and bridges destroyed by the end of March, 1914. In March of 1936 the water level of the Mohawk rose 17 feet above normal. Even my mother has stories of her grandmother refusing to evacuate her house on North Street because she lived on the second floor. She wasn’t afraid of a little water, and she had plenty of food, so she was staying put! That would have been in the 1960s and 1970s.

The ice on the Binnekill,
from the Grems-Doolittle library

If you are interested in learning more about the history of flooding in the Stockade, or if you would like to share your stories and pictures with us, come down to the Grems-Doolittle library and have a look through our files and photos. But be warned, if you come in March, you might want to bring some waders!

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Sorting through the collection, one box at a time

In past blogs I have been talking about interesting items that have been coming out of our collection. As much as I would like to say every day at the library is full of discovery and excitement, often days go by without too much excitement. That is not to say that our projects and work is not important. Today I found myself finishing up a project. I had been organizing a group of documents had been donated, having a connection to some Schenectady residents who were here in the 1860s. Organized is actually a dangerous word to be used in an archival situation because best practice argues that if a collection was compiled by one person, the papers should remain the order in which they were left. The idea is that the organization tells just as much about how the original owner was using and thinking about the papers as what is actually written on the papers themselves. However, in my case with this collection was not really compiled by one person, and I was not rearranging them.
What I was doing, and what is usually done with any archival collection donated to the society, was putting the documents into acid free folders, unfolding any sheets which were folded. At the same time, I was compiling a list of what the documents were about, their dates and who was mentioned. This information, along with quantities and folder numbers was then used to create a box list. Once the documents have been re-housed in acid free folders and those folders placed in an archival box it was time to create a finding aid, the stage I found myself at today.
Finding aids are an essential part of the archival system at Grems-Doolittle, for it is the finding aids that tell us what the collection is about. Finding aids are not a listing of what documents are in a collection, but rather a summary of the kinds of documents, the types of documents, the dates of these documents and their quantity. All of this information and more is contained in what is known as the scope note. Additionally, background information about the collection, including biographical information about the compiler or collector or subjects is also included in the finding aid. Once the finding aid is completed, it and a box list are filed upstairs and the collection can be returned to the basement. And now if someone wants to look at a particular part of that collection we are more prepared to help them access what they want and understand the greater context in which it sits.

Monday, March 7, 2011

A day in the life of a library volunteer: Carol Lewis

I mentioned in an earlier blog that the Grems-Doolittle library is bolstered by the efforts of our many dedicated volunteers. Carol is one such volunteer. Very knowledgeable about both the history of Schenectady and the library collections, she is one of the best people to talk to when you are doing research in the library or just had an obscure question you need answered. Having always enjoyed history and having been brought up in a historical area, she always wanted to spend time at the Historical Society, but only found the time after retiring in 2000. By 2003 she was serving on the Historical Society Board as a trustee and is currently in her third term.
When I asked Carol what volunteer projects she enjoys working on the most, she explained that there are aspects of each project which she finds fun and interesting. One of Carol’s particular interests is the Erie Canal, a topic which is widely covered in the library’s collections. Besides researching the Canal, Carol is also involved in many ongoing projects with the library, including organizing the ever growing photograph collection. This often entails identifying buildings and people, and sometimes even photographers. Carol is also largely involved in the cataloguing of new books and other library materials as they come to us. She sits at her typewriter creating cards for our card catalogue, and inputting catalogue information into our digital database. Carol was one of the few volunteers involved in an inventory of the library conducted in 2009, a task I am sure she hopes never to have to repeat.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Rediscovering our own collections, a box at a time

Ideas of archival best practice have changed quite a bit in the last fifteen years or so and occasionally as we are trying to keep our records up to date we find things that have been forgotten for a while. Just a few weeks ago, while looking for something in our basement, several shoeboxes of documents were found, which are from the early 18th century. Many of these documents are linked to Reyer Schermerhorn and quite a few of them are in Dutch. While it is unfortunate that we were unaware of these documents existence, the good news is that they are being looked at in more detail now, re-boxed and listed.  Then they will be available for interested researchers.
There are some challenges to such a find though, for example where did these documents come from and what is their story. Luckily for this discovery we were able to trace the documents back to their donation and Katherine was able to contact the donor and gain more information about how they came to us.
Of course there are other challenges to the collection. Old documents that have been folded for a few hundred years don’t always appreciate being unfolded. The fact that so many of the documents are not in a language that any of us can actually read is yet another challenge. But don’t think we will let that stop us, it may take us a while, but we will get a better understanding of these documents in time.

Friday, March 4, 2011

John and Jane Doe- unidentified citizens of Schenectady's past

Recently in the mail the library received the donation of two portraits of ladies, from the middle to late 19th century. The donor did not know who the women were and the only way she linked them to Schenectady was through their frames, which were from Walter E. and Talbot Studio, 505 State St. Schenectady NY. After we had accessioned the photos to our collection, I was instructed to add them to our unidentified person photo file.
In many ways the whole idea of an unidentified people file intrigued me. I guess part of me finds in a bit romantic to see old black and white photographs of people I don’t know, from a time long past. Part of me still wants to invent stories about who they were and what kind of lives they led.  And on another level, I was also sad that we do not have any idea who these women are. Not too long ago I was collecting and scanning old family photos that my grandparents had, in an attempt to preserve the pictures and remember who they were of. From that perspective it made me sad to think that these two women may never be united with members of their family, and there might be someone wondering what great-great-aunt Joyce looked like, who will never know that they have her nose.
However, as the member of archival staff, unidentified people create a problem. Who is going to be able to identify these people if family and friends are long gone? And in the case that they can’t be identified, should we just give them up as lost members of our heritage and forget about them or can we still learn something about them without knowing who they were?
My answer to that question, given my anthropological and archaeological background is yes, we can still learn from John and Jane Doe. In some ways, being focused on history and genealogy at the library, I think we often forget how much about the past and about people can be learned without ever knowing who the person was. We can interpret their poses, hair and clothing styles, and learn about the culture from which they came. Photographs are particularly interesting because they show how a person wanted to be represented. The person being photographed may be in his or her best clothes. Are they trying to impress those who will be seeing the picture with their elegance and poise? Or maybe he is wearing his work clothes and not treating the picture as anything particularly special, in which case, why not? Are people pictured alone or together?  Are they together because an image of the family unit was more important or simply because they could not afford for everyone to have individual photos taken? If we look at a larger picture of the past we can still learn a lot more about people, instead of focusing on finding their identity and leaving it at that.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

An Exciting Upcoming Event

At the Grems-Doolittle we like to keep things fresh and exciting. And that is why we have planned a book discussion for My name is Mary Sutter, this year’s one county one book selection. I haven’t started reading it yet myself, but the novel focuses on a female doctor in Albany New York at the beginning of the Civil War. As the story moves,  Mary ends up in Washington D.C. and we encounter the realities of the war through her eyes as a physician and as a woman.
Several copies of this book are available through the Schenectady County Library so start reading! The discussion will be held at the Grems-Doolittle library, on 32 Washington Ave, Schenectady on Saturday March 26th. We are scheduled to begin at 1pm and will probably wrap things up around 3pm. If you are interested in attending please contact us at the library, either by calling us at 374-0263 or emailing the librarian at
We look forward to seeing you then and hearing your perspective on the book!
And also, just as an announcement: If you didn’t already know, we have extended our hours on Thursday nights until 8pm. So if you are free on a Thursday night, stop by the historical society for a tour of the museum or a look through the library.