Thursday, August 18, 2011

Fifth Day (and last for me) of the IAJGS Conference

Three excellent sessions in the morning today.  First was a panel discussion on how to get new family history researchers excited when they start, primarily by trying to ensure that they have success in the beginning.  The audience was board members and programming people from several Jewish genealogical societies, and everyone shared techniques they are already using and ideas for new approaches.  I talked about the San Francisco Bay Area JGS' plans for an open house this November.

Next was David Langbart, a 34-year employee at the National Archives, talking about State Department and consular records available at NARA.  He first explained the history of how records have been kept and destroyed over the years, mostly I think to try to prepare everyone for the fact that a lot of records we would like to have available simply aren't, because when decisions were made those records weren't considered important enough to keep.  (On the positive side, he also mentioned that archivisits now do take into account genealogical value when they assess whether records should be disposed of -- not a guarantee that they'll survive, but a vast improvement nonetheless.)  He then discussed what record groups are particularly useful for genealogical research -- mostly passport and visa applications and birth, marriage, and death records -- and how people should check with the Archives first to find out if any records exist for their relatives, rather than just showing up in College Park at Archives II.  I'm going to try to find out more about a relative on a collateral line who was with the U.S. legation to Cuba and then Honduras in the early part of the 20th century.

The last session of the morning was a presentation about the free online news archive of the JTA Bulletin.  (JTA was formerly called the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, but since the telegraph is passé, they now go by initials, like KFC.)  JTA was founded in 1917; the online archive has material from 1923-2008.  JTA covered worldwide news events from a nonpartisan, fact-based perspective, with a concentration on those events that were particularly pertinent to the Jewish community.  From a family historian's point of view, probably the biggest value in this archive is the ability to get information in the context of the time period.  Another useful feature is that a somewhat regular column was the "Bulletin Calendar of Events."  Addresses of synagogues and names of rabbis and cantors appeared regularly in the event listings.  The JTA staff are working on trying to find the earliest years of the Bulletin and will add them when they can, along with news items from the Overseas News Agency.

Then the International Jewish Genealogy Month committee met for lunch.  We brainstormed several ideas on how to publicize IJGM better and make it a more important event for Jewish genealogical societies.  We're very enthusiastic about the possibilities and believe IJGM holds a lot of promise as a premier publicity event.  We plan to implement some of the ideas this year and add more next year.  We look forward to seeing the event grow.

Photo: The Washington Post
After such a stellar morning, I suppose it's only fair that the afternoon had to be calmer to balance things out.  I missed most of the only session I had been strongly interested in, which was the talk by Steve Luxenberg.  I heard him speak last year about the research he conducted while working on his book Annie's Ghosts. This year he talked about research in general and showed some examples of erroneous information on forms, and discussed how to handle them.  He is a very entertaining speaker, and I'm glad I caught at least part of the session.

Unfortunately, the few sessions scheduled for Friday don't hold much interest for me, so today was my last day at the conference.  Instead, I'm heading to the National Archives on Friday to see what information I can find on my great-great-grandfather, who was hospitalized twice during the Civil War.  I have learned that many hospital records still survive, and I'm hoping I can learn more about his hospital stays (especially the second one, where someone in the hospital noted that they thought he was "shamming"!).

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