Despite digital records, genealogy research still brings visitors to Fort Wayne for community

If you drive through the parking lot of the Allen County Public Library, you might notice license plates from out of state—New York, California, Washington, and the like.

"Nine times out of 10 those distant license plates you see are here for the Genealogy Center," says Aaron Smith, Catalog and Assistant Manager at the Geneology Center.

That's because the Center at the Main Branch of the Allen County Public Library downtown has the second-largest collection of genealogy research materials in the U.S., and it's growing, Smith explains. The Genealogy Center helps patrons use materials like tax records to trace their family lineage.

Donors from around the world are seeing the library's collection and adding more materials to expand its offerings.

"We have a regular donor from South Africa, and consequently, we have the best South African collection in the world outside of that country," Smith says. "That kind of stuff happens, and we are so grateful. We drown in donations."

Smith often spends his days downstairs at the library in what's called the Materials Handling Unit, or MIU, where the process of cataloging and curating information for the Geneology Center begins.

He says the goal to make the material as useful as possible to patrons who visit the Genealogy Center on the library's second floor. These days, that often means digitizing as much information as possible.

But even with digital copies available online for free, the Center retains print materials on its shelves and still attracts visitors who want to browse the information by hand. It's even helping history buffs connect and share a common interest in their hobby.

In 2014, family history research became the second-most popular hobby in the U.S. (gardening is the first), ABC News says.

This is largely because of the nearly universal "emotional and intellectual rewards that can come with discovering the identity of your ancestors," TIME Magazine reports.

And while the means of pursuing genealogical information have changed over time, the allure of having a physical Geneology Center still remains, Smith says.

"It's not that people are staying away because they can find things online," he says. "I think they know that they can get more information if they come in because of the amazing staff we have here." Curt Witcher

Genealogy Center Manager Curt Witcher leads a team that includes librarians and support staff. He's been with the library for more than 35 years and has seen how the pursuit of genealogy has evolved over time. Family history, ancestry, DNA, and legacies are just a few of the areas that staff at the Genealogy Center helps patrons explore. 

Allison DePrey Singleton, who works in the Geneology Center, says the allure of it ultimately boils down to curiosity.

“It's just somebody asking a question,” she says.

That curiosity is often whetted early on, usually in a school setting, Singleton explains. Students are learning about history, often for the first time, and that instills in them a sense of wonder. Then they are more inclined to ask questions about historical events and inventions, eager to discover whether their family played a role in shaping history somehow.

And the first questions often beget more questions.

That’s where Singleton and her colleagues enter the picture. A librarian by education, she and other staff help patrons with research and accessing the library’s collection of physical and digital records. They also offer tours, lectures, and workshops to educate patrons on making the most of the center’s resources, which are all free.

This way, the barriers to conducting genealogical research in Fort Wayne are virtually non-existent.

“We welcome anybody and everybody,” Singleton says. “You do not have to be a resident (of Indiana) to utilize the center’s services.”

She says the records come alive when patrons of all ages put in the time to study their roots. It’s a dynamic and oftentimes ongoing process that can arouse emotions that run the gamut. 

Fortunately, genealogy is not a lost art only pursued by gray-haired members of the family. 

“We're seeing younger and younger people coming (in) or contacting us because people are becoming more in tune with the fact that their families have stories, and they're wanting to learn," Singleton says. 

All patrons really need to browse the collection is time, an interest in genealogy, and patience. Regarding the latter, Singleton often spends a good amount of time helping patrons push through roadblocks that arise in their research.

That’s because genealogy is both an art and a science, she says, meaning that while the information is historical, it is not always black-and-white or linear. This is because records update regularly, and today's data reflects our modern understanding of factors like history and geopolitics that have evolved over time. 

Even so, Singleton enjoys helping patrons on a fact-finding mission, especially when it comes to connecting the dots of their family history within the context of world history.

“(A)t a certain point, you have to step back and say, 'Okay, what was the history of this country? What was the history of the country of my ancestors’ origin?'” she says. “And at that point, people are going, 'Oh, this makes perfect sense. I got it.'”

The Genealogy Center brings patrons together around shared interests.

Genealogy research can be done as a solitary activity or as part of a group. But regardless of a patron's preference, the mere study of family history has a way of bringing people together. 

Look no further than the Federation of Genealogical Societies conference, which the Genealogy Center hosted in August, Singleton says.

About 1,200 researchers came to Fort Wayne to unite around a common interest, but the magic really happened outside the confines of the center.

“That's the most interesting thing,” she explains. "Even though the classes only last (for a few hours), our people are still going out to dinner and going to lunch with people and saying, 'What do you know about this?' They're making friends, and that makes connections that last a lifetime. It's people who have similar interests.”

Visit the ACPL Genealogy Center

Stop by the ACPL Genealogy Center during standard library hours:
Monday-Thursday 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Friday-Saturday 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Sunday noon to 5 p.m.

You may also make an appointment via phone at (260) 421-1225 or by emailing [email protected] 

Read more articles by Lauren Caggiano.

Lauren Caggiano is a Fort Wayne-based writer. A 2007 graduate of the University of Dayton, she returned to Northeast Indiana to pursue a career. In the past 12 years she has worked in journalism, public relations, marketing, and digital media. She currently writes for several local, regional, and national publications.
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