Blog: You don’t have to be a 'serious genealogist’ to enjoy family research at the Genealogy Center

I have lived in Fort Wayne for most of my adult life. When I introduce myself and say where I’m from, I often mention the Allen County Public Library Genealogy Center as one of our city’s claims to fame. I’ve been known to say, “People come from all over the country just to visit the genealogy collection at our library.”
 
I LOVE our library and have been a patron for many years. But even though I’ve boasted about the Genealogy Center, the truth was: I had never stepped foot inside that part of the library. I was intimidated by it and believed it was a place only for genealogists and serious scholars of family history. Recently, I decided I wanted to learn more about this place that I had told others was so wonderful and see if it actually was.

Anyone can conduct family research at the Allen County Public Library's Genealogy Center.
 
The first stop in my quest to learn more about the ACPL Genealogy Center was their website: www.genealogycenter.org. Here, I was immediately drawn to the “Events'' section where there were several programs to choose from. I was just in time to register for a virtual program from 6 to 9 p.m. that Friday night.
 
The program, “After Hours with The Genealogy Center,” was billed as an opportunity to “hang out” with a genealogist after the library was closed. I thought I would pop in for half an hour or so—the perfect opportunity to see what the Center was all about while remaining anonymous.

West stacks of research books at the Allen County Public Library's Genealogy Center.
 
There were three genealogy librarian hosts from the Allen County Public Library on the webinar. Participants listed in the chat box that they were joining from New York to Hawaii and lots of places in between. I sat and listened to the genealogists as they answered questions typed in the “Q&A.”
 
One of the questions was, “How long before the weather gets too bad to come visit the Genealogy Center in Fort Wayne?”

The Allen County Public Library's Main Branch in Downtown Fort Wayne is home to the Genealogy Center, which has one of the largest family research collections available, incorporating records from around the world.
 
I found it humorous that this was a question posted by someone in the audience, but it also made me realize something: Someone was sitting in their home somewhere far away from here planning their trip to the ACPL Genealogy Center (around our weather)—and I can visit any time, but don’t!
 
The other questions posed were about where to start searching and how to overcome obstacles to finding one’s family history. I listened and followed along in the chat as participants shared stories and resources. I opened tab after tab in my internet browser, following links to sites that were mentioned, and I began to look up information on my own family.
 
That’s when it happened. I found a photocopy of the marriage record of my fourth great grandfather and grandmother from 1808. Just like that, I was hooked. And I ended up staying on the Zoom webinar for the whole three hours!

Anyone can conduct family research at the Allen County Public Library's Genealogy Center.
 
The next day I signed up for another webinar: "Ask the Experts: Writing Your Family’s Story." This one was a half an hour on a Saturday. While attending this session I realized that my interest in genealogy has more to do with the stories than anything else. And that’s great because somebody has to write it all down, or nobody will know about it!
 
The following week I got to talk to Genealogy Center Manager, Curt Witcher, and he agrees. He says stories are why people care about family history.
 
“I think it's always been about a story—whether someone wants to find their Revolutionary War ancestor, or just see if they're related to someone famous or infamous, or just to see if they can get back to their grandparents,” says Witcher.

Genealogy Center Manager Curt Witcher
 
The Genealogy Center is available to help anyone find their family’s history, and then share it with others. They have 1.2 million physical items in their collection. But Witcher says he tells his team all the time that it doesn’t mean anything if people can’t be successful in finding and telling their stories.
 
He also wants to assure others, like me, that you don’t have to be an expert to visit the Center.
 
“We actively work to be able to meet people exactly where they are,” says Witcher. “You don't have to be a professional…. You can just walk in and start talking with us.”

Anyone can conduct family research at the Allen County Public Library's Genealogy Center.
 
I decided to put his claim to the test. I walk into the Genealogy Center with only a vague idea of what I’m looking for. I have traced my ancestors back to my fourth great grandparents, but I want to know who came before them. Senior Genealogy Librarian Elizabeth Hodges greets me when I enter and asks how she can help.
 
Right away, Hodges pulls out a book with county boundaries for each state as they have changed through the years. (There’s a version of this available online, too.) She is trying to help me pinpoint which books in their collection might help me find my answers. She spends the next hour orienting me on the layout of the Genealogy Center—all 42,000 square feet of it—and getting me started on my search.
 
“We’re here to help you figure out what resources you need,” says Hodges. “We won’t do your research for you…, but we’ll talk to you and give you some ideas of where to look for things. We want you to find your family story.”

Senior Genealogy Librarian Elizabeth Hodges moved to Fort Wayne to work with the collection.
 
As Hodges speaks to me, her enthusiasm for the Genealogy Center is visible. 
 
“I’m originally from New Orleans, and I lived in New York for a couple of years,” she says. “Then I was offered this job here. I literally moved here to work here with this collection.”

A map of the Allen County Public Library's renowned Genealogy Center.
 
Hodges' philosophy about why someone should visit the Center is simple: “Do it because you like it. Do it because you want to learn about your family or somebody else’s family.”
 
She also believes you don’t have to have special training to do it. “You’re a genealogist if you do the research,” she says.
 
So what makes the ACPL Genealogy Center a Fort Wayne gem? Here’s a list for you to use the next time you want to impress a stranger or your family and friends.
 
Fun Facts about the Allen County Public Library Genealogy Center:
●  They have the largest public library collection of genealogy records in the country.
●  The collection comprises 1.2 million physical items, including books, periodicals, journals, magazines, microfilm, and microfiche.
●  There are about 6 million searchable records in the Center’s collection, things not available in other online databases (including PERSI).
●  They have more than 3 million subject entries in the Periodical Source Index (PERSI) – the largest periodical subject index in the world.
●  They host hundreds of online programs every year, many of which are recorded and available for anyone to view anytime on YouTube.
●  They do free 30-minute consultations, which can be online or in person.
●  They have subscriptions to 23 licensed databases (Ancestry, MyHeritage, Findmypast, Fold3, Newspapers.com, etc.) available to search for free at every Allen County Public Library branch.
●  They have knowledgeable staff members who can guide you in your family history search, including a team member who is a DNA expert and can help you decipher your DNA genealogy results.
 
Witcher sums it up by saying, “We have an immense physical collection, and we have a really strong unique online collection, but I think the glue that holds it together is a really engaged staff. We really want our patrons to have an enjoyable, successful time finding their stories…. In the 21st century, no one's going to walk half a block out of their way to have a miserable time.”

Genealogy Center Manager, Curt Witcher, left, works with patrons at the Genealogy Center.
 
As we enter the holiday season, and you are likely going to be spending time with family, think about capturing some of their stories. The Genealogy Center can help with this, too. They have a Life Stories Center with information on preparing and recording interviews and even a place where interviews can be conducted. While I was visiting the Genealogy Center, I picked up a set of cards with prompts to answer yourself or ask someone else, part of the #52Stories project from FamilySearch. 

A set of cards with prompts to answer yourself or ask someone else as part of the #52Stories project from FamilySearch.
 
The Genealogy Center—like the rest of the library—is free for everyone. Before the end of the year, I challenge you to use the Center’s services in some way. If you can, head down to the main branch of the ACPL, and experience it in person. Maybe take some family members with you.
 
And if you go, tell ‘em Jennie sent you!
 

Read more articles by Jennie Renner.

Jennie Renner is a Hoosier native who has lived in the Fort Wayne area for most of her life. She believes that art, in all its forms, makes everything better. Her work can be found in Glo Magazine and Input Fort Wayne and self-published on Medium.