Last fall, Kenton County Public Library (KCPL) hosted two virtual presentations featuring Library of Congress staff. Kenton County Public Library is the Connecting Communities Digital Initiative (CCDI)’s inaugural Libraries, Archives, Museums grantee. Their project, “Crafting Stories, Making History: The African American Experience in Covington, KY,” aims to highlight and preserve the experiences of residents from the historically Black Eastside neighborhood.
While at CCDI’s in-person Summer Fuse event in 2022, Ann Schoenenberger and her team met with Library staff in the American Folklife Center and the Local History and Genealogy division to learn additional strategies for unearthing Kentucky history from the Library’s collections. The team found the experience incredibly valuable and invited Library staff to present virtually to KCPL’s patrons.
Dr. Todd Harvey, a reference archivist in the American Folklife Center (AFC), and Karen Walfall, a reference librarian in the Local History and Genealogy division, shared methodologies researchers can follow to learn more about their local and family histories.
Video recordings of both webinars are available online. In this post, we share some of the highlights.
“Searching the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress”
His presentation, “Searching the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress,” provided attendees with a sense of Library services available to patrons and methods for researching Kentucky-specific materials at the Library. Harvey discussed the history of AFC at length, noting that its roots go back to 1928 when the Archive of American Folk Song launched in the Library’s Music Division. He emphasized that the Center recognizes wisdom comes from the voices of ordinary people. Today, AFC has over 7 million original items about ordinary people talking about their lives through recipes, songs, and even animal husbandry!
Harvey said that “archival collections are messy,” but more in-depth tools like finding aids can help. Finding aids provide a detailed description of an archival collection, including the number of items, and other helpful information to help you navigate a collection.
Three tools and services essential to starting research at the Library were demonstrated: research appointments, Research and Reference Services, and Research Guides. For those interested in Kentucky’s history, an American Folklife Center research guide focuses on Kentucky folklife. A Kentucky State Resource Guide highlights books you might find at the Library, external resources, and digital collections, which users can access even if they’re not physically at the Library.
Harvey shared that the key to finding materials is to explore the catalog to find the right term and then “unlock” that term’s findings by exploring subject headings. The Library’s subject headings “allow you to look for other items in the Library’s catalog with the same title or find related terms.”
For example, searching the Library catalog for “African Americans in Kentucky” yields thousands of results.
By selecting an item of interest and scrolling down the page, you can find Library subject headings that help you find other relevant sources.
Selecting “African Americans–Kentucky–History” brings you to a list of more subject headings that can narrow down your search.
At the time of this writing, clicking “African American–Kentucky–Lexington–History” yielded two books that may be of interest to researchers:
Aside from general searching, it was mentioned that several Library divisions are often consulted when assisting patrons, including: Geography and Maps, Prints and Photographs, and Newspapers and Current Periodicals. Multiple resources from these divisions that might be of interest to Covington, Kentucky researchers were shared.
The Geography and Maps division holds Sanborn maps of Covington, Kentucky, ranging from 1886 to 1909. Sanborn maps can illustrate how a community and its buildings have changed over time. The group took a closer look at a 1909 map, which illustrated the Eastside community (sections 31, 32, 39, and 40). Ann highlighted “St. Joseph’s Boys’ School,” which is now Covington Catholic High School.
Searching for “Covington, Kenton County” photos within the Prints and Photographs Division yields several results.
Ann mentioned KCPL’s efforts to engage children and the public on collecting memories and histories now to preserve them for the future. She asked: “What’s your perspective for us as we think of being collectors for this moment?”
Todd replied, “People are the repository of knowledge and it’s incumbent upon us to reach those communities and inspire them to collect that knowledge themselves. It’s important for people in the community to tell what’s happening in their communities.”
“Discovering Your African American Family History at the Library of Congress”
Karen Walfall is a reference librarian within the Genealogy and Local History Division. Her presentation, “Discovering Your African American Family History at the Library of Congress,” focused on collections, services, and strategies that could assist patrons in their family history research.
Walfall said that one could “use every part of the Library to research and write your own family history.”
Getting Started Researching Family Histories
So how do you even get started?
First, you want to start with yourself and work backward, documenting any facts with vital records such as birth, death, marriage, and census records. You also will want to interview the oldest relatives in your family. And don’t forget to investigate any family heirlooms hiding in the attic, the basement, or trunks! You may stumble upon family bibles, obituaries, letters, photo albums, home movies, and more—all of which can contain crucial pieces of information for your research.
The Library contains a multitude of resources to help you not only find your ancestors, but also add context to their lives, or in the words of Karen Walfall and her Local History and Genealogy Division colleagues, “put meat on the bones.” She emphasized that one needs to learn about how their ancestors lived. This requires learning about the history of their communities and institutions and examining records that feature their neighbors, friends, and other acquaintances. This is where local records can be particularly useful.
Walfall indicated that family history researchers may find the following Library records to be most useful: city and telephone directories, U.S. local histories, written genealogies, family/regional newsletters, and vertical files for surnames and communities. She noted that the Library does not contain unpublished or primary sources created by county, state, or federal governments. The National Archives holds federal records such as the U.S. census records, pension files, military records, and more.
You can search for your ancestors’ names in the Library’s catalog. In other instances, you may need to search for topics rather than their names. She recommends starting with a subject search when using the Library’s catalog. For example, searching for “Subjects beginning with: “African Americans—Kentucky—Genealogy” resulted in a few resources that may be helpful for researchers interested in that region.
Photos can give you a sense of the culture and community that your ancestors lived in. If you want to find a photo of an ancestor, one should consider the activities that your ancestor may have participated in. Did someone work on a railroad? Did someone lead or participate in a strike? These details will help you narrow your search.
Walfall highlighted “The African-American Mosaic” and atlases as great resources for tracking African American migration patterns. Chronicling America’s newspaper directory, which ranges from 1690 to the present, can be used to figure out where newspapers are held. Newspapers can provide important information about your ancestors. Death notices in particular can offer addresses, relatives’ names, occupations, and more. When researching her own ancestors, Walfall found a newspaper clipping of her grandparents’ marriage announcement.
One patron asked, “If enslaved people’s names aren’t recorded, how can we identify ancestors? By age?” Walfall noted that you often cannot because enslaved persons were considered property and in many cases were not named. If you’re lucky, you might be able to use plantation records to learn more information. In most instances, individual enslaved people will be marked as “hashes.” Information such as “a boy, age 13” and/or a hash mark can be a promising clue when used in combination with other land or property records. This is also true of the 1850 and 1860 Slave Schedules. While the record will not provide a full name, it will give an “indication of an enslaved person’s existence.”
Additionally, research guides like “African American Family Histories and Genealogies” and “Using Local and Family History Photographs to Tell the Stories of Your Ancestors” can help researchers navigate the Library’s holdings. And when in doubt, researchers can use the Library’s “Ask a Librarian” service for additional assistance.
Kenton County Public Library is the inaugural Libraries, Archives, and Museums recipient for the Connecting Communities Digital Initiative. You can learn more about their project, “Crafting Stories, Making History: The African American Experience in Covington, KY,” on their website and on the Of the People website.