Biographical sketches and the WeRelate genealogy wiki

First, a little background info:

An archival manuscript finding aid is a document written by archivists to help users (including the archivists themselves!) understand the contents and significance of a manuscript collection, as well as to identify the locations (box, folder, etc.) of the collection’s contents.

A well-done finding aid should generally have four main parts: Introduction (general info), Biographical/Historical Sketch (history of the person/people/organization that created the records), Scope and Content (slightly more specific general info), and Container Listing (the locations). (Here’s an example of one of my finding aids: for the Lowe Collection.)

In writing the Biographical Sketch part of the finding aid for a personal/family collection, I have found that it is very helpful to gather history and genealogy on the family before I do much work with the records. It’s a give-and-take. You have to look at the records enough in the first place to have some idea of which part of the family you need to research. Then, you research them (yay genealogy! no seriously.), so that you have a better idea of what you’re looking at when you dive further into the collection. And then you inevitably find stuff about more family members you didn’t know existed (e.g, Wait, who’s ‘Aunt Phebe’?) and move back over to the genealogy again.

Kathleen Roe explains a little more eloquently in Arranging & Describing Archives & Manuscripts (Chicago: SAA, 2005):

Gathering information about the person, organization, or group that created, accumulated, assembled, or used a group of records is essential to establishing context. … The archivist needs to have a sense of this before arranging and describing records, or may entirely misinterpret or misrepresent both the records themselves and the information in them. (p. 57)

To keep track of the research I have done for the Biographical Sketch, I have usually managed to make due simply with a big stack of photocopies from county histories, printouts from Ancestry (which you can use free at the library!) and other sites, and a few paper family group sheets.

But that was before the Forrer-Peirce-Wood Collection. (Didn’t I warn you that by the time I finish processing it, even you, dear readers, will be sick of hearing about it?)

Oh, FPW Collection! How you overwhelm me so…with your 34 boxes and your 5+ generations worth of family papers. And let’s not forget your incredibly frustrating habit of naming people after other people, so that there are two Mary Forrer Peirce’s and three Elizabeth Forrer Peirce’s (and one Elizabeth Forrer Parrott – which adds to the confusion when they are signing with things like Bess, Bessie, and Beth; or simply “EFP”).

The collection contains the papers and letters of so many different family members that I literally have a stack of family group sheets about 1/2″ tall and it was becoming quite cumbersome flipping through them all to find the information I was looking for, to figure out “who’s who” in the collection.

I have some genealogy software on my personal computer that I like really well — RootsMagic — and it has a free version that you can download (with a few less options). However, since it requires Admin privileges to install even the free trial version, I was not able to install it at work. (Fair play to you, IT Department.) I suppose it’s just as well, because there are three different computers that I use fairly regularly, so I would need to install it on all of them, and I decided it just wasn’t really worth the hassle to ask IT to let me do it.

So fast-forward to a few days ago. (Yes, all of the previous was still just “background info”.)  I was discussing this problem with a co-worker who happens to be the Genealogy Librarian. I said I wished I had a solution for coherently keeping track of all this genealogy info when I’m researching, arranging, and describing a collection: something on the computer that I could search and get to from anywhere.

She suggested the WeRelate.org genealogy wiki. She recommended it over some of the other sites, because WeRelate does not take your information and then try to sell it to other people. It is a free site maintained by the Allen County Public Library (well-known for it’s huge family history center at Fort Wayne, Indiana). And since it’s a wiki, it is collaborative — which can be good and bad; it means that you can possibly incorporate and edit other people’s “people” into your tree but on the flip side, other users can edit your stuff also.

I decided to give it a try. I figured, it’s free, what’s the worst that could happen? And as it turns out, it’s kind of awesome.

A few notes:

  • You can add information directly to the site or upload a gedcom. I started adding info directly to the site, so the method for that took a little getting used to. They have some good tutorials though, if you need them.
  • Since I’m adding directly to the site, I wondered if I’d be able to download a gedcom file later, to save elsewhere. You can! Huzzah!
  • It makes you check before you add a new person, to make sure that person isn’t already on the wiki somewhere. Most of my people were new, but I did find a few people already in the wiki so I linked them up!
  • At one point, I actually had the experience of somebody working on a page at the same time as me. I clicked off it for a few minutes, and then when I came back, I saw some new info. It threw me off for a minute — Did I do that? — and then I realized what was going on. I was still surprised, though, since so many of the people I was adding weren’t even in the wiki, and then all the sudden not only do I have the same person that someone else is interested in, but they are actually work on that same person at the same time as me. Kind of cool. It was like two people grabbing for the same book at the library – you realize you are interested in the same thing.
  • I really like the source citations function. Most of the general sources I was using (e.g. county histories, common Ancestry databases) had already been added, so I just linked to them. But I added some sources myself, too.
  • They don’t want you to add information for any living people, and if you try to enter someone with a birthday less than 110 years ago, the site will not let you save it. Fair enough, I can understand the reasoning for that, privacy issues and probably not wanting to deal with irate individuals demanding their information be removed. Lucky for me, most of the collections I will be working with belonged to long-dead individuals, so I shouldn’t have any trouble using this site to keep track of info for my archival finding aids.
  • You can divide your stuff up into different “trees” but really it’s all just one big tree, because you can link to people who are in other trees. I think the “trees” really probably function more like “tags” or categories, because people can be included in multiple trees (just like this blog post can have multiple tags).

All in all, a pretty neat site. If you want to see what I’ve been doing with it, feel free to check out my WeRelate user page (user name BellaNox). It lists the different trees I’m working on, which — surprise, surprise — correspond to the different archival collections I’ve arranged and described (and therefore researched the families).

The Forrer-Peirce-Wood Collection is MS-018 at the Dayton Metro Library. Contact the library or this blog owner for more information.

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3 responses to “Biographical sketches and the WeRelate genealogy wiki

  1. This is a very interesting post — esp for a librarian/archivist/genealogist like me. (I spent 30+ years at the Dallas Public Library, the last half of that as the local history specialist and the last few years as the head archivist; I’m now retired.) But I’ve been a semi-pro genealogist since the 1960s and, as it happens, I’m one of the admins at WeRelate. I realize you have your own motives for making use of the site, but I hope you’ll consider making your own personal research available there, too. —Michael K. Smith

  2. Pingback: Genealogy and history crossovers | Glancing Backwards

  3. Pingback: Sure it’s genealogy; it’s just not mine! | Glancing Backwards

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