Saturday, August 14, 2010

Internet Searches v. A Real Library

Now, I’ve read Martin Hollick’s reasons for his not liking Google Book Search at his blog Slovak Yankee. His examples are reasonable and I understand his frustrations, especially since I worked in a library for four years. However, sometimes, to me, there is nothing as valuable as Google Book Search, but with a caveat. For example, just a few days ago I was transcribing a letter from the Hawaii State Archives written by Henry Wilson to John Owen Dominis in Honolulu in 1848. I know a lot about John Dominis, but who is Henry Wilson? My only clues were that the letter was written aboard the ship “Preble” en route to Canton, China. Even the curator of Washington Place, the Dominis home in Honolulu, couldn’t tell me much about Henry Wilson.

I first Googled “Henry Wilson” and, of course, there were a zillion hits. So I entered “Henry Wilson” “Preble” “China” and relevant hits began to appear. When I changed from a Google Web search to a Google Book Search, Bingo! There were several books from the US Navy, the US Government, etc. all with information about Henry Wilson, the purser on board the USS Preble, as part of a Naval expedition to China and the Far East in 1848. I found depositions, crew lists, biographies, and other information about Henry Wilson in two minutes. If I had been at my local library, or even at the Library of Congress, I wouldn’t have known where to start looking. Now, armed with these clues from the internet, I can approach a traditional library or archive for more information. That is the caveat. Google Book Search got me started, now I can continue with some real research at a real repository.

Remember, there are lots of schmucks out there doing research at 10:30 at night in their PJs, who aren’t near any good libraries. That’s me. Right now. In my pink jammies, fuzzy slippers and glass of wine. 10:30 at night and I wanted to wrap up this letter transcription project before midnight. Now I have a USS Preble crew list and I can name that person whose name looked like McG---- in Wilson’s 1848 handwriting, or that port that looked like W--- Island because of two minutes time at Google Book Search.

On Wednesday I posted a story on how I used the internet to find out more about Peter Hoogerzeil, my 2x great grandfather   In this case, since Peter was an inventor, I used the internet to investigate his patents. The caveat is that not all the information was online, but it was a good place to start. Using the internet indexes was much simpler than using the book indexes at the Boston Public Library. However, in the end, I needed the Boston Public Library to actually look at many of his patent records. You would, too, for patents before 1976.

Without the internet, some of my biggest breakthroughs would never have happened. A series of stories I did in April on Romanus Emerson all came about because of a story I found in an internet newspaper database.   I never thought of looking for Romanus there because I thought he was just an average New England yeoman, with no life events worth looking for in the newspapers. After finding the initial clue on line, or course I hit the library and archives for more information. I’ve written about ten blog posts on Romanus Emerson, and I have enough other interesting information now to fill a book on just this one man.

Because of the internet, bulletin boards, Google Book Search and other online databases I’ve had contact with cousins and complete strangers. In the story Missionary to New Zealand, a complete stranger in Australia told me what happened to my 2x great grandfather’s brother during a gold rush (it wasn’t mission work!). In the story The Mystery of Jonathan Batchelder, a complete stranger read my bulletin board posting and mailed me an ancestors account book dated 1847, which gave me clues to his death in an insane asylum. Stranger yet, in my post another complete stranger mailed me the 1781 will of Jabez Treadwell. An original folded up into an manila envelope! There are a dozen more stories like this in my notes, and I’m working on putting them on my blog as fast as I can.

Regular readers of my blog will now that I have an ongoing research project on the connection between the Jones sisters of Boston and the Kingdom of Hawaii. In my very first blog post on 27 July 2009, “Hawaii- The Boston Connection to a Royal Lineage” I explain how for years I had been writing to the archives and curators in Honolulu for information on the Joneses. Finally a new curator at Washington Place saw my post on line and mailed me copies of several letters, and I broke through my brick wall. This has been an ongoing project that not only led to many blog posts and a research trip to Hawaii, but also to a collaboration with Leah Allen “The Internet Genealogist” and her connection with the Mott sisters who also boarded at Washington Place. You can check out those blog posts by hitting “Hawaii” or “Dominis” in the labels listed in the right hand column of my blog. There are too many to list here.

Of course, us regular schmucks sitting at home doing internet genealogy research in our PJs can’t be complacent. In every example I gave above, my clues from the internet were followed up with real old-fashioned research at libraries and archives. However, which library? Which archive? What federal, state or local agency? Those answers came from the internet.

Copyright 2010, Heather Wilkinson Rojo


  1. Internet ate my reply. Gosh, durn it, I love my computer.

    Anyway, great post, excellent examples.

    This has been a great discussion. Thanks

  2. As one who began research at a library, and who spent an entire day at NEHGS today, and who also spends huge amounts of time on the computer, I love both ways. But, not everybody can get to a genealogical library, so the internet and Google books are the next best thing.