Saturday, March 12, 2011

Meldon J. Wolfgang, III and the New England Regional Genealogical Conference, April 6 – 10, 2011

Mel Wolfgang is an author and the founder of Jonathan Sheppard Books, publishers of historic map reprints and antiquarian bookseller. A native of Albany, New York, he has been a genealogist and family historian for nearly fifty years. He has been the genealogy columnist since 2005 for the New York State Archives’ quarterly “Archives”. Mel is a former local government administrator, a public library trustee for two decades, board president of a local library system, and trustee advisor for one of the country’s first intergovernmental archives. He speaks regularly at local, regional and national conferences on genealogy and cartography.

Mel is lecturing at NERGC 2011 twice, for F231 “Sixty Hours a Week, Ten Cents an Hour: Records of New England’s Industrial Heritage” and S304 “When the Trail Leads to the Almshouse and Cold Charity”. He agreed to electronically answer my interview questions during a 5 hour train ride to New York City. I’m glad the long ride gave him the time for these thoughtful responses!

Questions for Mel:

1. Both of your lectures at NERGC 2011 are about labor and economics. Is this a topic most genealogists are not following up on in their research? “I think I should stress that the talks aren’t really about labor and economics in the traditional academic sense, so much as they are about the historical world of work and the historical world of poverty in New England (and the records that document those worlds).

Both talks deal in some way with money and work (or the lack of it.) A large part of my Friday afternoon talk will focus on New England’s industrial workers and the records that documented a huge part of their working lives. Many of these records can help researcher see their ancestors as real people, not just names on a chart. For example, it you see that your ancestor was a shoe cutter in 1850, do you know what that really means?

On Saturday, I’ll be talking about the records of poor relief – both public and private charity records – that can be found in New England, often hiding in plain sight. One of the things I’ll be pointing out is that these records can often contain information about people from all walks and stations in life, not just the poor. Think of it this way – when we talk about “health care” today, we don’t just mean sick people; we mean everybody involved in and maintaining the health care system, including doctors, nurses, drug executives, biomedical engineers, and so forth. It’s a pretty big field, with many players. Public and private charity is a lot like that, especially when it comes to the records.

And, yes, both topics are not often on the research radar for many genealogists because many of the records are not well known, easily located or thought of as “genealogical”. Nonetheless, both kinds of records may contain real clues that lead researchers to discover truly significant facts about their ancestors.”

2. In your opinion, how important are conferences to genealogists, both amateur and professional? “Conferences should be a key part of every genealogist’s research experience. For amateurs, it is a chance to learn from experienced researchers and from other experts, meet new friends and distant cousins and explore all the goodies in the exhibit area. It’s a great opportunity to ask questions and get answers from people who share your passion. Most importantly, it’s an opportunity to learn that there’s so much more to genealogy than simply looking stuff up on the internet. Data mining is not research, as every conference-goer quickly finds out.

For professionals, conferences provide great opportunities to learn topics that are outside their research comfort zone. By that, I mean topics that are outside their usual research interests and their usual expertise. For example, as a professional, you may specialize in 18th century Scots-Irish immigrants to New England or some other “traditionally Yankee” group. Conferences will provide you with the opportunity to learn something totally new, like what Quebecois “dit” names are all about or the reasons behind Armenian immigration in the early 20th century. Without a doubt, you’ll learn about new records and new repositories and you will also leave the conference with new ideas that you can probably apply to your own research.“

3. You’re in the book business. What is the most interesting genealogy book you have had in your inventory? “As Jonathan Sheppard Books, we’ve been booksellers specializing in local history and genealogy reference materials since 1977. While we have new books, our true focus tends toward mostly out-of-print items. With a constantly changing inventory of about 15,000 individual titles, you can imagine that we’ve handled some pretty interesting things over those 30-plus years. For example, we’ve owned (and sold) a truly unique copy of a classic late 19th century New England family history. What made it unique was that it was the author’s personal copy and was interleaved with hundreds of pieces of onionskin paper, with each sheet containing detailed text corrections and updates in the author’s own hand.

We’ve also had handsome limited editions and fine bindings, lots of early pamphlets relating to local history and some great caches of 18th and 19th century manuscript material, including original letters and deeds. All of it is fascinating in some way. One of my current favorites is a small, thick hand-written notebook kept by a funeral director in a small upstate NY community at the beginning of the 1900s. Each of his funeral “cases” is listed, with copious annotations.

Of course, any bookseller will probably agree that their “most interesting book” is the one that’s still out there on a shelf or in a box, still waiting to be discovered. Just like it often is with genealogists, the “thrill of the hunt” is an important part of being a bookseller. After all, lots of us feel that our most interesting ancestors are those still waiting to be discovered, researched and written about.”

4. If this were to be your last lecture at a genealogical conference, what would you say? What would you want to be remembered for? “While I probably wouldn’t deviate too much from whatever the prepared topic was for most of the lecture, I imagine that I’d be inclined to offer a few bits of advice gained from a half-century of research. One of those bits would be a reminder that genealogy is not about looking stuff up on the internet, then typing the information into some piece of software; it’s about analyzing and connecting small slivers of information and through those slivers, learning about your ancestors’ lives and times. I’d also be inclined to suggest that the solutions to many of those “brick wall problems” can often be found by standing a bit further back from that brick wall so that you can look at the bigger picture. History is a big place to explore and you should be learning something new every single day. And lastly, I’d encourage the audience to have great fun and bask in the joy of each new discovery.”

New England Regional Genealogical Conference

Mnemosyne’s Magic Mirror- Mel’s Genealogy Blog

Jonathan Sheppard Books

Copyright 2011, Heather Wilkinson Rojo

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