52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks – Laura Fielding Nelson

At the Library

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Welcome to Tenacious Genealogy! This is another post for the 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks challenge that I’m participating in this year. It is a challenge hosted by Amy Johnson Crow every year and I figured I’d get in on the fun. This is the week 5 prompt (which you can already tell I’m lagging behind on) and it is: ‘At the Library’

In thinking about who to focus on this week, I realized that I could do a quick post on the one person I know who is often ‘at the library’ and who loves them dearly. Myself. So how does this connect to genealogy? Let me show you.


Years ago (2012), in a city far, far away (College Park, Maryland), I got my Masters’ in Library Science. Even before that, I had worked at all sorts of libraries and with all sorts of materials. My favorites to work with however, were anything archival or genealogical. In fact, when I was deep in the weeds of getting my Masters’, my emphasis was in archives and I took a plethora of classes relating to all things archival.

Fast forward to 2019 and I currently work at a library and specifically, I deal with metadata. For anyone who doesn’t know what metadata is, it is data about data. Which might seem boring at first (my cataloging class was probably my hardest class because of this), but as I have found out – it is super important to collections of all kinds and especially, genealogists. And there are many ways to organize that data, so that it is searchable later. For anyone curious, one prime example of metadata that people use on a daily basis is hashtags. #familyhistory #52ancestors #tenaciousgenealogy #themoreyouknow


So how does this connect to genealogy? Because a LOT of the rules that apply to metadata and being a librarian also apply to genealogy and being a genealogist.

One of the main goals with metadata is to figure out what something is and describe it, so it can be found later. Sound familiar? In genealogy, we often have names, dates, places, relationships, and documents that we need to figure out and describe, so that others can use our research down the line (and so we can prove that our research is valid).

Metadata (and cataloging especially) also has lots and lots of rules on how to note where something came from (provenance is a term librarians – and especially archivists – will use frequently to describe this) and these rules help others to find what they are searching for.

One example: Currently I’m working on a genealogical directory – a book of people descended from an ancestor of mine. In this directory, those people who have passed away are noted with their birth and death dates. All dates in the directory are organized by Year, Month, Day. There is a type of metadata organization called Dublin Core where dates are arranged in this fashion. It is incredibly handy to have dates arranged this way when searching for something or someone who was born or died in a certain year. Especially if you, as the researcher, may know the year, but not necessarily the month or day.


Another aspect of the library world that often overlaps with genealogical research is that of archives (studies, administration, preservation, etc). In fact, a LOT of the skills I learned working in archives, I use now when doing genealogical research. And many times, genealogical research involves visiting archives, whether online or in person. At the same time, archival skills, in general, are handy for the family historian. Whether it is organizing and preserving personal collections, or knowing how to deal with old and/or historical items (among other skills).

Lastly, archivists are sometimes referred to as the ‘Guardians of Culture”. Especially in regards to their position of deciding what documents and items are worth preserving and what memories are kept alive. (In this way, genealogists are archivists in their own right.) Whether you agree with the moniker (archivists will debate it at times), there is a kernel of truth to it when you think about it. Genealogists frequently become the guardians of our families’ cultures, so to speak. What we know about the past is often because someone, at some point, decided it was important to keep or remember. Whether that is on a grand scale with world history and museums or a more personal scale with family histories and physical records. And just as people in the past have tried to either exemplify or erase stories from history, so too have people done that with their own family histories.

Either way, being a librarian and being ‘in the library’ has certainly given me a more nuanced perspective on genealogy and research than I did before.

Questions? Comments?

Questions or comments about this post? Have any genealogy stories concerning libraries? Any librarians in the family? Curious about the 52 Ancestors in 52 weeks challenge? Let me know in the comments! And if you like what you’ve been seeing on Tenacious Genealogy – please subscribe to our email list. Not only will you stay up to date with the latest blog posts, but you’ll also get freebies such as ‘10 Tips For Starting your Genealogy’ and other fun ‘subscriber-only’ items.

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One thought on “52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks – Laura Fielding Nelson

  1. Very informative post! I enjoyed it. I’ve been researching my grandmother’s librarianship training in 1920. She was a librarian before she married. No other librarians in the family that I know of.

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