Registration opened this week for the New England Regional Genealogical Conference which will take place in Providence, Rhode Island, April 15-18, 2015. The conference is held in New England every two years and this time, the location will be at the Rhode Island Convention Center in Providence. I am really looking forward to it.
Enjoy the conference
The conference program is now available to download as a pdf. I am looking forward to keynote speakers Judy G. Russell and Lisa Louisa Cook, and I won’t miss an opportunity to hear Cherry Fletcher Bamberg speak about Rhode Island research. Personally, I am planning to add Barbara Mathews‘ Document Analysis special workshop to my registration. There are over a hundred other sessions to choose from, with excellent and knowledgeable presenters on a wide variety of topics. Choosing will probably be the hard part. There are also an Exhibit Hall, the popular 20-minute personal consultations at the Ancestors Road Show, Special Interest Group gatherings, Librarian and Teachers’ Day, and Tech Day. Even those not attending can submit a “Genealogical Query” for $5.00 which will be visible to conference attendees; the deadline for that is January 15 (see page 3 in the downloadable brochure).
This impressive conference is run by volunteers representing many local genealogical organizations. The conference only exists because people step forward to volunteer. If you attend, plan to spend a couple hours in a volunteer job. This will NOT lower your cost of registration (as I said, it’s ALL volunteer efforts) but will make you feel like a good citizen, and you’ll meet more people doing that. Last time, I helped out in the registration booth for a few hours, but there will be a wide variety of jobs to choose from, closer to the event. And if you are a local genealogist who doesn’t plan to register and attend, but you can still give a little volunteer time, they would also welcome your help.
Be a tourist
NERGC has some good tips for seeing the sites during your stay. I like their suggestion of the self-guided “telephone tour” of downtown which allows you to follow the “Independence Trail” and phone in when you reach each designated stopping point, to hear recorded guidance about each historical spot. It’s 2-1/2 miles of walking, but it’s free, and you could go at your own pace and stop along the way. There is also a guided local Explore Providence Tour that includes transportation and sounds wonderful (see page 3 of the program for cost and reservations). The Providence Warwick Convention and Visitors Bureau also has a thorough list of historical sites in the area.
Do some local genealogical research
Now we’re getting to the point of this post. If you have Rhode Island roots, you may want to try to fit in some research, and it would be best to start thinking about that early, and prepare for a few local visits at repositories. A great place to start would be the excellent guidance in Cherry Fletcher Bamberg’s newly revised Frequently Asked Questions About Rhode Island Genealogy on the Rhode Island Genealogical Society website.
While this list is by no means complete, these are some local repositories I’m familiar with:
WITHIN WALKING DISTANCE
- The Rhode Island State Archives. About a six block walk from the Convention Center. This is a government department which primarily records state government activity. It has a reading room with a wonderful index of R.I. vital records from about 1853 up to the legally allowed cutoffs – about 1915 or so (after using the index volumes, you can look at the state-compiled entries on microfilm), a fair collection of books and guides, a Revolutionary War index card file and other military resources, an index to Rhode Island General Assembly actions (most frequent appearance for my ancestors? “An Act for the Relief of Insolvent Debtors … “ ), the 1865 and 1875 Rhode Island state census records, and MANY special little index guides to state government activities. There is also microfilm of most pre-1851 town vital record books. See my posts here and here.
- Providence City Archives. About three blocks from the Convention Center, and next to the Biltmore Hotel. If your ancestors lived in Providence at any time since 1636, you may want to do some research at the Providence City Archives up top of the picturesque 1878 Providence City Hall. On the fifth floor, the space is cramped and tiny, and the collection is not browsable, so it’s not a great place to just stroll around, but it is a valuable resource if you have real requests to make. I mostly go to request Providence vital records and to view probate records (remember “probate” sometimes includes guardianships or adoptions). See my post here.
- The Providence Public Library. About a five block walk from the door of the Convention Center, the library has some useful features. I have never been in the special collections, and I’m not very familiar with them. I mostly appreciate the extensive collection of Providence newspapers that they carry on microfilm, particularly since most of these are not online anywhere. You can view microfilm and print, for a price per page. They also have a large card index of Rhode Island events, well-known citizens, and news. See my blog post here.
NEARBY BUT NOT WITHIN WALKING DISTANCE
- The Library of the Rhode Island Historical Society. Perhaps some may argue this is walkable from the Convention Center. If you have good health, good shoes, good weather, an intrepid companion, and a little time, you might look into it. On the map, it won’t appear THAT far away – maybe about a mile. What the coy map won’t reveal to you is that it’s UP HILL. And I mean UP. HILL. You would be going through some lovely and historic parts of Providence, so you would, for sure, enjoy the scenery if, well, you could breathe and everything. No matter how you get there, this is probably Rhode Island’s premier research destination. Non-members pay a small fee and fill out paperwork for a day pass, and will not be allowed to photograph anything at all. There are some local records from various towns available on microfilm as well as the state’s most thorough collection of old newspapers on microfilm – very few are online anywhere (however, there is very little in the way of indexing available). There is a large collection of genealogy books and journals as well as local books. There are manuscripts which may be requested. They have valuable collections and the structure, rules and process of visiting there is fairly severe. Bring a smile and some well thought out questions. Explore their holdings thoroughly beforehand here.
- The Rhode Island Judicial Archives is in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, maybe 5 miles away. I would encourage anyone interested in the archival record of any particular case to contact the archives in advance to see if the case is on file there. Nothing is browsable or searchable in person, indeed, you will be lining up with the criminals and lawyers to request your case records. Ask for the historical records, and that clerk will be summoned. Older divorce cases from Rhode Island will be on file here, as well as many other types of court cases. You would need to know some details of the case (a name and rough date, to start with) in order for the clerk to try to find it. Documents can be read and photographed there. See my post here.
Cemeteries. The tradition in Rhode Island was to bury family right on the family farm, because early Rhode Islanders were very firmly against any centralized powers belonging to the churches. In a growing city like Providence, many of these early plots were eventually relocated to the North Burial Ground, or they just disappeared. In most other areas, tiny historical cemeteries remain in place. You can research recorded graves at the Rhode Island Historic Cemetery Commission website.
The city and town halls of Rhode Island are the place for vital records, deeds, probate, town council, and a random variety of other early records. In Rhode Island, you won’t find materials at the county level except for some court records.
Keep in mind that town boundaries shifted over the years, meaning the records you seek may be in a different town than the one you associate your ancestors with (see this summary from the R.I. Genealogical Society to see if you need to explore this question). Some of the local town libraries have local history rooms or special collections which can he useful. My recommendation would be that if you are going to the town your ancestors lived in, go to the (correct) town hall but make sure you at least check out, from home, what the local library is offering as well. Less often, there is also a local historical society or historic building – those can have extremely limited hours.
Rhode Island has 39 cities and towns and each town hall has a completely different arrangement for access to records, seating areas, photocopying, picture-taking (usually allowed), access to books, ability to answer questions, and record sets available. Going to each one is like arriving in a brand new country.
My suggestions for town/city halls would be:
- Never go into your genealogy story. Dress neatly, be polite, ask about the materials you need and possibly give the impression you are a historical researcher or lawyer.
- If there is any archival staff, yay, talk to them, but if you are dealing with the normal town clerk staff, they really have other jobs to do and can’t spend much time on non-town business; they don’t always know much about the “old stuff.” At best, they expect to lead you to an area of old volumes and leave you there, at worst, they expect you to request one item at a time which they will reluctantly attempt to find for you.
- There are usually (but NOT ALWAYS) tables and chairs, but if there are other researchers, don’t count on a lot of room. A laptop may be too complicated for these settings. I would suggest a camera and a paper notebook. I sometimes bring a tablet or just rely on my cell phone if I need to look something up. I suspect there would be a LOT of problems using photocopiers in town halls; a camera is better.
- Sometimes there is an official room where researchers go (particularly people doing title searches) but there may ALSO be an old archives collection hidden away in a basement or something. Try to be sure you are seeing all that’s available.
- If staff say you should have called, reserved, warned them, written them a letter, etc, agree with that, keep smiling, keep them talking, and usually when they see you haven’t left yet, they tend to help you anyway.
- Genealogists are nice people. But town staff have to deal with some real, real cranks and crazy people (as I have witnessed in sitting around those offices over the years), so give them a few minutes to realize you’re not one of those.
- Follow ALL usual archival rules, whether stated or not – no pens, no food or drink, no talking on the phone, be extremely careful of the books, try to remove and use only one at a time, always replace them in the exact spot, lay them flat on the table.
- The index volumes may be in a completely different area of the room from the record volumes. Give a good look around.
- The only true problem you are likely to encounter is a flat denial of access to vital records because “it’s the law”, “because of privacy” or “the record is not about you” (like I’d be asking for my own death record). If you need post-1916 records you may not be able to solve this one. If you are asking for pre-1916 records, stand your ground and politely say that under Rhode Island law those records are public records and you have a right to see them, if they exist. Keep smiling, and say that you’re probably going to need to talk to the Town Clerk or, ask if they can just show you the one record. The Rhode Island law changed recently to include some new restrictions but none of that applies to pre-1916 records.
My suggestions for local libraries or historical societies:
- Definitely mention genealogy, this sometimes gets you ushered right away into the special “Genealogy Room”.
- If possible, write a week or two in advance. Sometimes the best person to help you is only available at certain times.
- Make sure you are seeing an index or catalog to the special collections or manuscripts. Sometimes old materials are cataloged separately.
- Look for unique manuscript items like indices to local newspapers, obituary collections, index lists to local town records, inventories of historic houses, local newspapers, genealogy card files, local pictures, and manuscript genealogies. These may not be available anywhere else.
- If you gain admittance into any local historical society or small museum, either pay admission or buy something. They need the money, and it will help them to see that you appreciate their work.
For a more detailed review of repositories, check out Michael Leclerc’s Genealogist’s Handbook for New England Research, 5th edition, (Boston, NEHGS, 2012) and Diane Rapaport’s New England Court Records (Burlington, Mass., Quill Pen Press, 2006), as well as the previously mentioned Cherry Fletcher Bamberg’s Frequently Asked Questions About Rhode Island Genealogy on the Rhode Island Genealogical Society website.
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