Libraries' genealogy group helps Huskers trace their roots

· 6 min read

Libraries’ genealogy group helps Huskers trace their roots

Joanie Barnes (left) and Tom McFarland stand in the stacks of Love Library.
Craig Chandler | University Communication and Marketing
Joanie Barnes (left) and Tom McFarland stand in the stacks of Love Library. The duo founded the Genealogy over Lunch group.

Tracking down ancestry is an endeavor most often taken on individually, but the University of Nebraska–Lincoln’s Genealogy over Lunch group makes it a team effort.

The group, founded by University Libraries’ Tom McFarland, now retired, and Joanie Barnes, meets the third Thursday of each month during the fall and spring semesters. The group of more than two dozen faculty, staff, emeriti and retirees dive into a topic with a presenter and then discuss their latest roadblocks, successes and tips for searching.

About 10 years ago, Barnes and McFarland, both on the hunt to fill in their own family trees, realized the University Libraries offered access to many resources and databases that could be useful for tracking down family records and finding out historical information for when and where families settled.

“The goal for starting the group was to encourage use of our materials in the libraries, and the goal has grown to also giving people tools and information,” Barnes, communications librarian and associate professor of practice, said. “For me, personally, my family was part of the fur trade, and I’ve used research databases we have on campus to find out that information. You’re not necessarily going to zero in on a family member, but sometimes, depending on their life, you find something. In the last 20 years I’ve been in Nebraska, I’ve been able to do a lot on my ancestry that came from here.”

University Libraries offers access to many databases that can aid family searches. Barnes noted that Nebraska Homestead Records, MyHeritage and Nebraska Newspapers are offered at Nebraska, along with many other historical databases that can shed light on the lives of ancestors. Barnes also regularly updates an online library guide, “Family History and Genealogy,” which lists resources, including those available at History Nebraska, located a block down the street.

The Genealogy over Lunch group started as an in-person offering, with a dozen or so meeting in a conference room. When the COVID-19 pandemic pushed most meetings and learning online, the group decided to continue in that format, as well, and found some could join more easily in the virtual format.

“We’ve stayed meeting online because we ended up having many more people who were able to join, from East Campus or even our extension centers,” Barnes said.

Past presentations have covered a plethora of topics — the basics of how to use certain databases, DNA testing, thinking about variant spellings, hiring a professional genealogist and tracing internationally.

“The meetings have been tremendously useful to me,” Don Weeks, professor emeritus of biochemistry, said. “First of all, there’s much discussion about the resources that are available and how best to use them. There are also insights into how to make new discoveries and a lot of exchange of ideas. We’ve had critical discussions about the quality of various resources.”

Weeks has been following his family tree for 40 years. He marvels at how easy it is now, compared to the past, and the group highlights new advancements all the time.

Barnes agreed. She began tracing her ancestry in 1989. When she began the project, she traveled some to gather resources, but now, much is available online, which can make it easier to get started and continue.

“The digitized material online, and DNA, have been huge advancements,” Barnes said. “I’m excited as more and more is digitized.”

Eva Bachman, director of graduate student support and associate registrar in the Office of Graduate Studies, has been a member of the group since its founding. She began tracing her genealogy after hearing family stories during her childhood.

“One of the things I love about the library hosting these sessions is that we not only talk about genealogy and the different things we can do, but they have resources they bring into the conversations,” Bachman said. “They’ll mention a database, or a set of books, and most people might think our libraries are purely academic and overlook those resources. But they got me involved with the Library of Congress, newspaper archives and interlibrary loans.”

The presentations in each session are very helpful, Bachman said, but the discussions among the group also proved fruitful.

“One of the biggest thrusts that’s happened across the world is DNA, and I was a little reticent to do that. What was it going to tell me?” Bachman said. “I tried it because of Tom (McFarland). His explanations and his willingness to share his knowledge prompted me to do a couple of them. And it lit a fire, because I had brick walls in a certain area, but it showed I’m also connected to this other area, so let’s peruse this.

“Even though I’ve been doing this for 43 years, every session, you’re reminded that OK, I shouldn’t be doing this, or I should try this, or analyze this data.”

Bachman has turned some of her research into historical stories she’s shared with her family. She discovered she had a relative, a young woman, who was widowed during the Civil War. Her husband died at Andersonville Prison. She eventually remarried, which ruined her financially when her second husband abandoned her. She was eventually able to prove her second husband had died and was able to resume receiving her first husband’s military benefits. Bachman discovered all of this through her search.

“So, her life honored her first husband who died,” Bachman said. “I’m writing her story down because I want to bring these ancestors who are more than names and places and dates to life. You don’t know exactly what they were thinking, but I have enough information to put them into historical context and create a story.”

Both Bachman and Weeks have attended nearly every session since the group began meeting. With each discovery, they’re driven to keep finding out more and fill in the past. Weeks calls them “eureka” moments, and he said they bring him great satisfaction.

“Curiosity drives me,” Weeks said. “I think we’re all a little curious about our ancestors — most of us, anyway. And I’ve found it’s a wonderful way to learn history, because you begin to delve into the communities and societies these people lived in. Through reading, I’ve learned a lot about different cultures, religions, social interactions and history of particular areas. I find the history fascinating, but it also gives me perspectives on today, and maybe better understand how people behave, or misbehave.”

The next Genealogy over Lunch meeting will be at 11:30 a.m. March 16. Register for the Zoom link.

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