Saturday, July 11, 2015

No Brick Walls in Google's Library

I've been away from the blog and genealogy this past month while traveling in India for work. It was, in a word, incredible. It's a country of extremes: beauty, color, poverty, heat, generosity.

Taj Mahal (photo by author)
I'm now home in the U.S. and ready to tackle my family history research. Yesterday, I made up for lost time and very nearly pulled an all-nighter as I dived back in with a vengeance. Like India, my genealogy motto is one of extremes: research hard or don't!

Researching Offline
I spent the afternoon at the Daughters of the American Revolution library trawling through dusty old volumes detailing Licking County, Ohio marriages, tax lists, probates, and land records. I wanted to see if I could learn more about my Kirk ancestors. Surely one of the many bound volumes held the clue I desperately needed to advance my research. 

It occurred to me, as I quietly turned page after page in each hulking antique tome praying for the author to name drop my ancestor, that it would take me months of sitting quietly in the reading room to finish just one of the books. 

They're reference materials. They can't be checked out. You can't read them carefully in the comfort of your home. If the book doesn't include a name index (as many of these older volumes don't), you just have to sit and read (and pray you don't overlook the name you're after). What I wouldn't give for these books to be online and keyword searchable.

Library of Tomorrow is Today
Back at home, reflecting on my lack of success at DAR's library, it occurred to me that maybe some of these older volumes had been digitized and were keyword searchable. Could I pull up the book and search (CTRL + F) for my family's surname? I Google searched a volume title and was directed to Google's Book database. 

Now, I have to admit that I knew this database existed. I've sat in conference sessions where genealogy tech guru Lisa Louise Cooke touted the value of Google technology, including Google Books. Regrettably, I always assumed that my ancestors didn't have sufficient notoriety to merit publication in a book. I never searched. Huge mistake! 

I dropped in the county name and Google turned up some of the enormous Licking County histories I was paging through at DAR. In a matter of seconds I was able to word search the volume and confirm my surname was not mentioned. Boom! Done! On to the next volume. Genealogy is time intensive. We don't have time to waste on resources that don't advance our family trees. We need to take advantage of tools like Google Books that make our research more effective and efficient.

Google Books Offers a Rapunzel-esque Climb Over a Brick Wall
I excitedly began searching a handful of surnames. Followers of the blog know I've been trying to learn more about Burr Zelah Dornon and his family. A search of his surname turned up a tantalizing clue. 

My 4th great-grandparents were highlighted in what appeared to be a list of descendants. Before this list appeared on my screen, Sophronia (Rogers) Dornon was a brick wall. I had no idea who her parents were (although family lore said her mother's maiden name was Gould).

Unfortunately, I was only able to see this small snippet of text. The book, as is the case with some volumes, was not available to be read online in its entirety through Google Books.

Unwilling to slow for this roadblock, I plugged the publication's title into a standard Google search and found a link to FamilySearch's library. Of course, the Mecca of genealogy had a copy in their holdings.

In a sign that the stars truly were aligned last night, the volume was available to access and read in its entirety through FamilySearch. In the comfort of my own home!

The text did in fact provide Sophronia's purported parents' names: Francis and Abigail (Gould) Rogers. It even provided both of their parents' names. In one evening, thanks to Google Books, I uncovered possible new sets of 5th and 6th great-grandparents. You try and go to sleep after that kind of success!

To help corroborate the information, I turned to Ohio probate records on FamilySearch and found Francis Rogers' 1843 will in Hardin County. In it, he doles out his assets to his family, including daughter Sophronia.

Sophronia inherits $75 from her father in his September 1843 will

A search for Abigail revealed that she not only survived her husband by nearly four decades, but she also survived daughter Sophronia. Find A Grave has a burial for Abigail in Iowa where she evidently lived with one of her sons.

Collectively, there remains a lot of work to document and substantiate these new leads, but in one fell swoop Google Books gave me a leg up that enabled me to peak beyond the brick wall. Perhaps this one will come tumbling down.


  1. Excellent post Michael. I have found a lot of information via Google books.
    I too have Gould ancestry, as that is my maiden name. And, sadly, one of my biggest brick walls. Maybe we'll find a connection one day.

    1. A bit of family lore says that one, maybe two, of Sophronia's brothers (presumably Goulds) were beheaded during the Mexican-American War. I'm hoping new records digitized by FGS' latest initiative will yield more information to help confirm or refute this story.

      Thanks for checking out the blog and leaving a comment, Diane. I appreciate it!