Thursday, March 24, 2011

An Interview with Lisa Dougherty, Professional Family History Research

Lisa Dougherty, a volunteer at the National Archives in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, sat down for an interview just after her presentation on Finding a Place of Origin for Your Irish Ancestors given at the Troy Record Community Media Lab on March 14, 2011:

When Lisa was a work-at-home-mom, she was looking for a volunteer opportunity. She had focused on genealogy for over 13 years. She thought about the National Archives in Pittsfield because it had been such a great place for her to discover interesting information. The staff had been very professional and all were helpful people. She realized this was the kind of place in which she wanted to be involved. Plus, the pretty countryside on the drive over to Pittsfield from the Capital Region would be beautiful and a change of scenery to her.

Lisa received her training from Jean Nudd, who works at the National Archives. Jean had Lisa work on a set of questions each trainee must answer. One important limitation is that the trainee is only allowed to use microfilm to answer the questions, no computer was allowed. Lisa is known as a computer nut, so this was a bit of a challenge for her.

She suffered through numerous passenger lists, and military records (with which Lisa says she's not great). The answers are not cut and dry. More than being about passing or failing, it is more to exercise your mind, so you know where things are located and you learn the extent of the collection. Later if someone comes in looking for something, you will know if it's in the collection, where it is, and how to use the resource it's in. Federal records can be a real pain to have to use, if you are not used to their quirks.

Genealogy has changed a lot over the years of Lisa's involvement. Her family got its first computer in 1996. AOL was popular then and everyone would sit and watch the little thing spin on the screen. Everyone using AOL would have to decide if it was worth waiting for the answer to come up. Plus, the family paid by the hour then. When broad band came in, it changed everything. The availability of things online now is amazing. When Lisa started, she had to go to Ireland to look at certain items or mail inquiries to Ireland to get answers. Those methods are obsolete now. Everyone can do a great majority of research online. The options for information today can be more than they used to be, and can be confusing, but the ability to find things online is extraordinary.

Lisa recommends beginners at genealogy work with other more experienced people. Also, it is good to work at a facility like the National Archives because the staff and volunteers can help you. At the National Archives in Pittsfield, there is a large volunteer corps ready to provide help. Every staff person or volunteer has their specialty, so each one tends to know more about something in which they specialize. Still, each assistant has a basic knowledge of getting started. It's very important as a beginner to know the records which are available and to get a good base of knowledge about your family. When you first start out, you have some names and you don't know what basic information exists and where the basic records are located.

When Lisa does her presentation about finding your ancestors place of origin in Ireland, she plays mostly to the middle of the road between the beginners and those with experience. She doesn't want to alienate the beginner, but she doesn't want to bore the experienced researcher. For this reason, she asks participants to interrupt her with questions, so she can serve all listeners' needs.

Lisa's presentation came about when Jean Nudd and Tyrone Keels, another staff person at the Archives, noticed Lisa helping people and, also, Lisa's interest in Irish genealogy. Tyrone approached her about developing a workshop, because the National Archives staff are always trying to get people more involved using the resources by initiating more continuing education. Lisa wasn't sure how she felt about getting up in front of people. But in the end, she did it and has continued for approximately two years. The presentation has evolved a great deal. When she first started, it was a rougher presentation than it is now. She's given the presentation about three times per year at or near the National Archives in Pittsfield. The evening in Troy was the first time she's done the presentation outside of the National Archives area.

Last June, a genealogist came over from Ireland to an Irish family history day at the National Archives. Jean Nudd did her talk (also given in Troy on March 10, 2011), Lisa gave her talk, and Mary Flood, the professional genealogist from Kilkenny, Ireland, did two talks. Both Lisa and Mary offered one on one consultations that day. Lisa is hoping to get Mary back this year.

Lisa has planned appearances at the National Archives in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, at the Guilderland Library at the end of May, and at “For Heritage Hunters” in Saratoga County in June.

Lisa grew up in Glens Falls, New York. Her great great grandparents left Troy in the 1890s and moved to Greenwich, New York for reasons of her great great grandfather's health. He passed away in 1897, at which time her great great grandmother moved to Glens Falls, apparently to be with her eldest child. Her great great grandmother moved back to Troy in the 1920s to live with one of her daughters and later her great great grandmother passed away. But by then, the bulk of the family lived in Glens Falls. For instance, Lisa's grandfather and father both lived in Glens Falls.

Lisa's father was the one who started to determine the genealogy of her family in the 1970s. He would go through periodic obsessions, which usually lasted a year. He went down to Troy. He went to the cemetery and found a gravestone of an ancestor. In those days, he could write letters or if he could get to a library, those facilities would have knowledge of local history, but his options were limited. He placed an ad in one of the Irish newspapers in the Midlands area, looking for information about the Walshes, and happened to mention James Walsh had married a woman named Ann Mortimer. He received three or four letters from people named Mortimer over in Ireland in the 70s. The family kept her father's file after her father passed away in 1990. Lisa found the file and, later on when she went to Ireland, she met some of the people he had formerly connected with by letter.

This one woman who wrote to him, has since passed away, and she haunts Lisa to this day. Relatives of the woman will email Lisa, saying things like, “Hi, I'm Cathrine Foy's granddaughter.” People keep turning up, so there must be something to that.

In the 1990s, Lisa researched her Irish ancestors. She still has one great great grandfather for whom she needs to determine where he lived. She is waiting for the Rutland Herald to be digitized because she is convinced something will be in that publication. She has evidence he was there for quite a while. There's a concentration of people with his same last name near Rutland. She believes he was one of a set of brothers there. She just can't prove it. This great great grandfather died in the 1890s in Glens Falls. In the 1920s an alleged sister in law of his died in Rutland. In the list of attendees at her funeral, several of his children are mentioned. That makes it very likely the deceased was their aunt.

Lisa has two relatives who came from Ireland. James Walsh and Patrick Penders came to the United States about the same time – her two great great grandfathers. One is from Laois and the other is allegedly from Clare.

Lisa recommends beginners stay flexible about name spellings when researching. The last name can be spelled different ways. The more difficult the name, the more varied the spellings might be.

The recommendation is made to never discount anything learned in research. However, the recommendation is also made to never assume all information is correct only one way. I asked Lisa to resolve these seemingly conflicting recommendations and she said take the records that you find, see if the time line works, and always go back to the most solid information. She said she usually returns to census records because they are black and white, and you can make a reasonable guess as to whether a record concerns a person for which you are looking. The earlier census records can be more difficult, but usually you can still make a reasonable guess. Frequently enough family relationships exist to make good connections. If you keep going back to those basic records, that grounds you and gives you a place from which to work.

When asking the National Archives for military records, you will sometimes hear reference to the fire in St. Louis which burned certain records. Lisa thinks you are better off talking with someone at the National Archives who knows what records exist and don't exist, so you are sure your research isn't being sidestepped.

Another piece of advice from Lisa is to put your genealogy research away for awhile. When you look at it a couple of months later, you might see something that you didn't see. If you look at it constantly, you are bogged down and too familiar with the information to see some of the things the information is telling you.

Hopefully, you will see value in these lessons from Lisa and get the bug to find out about your ancestors, Irish or otherwise!
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To read about or see Lisa's presentation: Finding a Place of Origin for Your Irish Ancestors

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