Gena talks about genealogy, family history, and ArchiveGrid

Gena Philibert-Ortega

To find archival materials, genealogy and history researcher and writer Gena Philibert-Ortega says she regularly uses ArchiveGrid and recommends genealogy and family history researchers do the same. “I try to talk about ArchiveGrid in almost every genealogy presentation I give,” Gena said.

At Food.Family.Ephemera, the California-based author documents her focused research of community cookbooks to learn about women’s lives. Gena’s current research project involves a the life of a 19th century British woman who left behind a commonplace book. “That research has led me to study topics such as mineralogy, fossils, scrapbooks, and ‘spinsters,’” Gena said.

Gena has promoted ArchiveGrid on Twitter (@genaortega) and in her writings as an important research tool. She was willing to answer questions by email about her work and how ArchiveGrid plays a role, in an effort to learn more about our users.

How did you end up in your line of work?

I’ve always been interested in history and love to research, so after many years in the non-profit field I decided to switch careers. In my graduate work I concentrated on women’s history so genealogy seemed like a natural fit. My current research focus is on documenting female ancestors, food history and social history. I’ve been working in genealogy for about twelve years.

How did you learn about ArchiveGrid? How do you use it, and what do you want others to know about it?

I’m not sure how I first learned about ArchiveGrid but I use it almost daily to search for unique collections that family historians could use to tell the story of their ancestor’s lives. I use it to find collections documenting organizations and groups a particular ancestor may have been involved in. I also use it to see what is available for a particular geographic area. ArchiveGrid is a hidden treasure for many who are not in the academic world but still conduct research.

What impact has ArchiveGrid had on your work? Can you point to some specific collections in ArchiveGrid you have used, or found interesting?

I think the one impact ArchiveGrid has had for me is just the ability to uncover these collections and see what vast archival materials exist about individuals, groups and communities. ArchiveGrid makes searching and discovering materials easy. Some of my favorite collections have to do with women’s organizations like the Dorcas Society or the U.S. Sanitary Commission.

How do you think genealogists/family historians research, and what would improve research for them?

Typically genealogists are taught to search by an ancestor’s name which is effective when using genealogy websites. In the case of archival collections, it is better to search on a keyword or keyword phrase. Unless an ancestor is the author of a collection, searching by their name won’t yield results but it would be a mistake to think there is nothing that might be of use. I think examples of keywords and keyword phrases, outside of just searching on a place name, would be helpful. I also think guides of how to conduct searches would be of some benefit so that researchers know how to craft the best possible search.

Gena also blogs for genealogy and family history researchers at Gena’s Genealogy and her latest book is From the Family Kitchen: Discover Your Food Heritage and Preserve Favorite Recipes. In addition to hundreds of articles, her bylines can also be found on the GenealogyBank blog and in the magazine Internet Genealogy.

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“The Monuments Men” frames an epic scene in cultural preservation history

As current events include news of libraries, museums, and archives suffering casualties caused by war and conflict, the recent film “The Monuments Men” is a decent attempt to ask: How do we preserve items of cultural heritage from destruction, and are such attempts worth the human lives lost in the process?

The real-life Monuments Men were a collection of art historians and museum personnel under the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives (MFAA) program, dispatched by the American military in the waning months of World War II. Its mission was to thwart plans by Adolph Hitler to destroy thousands of cultural icons the Nazi Army stole during its march through a devastated Europe.

After D-Day in 1944, Hitler left standing orders as the United States and its allies gained control of the war: If he couldn’t have the art for a giant “Fuhrer’s Museum” he planned in his Austrian hometown, nobody could. The Nazis intended to burn, break, or bury every piece on their retreat to Germany.

Other works about the Monuments Men include the 1964 film “The Train,” the 1966 film “Paris is Burning,” The Rape of Europa by Lynn H. Nicholas, and a documentary film by the same name.

“The Monuments Men” co-writer, co-producer, and director George Clooney tried to make this serious war story enjoyable by bringing aboard veteran comic actors like Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, and John Goodman to play a special unit tasked to find stolen art and return it to their rightful owners. Matt Damon and Cate Blanchett also star in the German-American film, which is based on the book Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History by Robert Edsel. One is his earlier works, Rescuing Da Vinci, is of a similar theme.

Michelangelo's Madonna and Child statue. Image source: Wikimedia Commons

This likeable team tries to intercept the art before it’s too late, including Michelangelo’s Madonna and Child statue and the Ghent altarpiece, and the one-liners fly fast and furious. The laughs work on some level as these intellectuals try to navigate the difficulties of basic training and the battlefield as soldiers. Given what the actual men had to work with, the facts of the successful missions of the platoon are remarkable in their breadth and scope.

A chronological plot stretching 118 minutes can drag and Clooney and and co-writer and co-producer Grant Heslov could have tightened up the story’s focus by re-arranging the structure some. More character dimension could have made the protagonists more convincing art and history experts. Otherwise the film does a lot well: Orchestral music by the well-known Hollywood composer Alexandre Desplat set against a lovely backdrop of war-time Europe make a nostalgic audio-visual package.

While the mixture of comedy and war picture miss the mark in revealing the true price the men paid for the lasting impact of their work (with the exception of when Bill Murray’s character stares down a leading antagonist into surrendering stolen art), the refreshing omission of graphic violence, profanity strings, and sexuality that can make movie-going awkward depending on who you’re with align with the PG-13 rating.

Clooney also proves that depiction of gruesome events in the style of “Schindler’s List” and “The Piano” do not necessarily a war movie make. Empty apartments, leveled towns, bloody military hospitals, displaced art and furniture, and discovered barrels full of gold teeth salvaged from concentration camps do enough to powerfully symbolize the horror of war and the Holocaust. However, in terms of violence toward culture, even Mel Gibson could not have taken the scene of enemies flame-torching heaps of unique paintings to a more gut-wrenching extreme.

When otherwise weak narrative wasn’t also trying to humor, simple elements hit the mark in expressing big ideas. Toward the end of the film, Clooney’s character proclaims to a captured Nazi official that news of his death sentencing for war crimes will run in the New York Times and a Jewish deli owner in New York City will read it, then not care, and use the newspaper to wrap fish. What precedes that line is perhaps the most chilling revelation of Nazi psychosis in movie history. Captured solder asks Clooney’s character:

“Are you Jewish?”


Then the solder says something along the lines of, “Then you will thank me.”

Overall, “The Monuments Men” is a convincing story about the power of art and its importance to the dignity of the human spirit. In the final scene, a senior version of Clooney’s character visits the Madonna and Child in the 1970s with his grandson. As crowds of young tourists wearing backpacks meander around the statue, he remembers his comrade’s death while trying to save the statue from Nazi theft was, in fact, worth it. It was a touching gesture to the momentous nature of the mission, and the continuing importance of preserving cultural heritage for future generations.

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Cupid strikes twice for U.S. statehood on Valentine’s Day

Nathanial Robbins (signature circled) was one of 60 delegates elected to the Oregon Constitutional Convention. Original image source: Oregon Blue Book

While Arizona’s nickname is the Grand Canyon state, it has also long been known as the Valentine State because President William Taft gave it statehood on Feb. 14, 1912, making it the 48th state.

But Valentine’s Day in Oregon also celebrates the anniversary of when President James Buchanan 155 years ago made what was the Oregon Territory the nation’s 33rd state.

Signatures of the 60 men (women were not yet allowed to participate in politics) elected to the Oregon Constitutional Convention and who had signed the document include my great-great-great grandfather’s. He was Nathanial Robbins, a pioneer from Indiana who settled in Clackamas County after traveling the Oregon Trail, farmed, and was a Democrat.

Oregon State Archives holds the original signed document and made a scanned version accessible online for Oregon’s 150th birthday celebration in 2009.

Meanwhile, there is a tiny unincorporated community in Arizona named Valentine and a photograph taken there of “Route 66″ shows up in ArchiveGrid with a description for a collection at Illinois State Library. Northern Arizona University too has historic photographs of a government hospital and Hualapai Indians in Valentine. They’re included in a collection about a nurse named Florence Barker who worked on Indian reservations during her career.

Whether there is a connection between Valentine, Ariz., and its nickname isn’t certain, but Valentine’s Day gives Oregon and Arizona an opportunity to explore what else they may have in common.

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Wooden horse of the Chinese New Year sets pace for 2014

In the Chinese zodiac calendar, the Year of the Horse has begun. More specifically, we’re in the year of the “wooden” horse because the 12-year animal cycle and the five-year cycle of elements – earth, water, fire, wood, and metal – aligned to make 2014 the first Year of the Wooden Horse since 1954. Occurring every 60 years, the one before that was 1894.

Image courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons.

Wooden horse years haven’t always been peaceful. According to a list of eight Year of the Horse facts, “Years of the wooden horse are associated with warfare. The battle of Dien Bien Phu, which ended with the defeat of France by the Vietnamese, happened in 1954 and 1894 saw the start of the first Sino-Japanese war.”

True to the concepts of yin and yang in Eastern philosophy, however, those tumultuous years also saw steps toward social progress.

Governing the Winter Olympics next month in Sochi is the International Olympic Committee, formed in 1894 with a mission to promote human rights and ethics through sports. Past Olympic Games and preparations for this year’s have been marked by violence and controversy, but intolerance for those things remains consistent in the Olympic charter and shared by participants and spectators.

Intolerance also for animal mistreatment took shape in 1954 when the present-day Humane Society of the United States formed. Supported by Nobel Peace Prize-winning activist Albert Schweitzer, the National Humane Society legislated humane slaughter practices, euthanasia reform, and regulation of experimentation on animals, and also opened shelters and exposed dog trading, leading to the Animal Welfare Act of 1966.

Find relevant primary sources about these events and more in ArchiveGrid.

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ArchiveGrid and NUCMC: What’s the relationship?

A scenario ArchiveGrid visitors have encountered before goes like this: An institution – in this example we’ll use Maine Historical Society – has records in ArchiveGrid describing their collections. This is a WorldCat MARC record view in ArchiveGrid for a collection at MHS of photographs taken more than 100 years ago:

Yet below the ArchiveGrid contributor location map on our homepage, MHS is not listed:


This is because MHS is represented in ArchiveGrid through the National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections (NUCMC), a 55-year-old cooperative cataloging program operated by the Library of Congress. According to a recent blog post on “Off the Record” by Society of American Archivists President Danna C. Bell about NUCMC and its advantaged for small repositories, “As of 2013, catalog records have been created describing approximately 130,000 collections in about 1,800 repositories.”

When Library of Congress catalogers create NUCMC in WorldCat for their members, we in turn bring them into ArchiveGrid about every four to six weeks when we update the index. Right now WorldCat has 74,976 records with the NUCMC holding symbol attached.

NUCMC data in ArchiveGrid currently accounts for more than 50,113 records, or about 2.5 percent of the index, associated with hundreds of institutions including MHS. They’re made freely available for users to search, learn about what an institution holds, and contact the repository for help accessing materials. When a NUCMC contributor in ArchiveGrid don’t have its own listing in our contributor database, they won’t appear on our homepage as part of our discovery system.

A project to identify all of our NUCMC institutions and make contributor records for each one is a worthwhile and feasible project, and like other organizations we work with, resources and time are the challenges. In the meantime, we will set up any NUCMC member who asks us to be listed individually on the homepage.

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Justice for big California crimes captured in courtroom sketches

Lasting California legal legacies stored in 27 boxes of courtroom drawings by sketch artist Rosalie Ritz live on in Berkeley in the University of California campus’s Bancroft Library. More than 1,800 of Ritz’s colorful works spanning the late 1960s to the early 1980s have also been digitized and made publicly visible in the Online Archive of California.

Image source: Wikimedia Commons

An artist living in the San Francisco area at the apex of Haight-Ashbury, Ritz sketched people and moments during some of the country’s most riveting trials, from Charles Manson to Patty Hearst to Sirhan Sirhan.

With courthouse cameras not yet ubiquitous, Ritz’s sketches stood as compelling images alongside coverage by renowned journalists.

Depicted in the full Ritz collection, researchers can find the details of these and many other big cases.

Some highlights:

1. Sirhan was tried in 1969 for the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy in a crowd at Los Angeles’ Ambassador Hotel.

2. Also in 1969, 27 prisoners at San Francisco’s Presidio received swift and severe punishment following separate courts martial at Fort Ord after they staged a protracted sit-down protest following the death of one of their own.

3. In the aftermath of the Civil Rights movement, many of the pioneering leaders of the Black Panthers, including Huey Newton and Eldridge Cleaver, faced justice for various ultra-radical actions. Cleaver finally faced a long period of self-expatriation and in 1976  pled guilty to assaulting a police officer. He received probation and later became involved with the Mormon Church and the Republican Party.

4. The 1970s also saw the introduction of a few new defense trial terms. In 1974, newspaper heiress Patty Hearst was kidnapped by an ultra-radical faction known as the Symbionese Liberation Army. Later, prosecutors said, she helped members of the SLA rob a bank. When she refused to testify against army members, her attorneys called it a classic example of “Stockholm Syndrome,” where a captive is brainwashed into becoming enamored of her captors.

5. And 1979 saw the introduction of the media term “twinkie defense,” in which San Francisco city employee Dan White claimed he suffered depression, and had changed his diet from healthy to sugary foods, before murdering city supervisor Harvey Milk and mayor George Moscone. Contrary to belief, White’s attorneys did not say eating sugary food caused his depression, but was symptomatic of his underlying condition. Nevertheless, the term became synonymous with any frivolous defense. White served time for voluntary manslaughter.

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New record types infuse ArchiveGrid in 2014

Vitamin K and potassium, symbolized by the chemical symbol K, improve the body’s nervous, circulatory, and muscular systems. So too, adding WorldCat MARC records coded with a record type of “k” (indicating the materials they describe are two-dimensional graphics) to ArchiveGrid has improved our “system” of finding aids and collection descriptions. With this addition, nearly 600,000 rich new records have been added to our index.

How was this done? By telling our filter to find the Leader byte 6 (indicating type of record) in WorldCat MARC records, and “k” (materials indicated by this value include prints, photographs, posters, etc.). More about how we filter WorldCat records into ArchiveGrid can be read on our about page.

For ArchiveGrid users, this means more records will show images the contributor has digitized, such as this one from the Denver Public Library:

Girl with cat two boys with dog woman watching them. Image courtesy of Denver Public Library Digital Collections.

It also means using descriptive keywords in a search, such as “photographs,” will retrieve more precise listings. Browsing can also be fun because of the unique types of materials described. Take, for example, design blueprints of Abraham Lincoln’s tomb. Or watercolors of Russian Orthodox churches in Alaska. Or rubbings from Buddhist cave temples.

This index update also includes finding aids from three new contributors: Wildlife Conservation Society in New York, Akron-Summit County Public Library in Ohio, and Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology in Rhode Island.

A happy new year from the ArchiveGrid team to our contributors and users!

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Born 85 years ago, Martin Luther King Jr. fueled change

Martin Luther King Jr.'s boyhood home. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

In the winter of 1929, Martin Luther King Jr. was born on Auburn Avenue across the street from shotgun homes in the Sweet Auburn neighborhood outside of downtown Atlanta, Ga. He grew up a block from Ebenezer Baptist Church where he was ordained a minister as a teenager. Over a decade later, he returned to co-pastor the church, becoming his family’s third generation of pastors there and leading the African American Civil Rights movement.

Rapid accomplishments filled his short life. By his mid-20s, he had enrolled in Boston College University as a doctoral fellow, married Coretta Scott, became pastor of his own Baptist church in Montgomery, Ala., and started his public work toward racial equality after Rosa Parks defied segregation on public buses and protests followed.

He was 34 during the March on Washington when he gave his “I Have a Dream” speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial, 35 when he received the Nobel Peace Prize, and 39 when he was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn. Years prior when he recognized his work was putting his life at risk, he said: “Well, if physical death is the price that I must pay to free my white brothers and sisters from a permanent death of the spirit, then nothing can be more redemptive.”

Today, Doctor King would be celebrating his 85th birthday. Parts of Sweet Auburn are now protected as a national historic site in order to preserve King’s legacy there and the area’s heritage as a thriving African American neighborhood.

What exists that would reveal what growing up on Auburn Avenue was like for a young, formative King? Searching ArchiveGrid’s “collection” of collection descriptions for keywords “Sweet Auburn” and “Auburn Avenue” lead to oral history interviews with neighborhood residents and papers of well-known names in the area. A 1992 oral history interview at Georgia State University with the former head librarian of the Auburn Branch Library covers an array of topics and would be a great source to help answer that question because she talks about Martin Luther King Jr. and Maynard Jackson as youths at the library. It’s no surprise that one of the greatest leaders in American History grew up going to the library, where great minds are fueled.

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Physicist remembered for solid advancements in crystallography

Last month on Twitter, a tweet by the National Society of Black Physicists pointed to a record in ArchiveGrid for an oral history interview with Donald Anderson Edwards, who was born 109 years ago Jan. 5 and died in 1999. He was a child when scientists discovered how to study physical matter structures by the way their crystals and X-Rays interact, or crystallography – a career Edwards spent most of his life pursuing and received numerous awards for as a physicist. His most notable work was determining the complete crystal structure of potassium nitrate.

The two sound tapes totaling an 84-minute interview with Edwards are at the American Institute of Physics archives.

A crystallography learning exercise for children. Image courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons.

Because X-Ray crystallography breakthroughs occurred around 1914, the year German scientist Max von Laue won a Nobel Prize in Physics for his team’s study of X-Ray diffraction in crystals, UNESCO and the International Union of Crystallography declared 2014 the International Year of Crystallography. Through programs, the groups intend to promote the value of crystallography and research through five areas of future global impact: Food, water, energy, “green” industrial chemicals, and health.

Crystallography also allowed Edwards to break racial barriers for African Americans in the sciences. A researcher, teacher, and administrator, Dr. Edwards chaired a new physics department at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University in Greensboro until 1971.

In that position he inspired his students to build careers in science and physics. Some made history – Joseph McNeill was an engineering physics undergraduate when became part of the Greensboro Four who led the first sit-in at a Woolworth’s store. Dwight Davis went into medicine and was chief cardiologist of the Penn State Heart Transplant Team when it was one of the first to keep a patient alive with an artificial heart. And Ronald McNair became an astronaut and died in the Jan. 28, 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger explosion.

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2013: The ArchiveGrid Year in Review

Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Library and Archives

Starting 2013 with nearly 1.8 million descriptions in ArchiveGrid inspired us to declare that our first database update of the year “rocked,” a playful nod to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for being one of the new contributors included.

What the small but mighty ArchiveGrid ensemble would find out as the year progressed is that were going to get on a roll.

In February, Marc Bron – a scholar from the University of Amsterdam – joined OCLC Research’s San Mateo, Calif., office for a three month internship. Marc’s speciality is in information retrieval and visualization, and he led several interesting projects which headlined some of our year’s main events. Marc carried out a thorough analysis of tag usage in the approximately 130,000 EAD XML finding aids in ArchiveGrid. You can read some interesting findings from the perspective of “discovery,” published in the October Code4Lib Journal article by Marc and Merrilee.

Marc also did innovative work to try and train a program to examine EAD documents to detect the names of – and find relationships between – people, groups, places and events, and to then find connections between related documents and collections. Marc and others in OCLC Research tested various Named Entity Recognition processes, and the ArchiveGrid team and some brave volunteers tried methods to annotate sample document sets.


What followed was a crescendo to new and novel ways of thinking about archival collections, connections, collaboration and annotation.

During one of Marc’s first few weeks in our office, we ambled over to the Stanford University campus to see a presentation by Amy Jo Kim about collaborative games. Her presentation got us thinking about how we might employ similar techniques in ArchiveGrid, and engage with domain experts to help identify relationships between collections. We developed a game of our own to test this approach. Called “TopicWeb,” it used the ArchiveGrid index and a dash of gamification to help experts assemble and sort the relationships of collections for a topic. We were able to get some great real-time reactions from archivists at the Society of California Archivists conference in April, and also from a more formal focus group in June.

Marc Bron, Brian Tingle, and Bruce Washburn at SCA

In May, TopicWeb starred in a well-attended webinar we held to update the archival community on recent developments.

Staying tuned to organizing collection discovery around topics, we thought these connections might be staged in the ArchiveGrid user interface. Nine hand-crafted topic pages got their big break in July, when we implemented them on the ArchiveGrid homepage. And during the summer we also published the results of a survey we conducted in 2012, asking archive users about Social Media and Archives.

SAA ArchiveGrid booth

Our summer ArchiveGrid demonstration tour hit both ends of the Mississippi River: Merrilee in Minneapolis for the Rare Books and Manuscripts Section preconference in June, and Bruce, Merrilee, and Ellen in New Orleans for the SAA Annual meeting in August. We met a great many of our colleagues, some familiar and some new, at the ArchiveGrid exhibit booth, and took part in a range of meetings and panel discussions.

We wrapped up our summer by sharing a testbed of finding aids from ArchiveGrid with the Technical Subcommittee for Encoded Archival Description (the group reports to SAA’s Standards Committee) to help them test a program to automatically convert EAD 2002 format documents to the new EAD 3 format.

October brought the launch of the new ArchiveGrid user interface. Based on version 3 of the popular Bootstrap front-end framework, it’s a “Mobile First” redesign that aims to give us a strong foundation on which to extend ArchiveGrid’s features. We also tested some heatmaps to give us a better idea of what ArchiveGrid interface features are used the most, which helped us ascertain ways in which the update improved the user experience. Based on other analytics we’ve been tracking, the interface changes along with improved sitemaps for crawling by search engines have increased ArchiveGrid’s visibility and utility, with use continuing to track upwards since October.

ArchiveGrid visits through November 2013

And we ended the year with some promising work on “localizing” the view of ArchiveGrid, getting lots of good advice on that from colleagues at a couple of ArchiveGrid contributing institutions. It’s still an experiment and a work in progress, but we may have more to say about it soon.

But until then, there’s shopping to do for the holidays. Not ending the year without an encore, the team put out the call to our archivists colleagues (who have been very good this year) for advice on gift ideas, and Ellen assembled a fun and practical guide on the ArchiveGrid blog (to date our most popular blog post, by a mile).

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