Genealogy, the study of one’s ancestors and family history, has become an all-consuming passion for many people, especially with the advent of online records and DNA tests.
In Johnson County, people have access to an incredible resource, thanks to a partnership between the Library system and the Johnson County Genealogical Society. Central Resource Library houses the materials and the Society provides knowledgeable volunteers, creating a tremendous information destination, free of charge. More information is on the Library's genealogy research page.
The partnership will be on full display when Central brings back Genealogy Day in person March 11, after a hiatus due to COVID-19. The event will be free and open to the public 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Genealogy Day attracted 300 people on March 7, 2020, just before the pandemic disrupted normal activities. The Genealogical Society, based at Central, went online for nearly two years. It resumed in-person services after Central underwent a major renovation and reopened in February 2022.
Genealogy Day is just one example of a relationship that has benefited the Library and the Society since 1973.
Marsha Bennett, Society vice president of education and outreach, describes Central’s Genealogy area as “like a library within a library.” The Society collection totals about 8,000 items, made available to the public through the Library, including books, newspapers on microfilm, maps, Native American records, obituaries, directories, yearbooks and other archival materials to help people research their past. Databases also connect patrons to military, Census and other vital records.
The Genealogical Society provides volunteers every day except Sundays to work one-on-one with patrons, often serving as detectives to help unlock family mysteries going back generations.
“Having the genealogy volunteers here is invaluable to the Library,” said Local History Librarian Amanda Wahlmeier. “We do not have the staff capacity to offer these services. They have the expertise that staff does not.”
Many people only know family trees to their grandparents, and have no idea how to start looking further back to learn their origin story. “It’s a matter of helping people find their ancestors,” said Darlene Jerome, the Society’s immediate past president. “I tend to think of it as finding their roots.”
Genealogy Day will include presentations about Ancestry.com, exhibits about DNA testing and activities for kids. It will also showcase new and exciting features, including the recently-released 1950 Census records and the Memory Lab.
Society members are particularly excited about new Memory Lab equipment, purchased with a JCL Foundation grant. Scanners and other devices will allow people to convert old photos, slides, 8MM movies and other documents to digital formats such as a flash drive. Beginning April 3, patrons can use the equipment for free, by appointment.
“You can take [that digital information] home,” Bennett explained. “You can put it on your computer. You can put it on your phone. The nice thing now is you can then share information easily with family members.”
This is the Society’s 50th anniversary project. Such cutting-edge technology is available in about 15 Library systems nationwide but is unique to this region.
“There’s nowhere in the whole Midwest that is doing this,” Bennett said. “No other libraries.”
The Genealogical Society receives queries from places like California and England and can now help people virtually over Zoom. More than 800 people attended the society’s monthly meetings in 2022 and interest is spreading among young people.
Jerome says the Library/Genealogical Society partnership has blossomed in the past five years, sparking questions from other Library systems.
“I’ve been contacted twice in the last six months from other societies that know of our relationship and want information,” she said. “They are envious.”
It can only grow and keep getting better, Bennett agreed. “It’s just a win-win for everybody.”