By Bridgett Hernandez
The growth of websites such as Ancestry.com has helped bring more people into the fold of genealogical research by making resources more accessible.
These online tools are helpful to those searching for family connections, but the avalanche of possible matches can be overwhelming.
“For most researchers, it’s like drinking from a fire hose; there’s so much information coming at them,” said Curt Witcher, manager of the Allen County Public Library Genealogy Center.
It’s this information overload that brings visitors to the center in Fort Wayne where the staff can provide research guidance and help make sense of the results of online searches.
The center is home to the largest public collection for family history research in the world. In 2016, the center drew 67,000 visitors.
Despite the growth of the availability of online resources, the center’s in-house resources, including the expertise of its staff, are perhaps more valuable than ever before, Witcher said. When researchers hit a dead end or a fork in the road, the staff can point them in the right direction.
In addition, volumes of materials are only available in print. Although the center has worked to digitize its collection for a decade, only about 13,000 of its 400,000 books have been scanned. The lag is due to reasons including copyright law, the cost to scan and the limitations of optical character recognition software.
So what motivates visitors to come in and pore over the books?
Everyone has a story, Witcher said. Not many people become interested in ancestry and then decide they don’t like it; once they’re in, they’re hooked, he said.
“I think there’s something in us as human beings that longs for context and longs for a story,” he said.
Genealogy answers the age-old questions of humankind: Who am I? Where do I come from? How do I fit in?
“I’ve been in this field for 37 years, and I’ve yet to meet a person who doesn’t care about his story,” he said.
It’s important that the research experience is enjoyable, Witcher said. He is fascinated by seeing people modify their lives around what they learn through research — like planning a vacation to an ancestral home.
To meet the needs of this growing trend in tourism, several hotels offer special genealogy packages for those visiting the city to do research.
Witcher and the center’s staff are excited about the growth of downtown. Usually genealogists focus solely on research, but that’s slowly changing, he said. More visitors are sticking around to explore what else the city has to offer.
The center also makes the city a draw for genealogical conventions. In 2016, the city hosted the Indiana Genealogy Society which brought in 200 visitors for two or three days. The Midwest African American Genealogy Institute also held its first convention in Fort Wayne, bringing in about 40 visitors for four days.
In August of 2018, the Federation of Genealogical Societies will hold its national convention in Fort Wayne, bringing 2,000 visitors to the city for a week.
Kristen Guthrie, director of marketing for Visit Fort Wayne, says the organization spends a great deal of resources on marketing to promote the center and draw these sorts of conventions to the city.
(Bridgett Hernandez is a reporter for Greater Fort Wayne Business Weekly. Read her full report at fwbusiness.com.)