Tombs among the Tomes: A Boost for Your Library's Genealogical Holdings Is as Close as Your Local Cemetery

By Bever, Greta | American Libraries, August 2003 | Go to article overview

Tombs among the Tomes: A Boost for Your Library's Genealogical Holdings Is as Close as Your Local Cemetery


Bever, Greta, American Libraries


Imagine stumbling upon a collection of records concerning the residents of your community since its settlement. Brief biographical sketches accompany names that are well-known to locals as well as ones unuttered for years. Consider how valuable this information would be to genealogists and historians.

Your area cemeteries represent just such an archive. Librarians do not need to walk among the stones transcribing epitaphs; we just need to know and communicate, on our websites as well as at our reference desks, where the information is buried.

Every tombstone has a story. Some provide the barest of vital information--birth and death dates--while others contain the distilled achievements of a life, or a chronicle of family relationships. Gravemarkers often reveal military service, religious affiliation, occupation or profession, fraternal associations, or even the individual's place of origin. While collective biographies only relate the lives of outstanding individuals in a field of achievement, cemeteries document the lives of ordinary residents as well. The stories told by our cemeteries belong in our local-history collections.

After-hours answers

If someone is looking for a buried ancestor in your area, you can help even after you've locked the doors for the night. By anticipating the most common local-history and genealogical questions, your website can answer them before they are asked. Library websites containing the following elements will supply needed information and referrals for cemetery researchers:

* A list of area cemeteries, including other names by which they've been known, with their addresses and office telephone numbers.

* A bibliography of published cemetery transcriptions for your area.

* Links to the major websites for cemetery transcriptions.

* A link to state online death records, if available, and to vital-records contacts.

* A local timeline of epidemics, battles, and disasters.

* A list of newspaper holdings where obituaries may be found.

Circumstances can obscure the location of burial sites. Often graves were moved when the land was needed for other purposes or when the original sites became health threats due to poor drainage or flooding. New construction projects may turn up forgotten potter's fields or graveyards for the poor that lack markers. Over time, cemeteries may be renamed or abandoned. The records or the property may change hands. Any of these factors can create a stumbling block for a genealogist looking for an ancestor's grave. People interested in your area's local history aren't always local. Providing the background information specific to your service area gives your users the context needed to overcome the obstacles in their research.

Many public libraries already provide lists of area cemeteries on their websites. Examples you could use in creating yours include St. Louis Public Library's exhaustive annotated list (www.slpl.lib.mo.us/libsrc/stlcem.htm). Your local information may already be provided on a genealogical society's page or your county's USGenWeb Project page (www.usgenweb.org). A link would make that referral for your online public. Cemeteries no longer in existence pose a real problem for researchers; listing locations where remains were reinterred from such cemeteries can answer questions before they are asked.

When paper covers rock

Monuments are meant to serve as lasting memorials; however, weathering can eliminate the very information the stones were engraved to convey. Inscriptions in stone are, ironically, not always as lasting as the paper documents that record them. Fortunately, organizations like the Daughters of the American Revolution, local genealogical societies, WPA employees, and heritage-minded individuals of past generations compiled books of cemetery transcriptions to record tombstone inscriptions. Similar projects continue today. …

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