29 Jan

My first thought, after hearing this week’s #52ancestors prompt, at the library, was of my beloved Pennsylvania room at the Carnegie library of Pittsburgh. 

The Pennsylvania room is dedicated to genealogy and although the focus is Pennsylvania genealogy, they have a ton more.  Check them out here. 


Oh the hours, I would spend there. It was super convenient, when I was attending school at the University of Pittsburgh. The library was right beside campus. I was able to steal away and escape to the past. 

Let’s set the stage, this was 1993 and I had no computer, and no internet shortcuts.  This was old school.  What I did have was notebooks filled with soundex codes and scribbled notes. (Poorly sourced-I was young and dumb) 

Oh and no phone, let alone one with a camera in it to take pictures.  I had to make sure I had change for the copy machine.  And there was ONE microfilm machine that made copies. This was always a passive aggressive battle with my fellow patrons. 

It could take hours to find one small and meaningful discovery. Census work was long a tenuous. First step was the soundex codes, then find the right microfilm index roll, and finally the census itself on microfilm.   

But it was there in those quiet hours that I broke through brick walls and extend my tree tops.  It was there, I learned the names of the ships my German, English and Irish ancestors travel across the ocean on.  So many afternoons and evenings, so many discoveries. Of course, I had to wait till I got back to my dorm to use the phone connected to my wall, to call and tell my parents about my most recent discovery.  

Most of my genealogy work now is spent in front of my computer. Although, I am very grateful for it,  I am often critical of the “easy access” we have today. I often feel people don’t dig deep and look at the details.  More often than I’d like to admit, I myself am guilty of it.  

With all that and knowing I would be writing about the Pennsylvania room this week. I was feeling melancholy. 

I happen to be in the neighborhood of the library today for a conference. Afterwards in subarctic temperatures, I told my friend, who I had carpooled with, that I wanted to go to the library.  I drove so she knew she was screwed.  She knows of my genealogy obsession and she has a little bite of the bug herself so she didn’t protest too much. 

Walking in it was the same.  I turned to the right and started to ascend the stairs. I am fatter and much older, so I was huffing and puffing at the top. Much to my surprise my Pennsylvania room was not there.  I noticed a sign that pointed to the other stair case. Oh lord!! They moved it to the 3rd floor. Up I went again. 

On a side note I had completely lost my friend.  She took the elevator. 

When I arrived in the new Pennsylvania room. I took about 10 min to catch my breath.  I mean seriously, 2 floors of  turn of the century architectural stair cases does a number on a 44 year old, mostly overweight woman, who sat in a medical conference all day. 

I had intended to look up some birth records for Allegheny county.  They have them on microfiche. I told the librarian my intentions.  She asked me the last name.  I just stared at her for a minute.  “I can’t just browse them?”  She told me to give her a last name to start.  I told her I would think about it.  I proceeded to walk around glancing at the stacks pulling out books I remembered so well.  

It occurred to me, my favorite room was different,  the process was different...and oh and I should probably find my friend.  

That library and that Pennsylvania room helped shape the genealogist and the person I am today.  As we all know, you can’t recreate the past but you sure can preserve and appreciate it.   

Special thanks to the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh and the librarians that brought the Pennsylvania room to life and maintain its collection today.  Oh and I’m sorry you had to clean up my mountains of microfilms over the years. Thank you. 

* The email will not be published on the website.