Originally published June 10, 2013.
It looks so easy.
Type in your name, sit back, and watch the computer screen light up with the names, dates and cities that populate your past.
Instant family history, right?
Instant family, yes; but that family may not be yours.
"Anybody can put anything on they want to," says Joan Keefer, who presides over the historical documents that fill the Huntington City-Township Public Library's Indiana Room. "It does not have to be proven."
Keefer, who's had an interest in genealogy all her life, prefers to put her faith in the written documents from the past. At the same time, though, she's not ready to write off what's available online.
"It is a source, a place to start, and hopefully you can figure it out," she says.
Keefer warns beginning genealogists to watch for signs that family histories posted online may not be all they seem.
Check dates to see if they make sense, she says.
She picks up a printout of an online family history, and immediately points out a discrepancy. The dates of birth for children born to the man and his first wife extend several years after the man had married his second wife.
While the chart offers clues, the genealogist must now track down other documents to clear up that discrepancy.
And those documents probably aren't online.
"Probably all the information available to you on the computer is just 5 percent of what's out there," Keefer says. "The rest is in courthouses, museums, families. And of the 5 percent, half of it is junk."
A family name may have suffered any number of misspellings through the years, she says.
One woman's last name is variously spelled Lallow, Lallot and Lallo. An online search for one of those spellings won't turn up documents with the other spelling variants; the spelling variations will pop out to someone poring over a printed page, and the researcher can then compare dates and other information to prove that all the spellings refer to the same woman.
Two popular online genealogy sites, Heritage Quest and Ancestry.com, both have digital versions of various censuses. But both versions were keyed in by hand, she says, and contain some differences. Looking through books with paper copies of the original documents can clear up any questions, but that's a process that takes time.
"It's a push button society, and all logic goes out the window," Keefer says. "You have to be a detective and search it out on your own, not just push a button."
But, she says genealogists shouldn't shy away from using online resources.
"Google is a wonderful thing as far as putting a name in," she says. "There may be a chat line that will help you out, lead you in the right direction."
Sometimes, it may lead the researcher to learn about an illegitimate child who was never acknowledged or a divorce long kept a secret. Keefer says that's all part of life.
"When you start on your family history, you have to take the good with the bad," she says.
Keefer wants to know as much as she can.
"Everybody has a passion, and mine is family," she says. "I want to know who put me together."
She's learned what diseases run in the family, giving her some clues as to what she should look out for in her own health.
When the Indiana Room was assembled in the late 1970s, Keefer and other volunteers used their limited resources to obtain materials most likely to be used by area residents.
Because most people started out on that East Coast and moved west, emphasis was placed on documents from areas east of Indiana. The growth of online resources has helped reach to other geographic areas.
"When we put this room together, we only put information eastward," she says. "The Internet has allowed us to touch the world."
Inside the Indiana Room's walls are birth and death records, newspapers, telephone books, city directories and any number of documents that record names and dates.
"Most of the things we use you can't buy," she says.
"But the things you can't buy walk in the door; they were found in the attic or in an estate."
One thing the Indiana Room is lacking, she says, is copies of yearbooks from township high schools in Huntington County. The yearbooks that are on file from other schools, she says, are used every day.
Keefer says 400 genealogists visited the Indiana Room in April, and 300 stopped by in May - and that helping those people research their ancestors has left her and her staff with little time to put their own records online. They are, however, beginning to digitize the room's photographs.
"There is not enough time in the day, the week, the month, the year," she laments.
There is, however, always time to help someone who wanders in locate information buried in the Indiana Room's stacks.
Novices who enter Keefer's domain are given a piece of paper and asked to fill in as much as they know - grandparents' names, dates of birth and marriage.
"Every story needs an outline, and this is your story," she says. "It tells us a time frame. Then we see if we can help."