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Review of the Family History Seminar, “Bursting Through Brick Walls”

September 24, 2008
From left to right, Leslie Stapleton, DRT Library Director; Connie Impelman, Library Committee Chairman; and Lloyd de Witt Bockstruck

From left to right, Leslie Stapleton, DRT Library Director; Connie Impelman, Library Committee Chairman; and Lloyd de Witt Bockstruck.

This past Saturday, the DRT Library held its eighth annual Family History Seminar. This year’s speaker was Lloyd de Witt Bockstruck, an award-winning and well-respected librarian, author, lecturer, and genealogist. Mr. Bockstruck has been a librarian at the Dallas Public Library since 1973 and currently serves as the supervisor of its genealogy department. He has also been a faculty member at the Institute of Genealogical and Historical Research at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama, since 1974.

Mr. Bockstruck began the seminar by establishing a general framework or approach to genealogical research. He posed four questions to which both novice and experienced genealogists should return as they investigate their family’s history:

  • What do I want to find out or prove/document?
  • What kind of record would contain that information?
  • Where is that record located today?
  • How do I access those records?

These questions hint at one of the ideas underlying Mr. Bockstruck’s talk, namely the need for genealogists to think about the connection between an event in the past and how that event is represented in recorded history. He urged seminar participants to use record-generating events in their ancestors’ lives to guide their investigations. While typically family history researchers focus on an ancestor’s birth, marriage, and death, other events such as buying or selling land, attending school, serving in the military, and being involved in court disputes also generate records that contain information about an ancestor’s life.

Mr. Bockstruck answering a question during one of his presentations.

Mr. Bockstruck answers a question during one of his presentations.

The title of this year’s symposium was “Bursting Through Brick Walls,” and Mr. Bockstruck’s four presentations focused on illegitimacy; substitutes for birth and death records; pitfalls commonly encountered by genealogists; and onomatology, or the study of names. Individually and collectively, these talks offered guidance to participants on how to solve problems that might derail further genealogical investigation or prevent continued progress.

Mr. Bockstruck described many types of archival records that may contain information of importance to family history researchers. These include records of schools and universities, churches, and courts as well as newspapers, wills and probate documents, letters, and diaries. Records of federal, state, and local governments also contain a wealth of information for genealogists, who can utilize, for example, records pertaining to adoption, military service, voting, land transactions, coroners’ investigations, and each branch of government.

Seminar participants await the beginning of Mr. Bockstruck's presentation.

Seminar participants await the beginning of Mr. Bockstruck's presentation.

Once a genealogist has located and accessed a record, he or she then faces the challenge of interpreting its content. To successfully accomplish this, Mr. Bockstruck argued, a genealogist needs to become familiar with the time and place in which his or her ancestor lived, i.e. the historical context in which the original records were created. Specifically, Mr. Bockstruck emphasized how interpreting legal circumstances and word usage in older documents from a twenty-first-century perspective can result in a genealogist drawing incorrect conclusions from a record and spending a significant amount of time pursuing irrelevant lines of inquiry. Thus, Mr. Bockstruck urged participants to familiarize themselves with the customs that were known to and practiced by people living in the past.

Many thanks to Mr. Bockstruck for providing such thought-provoking information and to the participants who attended this year’s Family History Seminar.

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