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Ten Things You REALLY Can Do In The Research Library

Author: Heidi Bamford

In July of this year, Cynthia Van Ness, Director of the Research Library & Archives at the Buffalo History Museum, posted a blog article from the Buffalo History Museum titled, “Ten Things You Can Do in the Research Library.” Geared towards first time visitors to the Research Library, the piece read like a virtual tour, guiding you around some of the major resources and tools available to anyone interested in delving into the area’s past. I took the bait and decided to try out the ten things suggested. It was a great experience – I learned a lot, but came away with so many more questions….I will be back!

I made an appointment to come into the Research Library on a late Wednesday afternoon. Checking on a time to come in is recommended as the place has limited hours and can get very busy at certain times…so, pick your time and then go. I was warmly welcomed by the staff who seemed delighted that I was taking them up on their offer to guide me, the “neophyte” researcher through a sliver of the vast materials in their Library.

First on the list: “Look for a relative or ancestor’s obituary.” This seemed relatively straightforward – there are card files (actual card catalog drawers) of individuals whose names appeared in any number of Buffalo newspapers’ obituary columns from 1811 (yes, before the City of Buffalo was even incorporated.) up to 2001. With about 99,000 names, all organized alphabetically, I thought to myself that I would make leaps in advance in family history research by finding records of all my ancestors in one spot – WRONG! The caveat is that not everyone appears in these obituaries. Most people only show up in the death notices, which are brief descriptions of the people who have passed. Only a few make it to the more detailed obituaries, which means that you are not likely to find every relative who ever lived and died in the area in this index – just those who made it into the obituaries.

So, for my search, I decided to try the “A to Z” approach – I have ancestors whose last name begins with “A” and those beginning with “Z.” I found a distant “uncle,” Joseph Alf, whose card read, “BCE June 16, 1949, 13-2,3.” This meant that his obituary could be found in the Buffalo Courier Express (there is a list of all the local newspapers mentioned in the cards with a corresponding code)on the date indicated and in pages 2,3. I also found my great grandfather, Edward Ziemer, who died in 1894. And, as is the case for some of the cards, his provided extra information, including the name of his father and the cemetery he was buried in. So, the death index is really a great first stop in the Research Library, since you are more than likely to encounter success with at least one or two ancestors in the records.

Second on the list: “Read a newspaper published the day you were born.” Again, it sounded pretty straightforward, except, where were all the newspapers? Ahhh, the drawers of microfilm. The Research Library is currently in process of having many of their newspapers digitized, but there are still a lot on those rolls of film, making it necessary to operate equipment to access the information. The Research Library has two “traditional” readers (you load the film onto the spools and wind your way through to the pages you need) and one digital reader, donated by the Western New York Genealogy Society. The digital reader still requires manual loading and operation, but the film quality and options for selecting and adjusting images is far greater than the older versions. I opted to put my film in the digital reader, which also provides a tutorial right on the screen about using the equipment. I have to admit, it was hard to keep up with the pace of instruction and completely understand the diagrams for loading the film. Without the help of the Library staff I may have caused undo harm to both myself and the reader. But we got through it and before long I was staring at the headlines of the Courier Express for March 10, 1960; the date I arrived in Buffalo. Looking at the front page stories was a bit surreal; like being back in a social studies class, yet seeing headlines that could be part of today’s news. The Cold War was in full swing and we were already going head-to-head with Communism in Cuba and Berlin. Other stories featured divisions in the Republican party (over school bus bills) and local demands for relief from New York State Thruway tolls. Some things just never get historical! The pictures, advertising and even the reporting language of the time was really fun to take in.

On to number three: “See if we have a picture of the house you grew up in.” OK, for me this could be a challenge since I technically grew up in about four different houses before I was eighteen. I decided to see if we could find a house I lived in as a child that was on Lenore Avenue in Amherst. The records in this collection come from several sources of old real estate records and they are not complete for every house on every street. Though we did not find my exact house, there were photos of another house on Lenore close by, so at least I had an idea of what my house might have looked like.

Next on the list, number four: “Figure out where your grandparents lived.” The Buffalo City Directories can help you locate the residence or place of business (or both) of an ancestor since they include both kinds of listings for most years. The Research Library has these directories from 1828 through 2001, with just a few gaps. I had actually used these directories online (many are available through links found at and knew from the information in them that my earliest immigrant ancestor was Adam Ziemer, who arrived here in 1864. I looked at both the 1890 and 1895 directories in the Research Library to see if he was still residing in the City in later years and indeed, he is listed as residing at 9 Kane Street with occupation listed as “shoemaker.” In addition, the listing includes his sons and their occupations as they were now old enough to be working.

This last bit of information then actually had some relevance for the fifth task: “Look at Buffalo & Erie County Atlases.” The Research Library has at least one for every decade, beginning in 1850 all the way to about 1950. Many of these atlases are hand drawn and frankly some can be viewed as beautiful works of art as well as being research tools; the use of colors, the beautiful writing, the scale of the drawings make them so very visually appealing. I wanted to see the neighborhoods for both Cedar Street (original place of Adam’s residence) and Kane Street during the time period my great great grandfather would have been living at these locations. So the ever helpful staff pulled the large folios from oversize drawers and placed them on the table. The information you get from these atlases will vary by the companies that produced them: the 1866 “Emslie” atlas we looked at did show lot owners for all the properties – but since Adam was probably a recent immigrant and therefore probably a renter, his name did not appear. We also looked at the 1891 “Hopkins” atlas to see Kane Street, which was actually spelled “Kaene” on the map. This one did not provide lot owners, but rather shows “building footprints” or, what types of structures (residential, commercial) existed and the names of commercial properties. So, what I could discern from that atlas was that my great great grandfather lived near Queen City Brewing, the Valentine Specht Sausage Factory and School #47. Hopefully he enjoyed his beer and sausage while waiting for his son to get home from school.

On to number six: “Check our vintage postcards.” The Research Library maintains a collection of about 8,000 donated postcards that are organized by subject. I asked the Librarian if they had postcards for the old Chippewa and Washington Markets. My great grandparents ran a poultry business, selling chickens and eggs at those markets, so I thought it would be neat to see what things looked like at the time they worked there. Sure enough, the subjects included one called “Markets.” In looking through these postcards, I was surprised to learn of other markets in the area. In addition to the Washington and Chippewa Markets, there was also a market on Elk Street. There were also postcards of the Broadway Market, past and present. Although I didn’t see any chickens running around, the postcards from the Washington Market really gave me a sense of the space and character of these places where my family tried to earn a living.

Number seven: “Use our Wifi” This was an easy one – you can login using the information provided at the front desk. This can be useful in the event you need to email a family member or log in to your account for details about a relative or a place or event you are looking for in the Research Library.

“Check out our new acquisitions” is number eight. What this means is that you can take a look to see what new library resources have been added to the collection. You can find the newest acquisitions along a shelf near the entrance to the Research Library. The day I was there I saw titles on topics as far ranging as a history of Saint Mark’s Parish in Hamburg; a biography of baseball great Jimmy Collins; and a book by local author and hiking guide Larry Behan. Most titles will have a western New York connection by virtue of author or content.

Another great resource you may not have guessed would be in the Research Library is number nine: “Look at church records on microfilm.” I have heard the saying that in Buffalo, churches were once as plentiful as pizzerias in local neighborhoods. Language barriers and cultural preferences during the peak European immigration period of the mid-nineteenth to early twentieth century accounts for so many religious structures having been erected in the Buffalo area to accommodate all the distinct ethnic groups moving into the city. And luckily, before these ethnic groups slowly dissipated into the suburbs, with many abandoning their original parish buildings, Father James Demske, President of Canisius College launched an effort to microfilm records of over 180 local congregations (mostly Roman Catholic, but other denominations as well) throughout the city. And luckily for us, he had a copy of these films sent to the Buffalo History Museum where they now provide researchers with important information about births, deaths and marriages in this area from before 1880. This is especially helpful since New York did not officially began issuing and saving vital records until that time.

Although my time did not allow me another foray into the world of microfilm (phew), I was able to take a look at a bound volume of the records of the First Presbyterian Church in Buffalo from 1812. In addition to the microfilm, there are a few select publications with information provided from these vital records collected during the microfilm project. The information in this volume is steeped in Buffalo history with mentions of families and business leaders such as Love, Pratt, Coit, Chapin, Allen, Hodge…well, you get it – most living on in names of Buffalo Streets today.

The end is in sight. Number ten: Pick our brains! This is where we get to drop all scholarly pretensions and just ask: So, how did it happen?”

My big, unoriginal question: What is the origin of the name of the City of Buffalo?

The burning question in the minds of all Western New Yorkers: a question we all need an answer to if we are to entertain out of town visitors who will inevitably ask this of us. And at the Research Library and Archives at the Buffalo History Museum you have a choice of seven possible theories. I will not be a spoiler and give them all away, but the files on each are there for you to read and consider. My own choice is that the guide doing the translating at the time of the European encounters with the First People who lived in this area was not “Triple-A approved.” It is very likely that we may today be known as “Beaver City” or the “City of Beaver” had the translation been properly conveyed. Imagine what our sports logos today would be like in that case (a really good “dam” team!?).

So, I set out to accomplish the task of trying out “ten things you can do in the Research Library” and it proved to be a really fun challenge – entertaining and enlightening. Who says libraries are dull places has obviously never done anything more than just take out a book. Now I am waiting for “Ten More Things You Can Do in the Research Library…”

Lead image: Buffalo History Museum

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