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Wednesday, December 12, 2012 10:00 AM
Genealogist and historian Janice Barnes digs through a drawer of The Madison Courier microfilms in the genealogy department at the Jefferson County Public Library-Madison Branch. (Staff photo by Ken Ritchie)
It's not always easy putting a face with a name - or vice versa. But Janice Barnes has worked with a lot less.
"You can always find people; it's just a matter of looking in the right place for them," Barnes said, who has worked 19 years as a part-time genealogist for the Jefferson County Public Library - Madison Branch.
As part of her job, Barnes sifts through old court documents, newspaper clippings and piles of family information in an effort to help others discover the past or turn over the final stone that solidifies a family's origin.
"It's really gratifying," she said. "A lot of times people come in here seeking information that just seems to round out their family history, and when I can find that for them, they are grateful, and I am so grateful, too."
Before coming to the library, the Terre Haute native stayed at home with her children. The family lived in Greencastle for five years, but over time, her husband Don's job pushed them farther into southern Indiana until they arrived in Madison.
Barnes said she started at the library "green as a gourd" nearly two decades ago, but her researching experience really goes back several decades.
Already a lover of history, Barnes began uncovering her family tree long ago when her grandparents were still living. She confided in them for dates, times, names and first-hand accounts of events and later compiled her family history and her husband's family history.
"It's simple and it's complicated," she said. "But it really works best if you get some first-hand knowledge first."
In her own case, her grandparents piqued her interest in history and genealogy at an early age, and it helped that her grandfather was an engaging storyteller.
But it was Barnes who later unearthed a long-buried family fact.
As a child she remembers one of her grandmothers describing living in extreme poverty - sometimes the family ate nothing more than a slice of bread and drank a small glass of milk for dinner. "And they were glad to have that," she said.
Barnes said her grandmother's in-laws were sometimes "haughty" about the family's roots in poverty. However, as it turned out, those roots in poverty did not extend all the way down the family tree.
Far from it, in fact.
"I found that she came from royalty in England. There is a castle in England that her family owned. One of her ancestors was the head of the Parliament in England," Barnes said. "I wish my grandmother had lived long enough so I could tell her that she had royal blood and they had none."
Aside from discovering her own family, Barnes has gained a wealth of knowledge about past and present Jefferson County residents and historical events over the years. So much that when she hears a last name, she usually can tell if the family lives or had lived in the area.
One memorable search happened when a Texas woman entered the library looking for a long-lost relative, who was rumored to have been in Jefferson County several decades prior. Barnes said the lady had hired investigators and conducted her own search but had come up with almost nothing.
In one night, Barnes found the relative in a newspaper article that listed his business in Jefferson County.
"She was so thrilled that she wrote the library a $1,000 check," Barnes said. "Everyone has an experience like that that does genealogy, probably."
Barnes said she would encourage those looking into their family history to read at least one book on the subject before leaping into a project.
She said the Internet has served as a useful tool for those interesting in genealogy, especially for those looking for a starting point. The library has access to Heritage Quest - which carries Revolutionary War records - and Ancestry.com, which has more and more Civil War records becoming available, she said.
But eventually, there comes a time when researchers need to roll up their sleeves and follow the paper trail.
"I have had more traffic in the library since the advent of the Internet, because it pushes people to want to know more," she said.
While many discover genealogy after having grandchildren, Barnes said a newer trend has been families researching health history, given the growing development in hereditary disease research today.
"Health matters sometimes tip people in that direction, and then they find it's very interesting, so they go on and do other things," she said.
While she has a number of success stories, striving for more is hardly an easy task. Sometimes it's down-right impossible.
For instance, during the slave trade, African Americans were often only recorded by their first names, and it wasn't uncommon to have more than one slave with the same first name working for the same person, Barnes said.
Additionally, she often finds immigration papers that list the location of where the person left the country, which was not always consistent with where they actually were from. That, coupled with the expense of following a family tree overseas, can be a mighty hurdle.
Presently, Barnes said the high divorce rate and fewer nuclear families sometimes make it difficult to track a family.
"There are brick walls," she said. "Some of them are insurmountable; some of them just take time."
While she entered the position "cold," Barnes maintains that the core of information preceded her time at the library. Even so, she doesn't mind adding to it.
Barnes has spent the last three years "off and on" reading through old local newspaper clippings, which date back to 1817. So far, she has read each of the several publication's editions until 1879. The goal is to add to a searchable data base from 1817 to 1880. She also has mapped out a local cemetery.
Barnes said she was not sure when she will retire. Until then, she can be found on the second floor of the library continuing to fulfill her curiosity and helping patrons fulfill their own.
"It's addictive," she said. "It's not only genealogy, it's a history. It becomes a story, and that's what really important - to know your family story."
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