Thursday, February 28, 2019

Meet NERGC Speaker Mel E. Smith

Are you looking for an elusive divorce record in New England? Or trying to find out whether your ancestors ever stood in a Connecticut courtroom? Mel E. Smith of the Connecticut State Library knows just how to chart a path through these and so many other records in the library's collection!

As Librarian II in the History & Genealogy Unit of the Connecticut State Library, Mel serves as a reference librarian and supervises the microfilm and ephemera collections. He has been instrumental in the creation of many databases that library patrons find valuable in their research. In addition, he is a member of the Connecticut Professional Genealogist’s Council and the Salmon Brook Historical Society.

In my role as an official NERGC blogger, I asked Mel how he got interested in family history, which genealogy challenges he finds especially rewarding, and more.

1. Growing up, did your relatives talk about the family tree? Were you drawn to a specific ancestor or a special family photo?

My father was one of ten children, and as such, I had twenty-four first cousins.  The Smith family would often gather together for holidays or birthday celebrations and I remember at an early age telling my younger brother who everyone was, and how they were related to us. I guess that the genealogy bug caught me early on.

It was my maternal grandmother (Gram to me) who told me stories of her Putnam family of New Hampshire and their links to the Salem witch trials. It was from these early stories that she made history come to life as past family members actually played an important, even infamous, part in American history. One of my most treasured possessions is the hand-written genealogy that she gave me for Christmas one year when I was in my teens.

If I had to pick one ancestor who I have been drawn to, it would be my Great-Great Uncle Charles F. Blackington who served in the Union Army from the State of Maine during the Civil War. After the war, he moved out west for health reasons and served as a self-taught country doctor, miner/prospector, and sheriff in Colorado and New Mexico. I have discovered a great deal of interesting stories about him in the rough and tumble environment he found himself in. I hope that even though Charles never had any children survive to adulthood, that as a result of my historical research, I can provide information about his life to my children so that they have a better understating of his life and remember with pride an American original.

2. Books, genealogy, history--which of these is your first love, and why?

I would have to say books (kind of a natural for a librarian right?), followed by history and genealogy. Books can take you to any point in history and open up an entirely new world of wonder for a young reader. I have always loved reading about history of all kinds. I think I developed this love early as my father was very interested in history as well.  But genealogy ties my love of books and history all together by making it personal! 

3. You will be leading one NERGC session on finding New England divorce records and another on Connecticut court records. Why are these types of records often so difficult to locate?

That is a very good question! Court records can be very daunting to some family historians because they do not understand the amazing, varied, amount of genealogical data that can be found in criminal or civil court records. A second reason court records may be difficult to use is the sheer number and types of different courts systems, and confusion regarding the location and access of the actual records.

4. In your role at the Connecticut State Library, what types of genealogy inquiries do you find especially challenging or rewarding?

I love my job at the Connecticut State Library because it allows me to assist people in finding information about their long ago (or not so long ago) ancestors. Each day can be like the first day on the job as the questions that are asked, while similar, can lead us on a different adventure of family discovery.

I must say that two types of questions really get me going. The first pertains to a family, any family, that had lived in Connecticut for a generation or longer, and then settles out of state. Connecticut served as a springboard for so many settlers that went to other locations in New England, New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, other places points West, and even to Canada! It is always a thrill to help patrons find their family as they moved through time across this wonderful country of ours.

The second question that I often get pertains to those individuals that are researching adoption cases. These types of cases can be very challenging due to the nature of the records, as they may be restricted depending upon the time period. Another reason adoption cases are difficult is the lack of information about the case. In Connecticut one must know the birth name of the child in order to have a good chance of finding the relevant adoption record. Another reason is the vast number of probate courts that once existed in Connecticut that might have processed the adoption. Adoption cases can be frustrating, but very rewarding when you are able to lead a patron to the names of the biological parents.     

5. What is your game plan for getting the most out of this year's NERGC conference?

The NERGC conference allows me the opportunity to sit back and learn new ways or techniques of conducting genealogical search to better assist my patrons, as well as furthering my own personal research. Whether it be attending as many sessions that I can, or taking part in a special workshop or luncheon, I always learn something new and exciting about the field of genealogy. 

One other way that I learn is to talk to other conference-goers to see what they are seeing and value in the field of genealogy. As the field is constantly evolving and changing (and I would say for the better), it is always important to learn what worked for others in breaking down a genealogical brick wall.

Mel Smith is presenting two programs at NERGC, both on Saturday:
  • Session S-105, Finding Your New England Family in Divorce Records (8:30-9:30 am)
  • Session S-137, Finding Your Family in Connecticut Court Records (4:45-5:45 pm)

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