Neither Curt Witcher nor Sue Kaufman have spent their careers working in their first chosen professions—and now they both work in the same field, one that leads Witcher to quip at times that he “works with the dead.”
Fascinated by biographies and history, Curt Witcher first planned to be an educator, teaching for a semester in Santa Fe, New Mexico, while a part of the St. John the Baptist provincial seminary system.
Sociology originally captured Sue Kaufman’s imagination, which led to a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from Southern Illinois University.
Witcher and Kaufman now direct two of the largest public genealogy libraries in the United States.
Libraries and Affiliate Libraries
Witcher manages the Genealogy Center of the Allen County Public Library in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and Kaufman heads the Clayton Library for Genealogical Research in the Houston Public Library, in Houston, Texas.
Both libraries are partners with FamilySearch International, the world’s largest genealogy organization, and they belong to FamilySearch’s network of affiliates. Both libraries work with FamilySearch, which is a part of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, to digitize their vast genealogical collections to make them available online.
Choosing a Career as a Genealogy Librarian
Both Witcher and Kaufman found their way serendipitously to genealogy library careers through similar routes. Each worked at college libraries either as an undergraduate or graduate student and found themselves drawn to the service-oriented aspect of helping others in their research quests.
Witcher, a native of southern Indiana, began at Fort Wayne’s library, where he has now worked for more than 39 years. Kaufman, a Chicago native, chose a genealogy librarian opening over a children’s librarian opening when she started at the library in Peoria, Illinois.
Later, they worked together in Fort Wayne for six years before Kaufman moved to Texas to manage the Houston library. “Curt was a huge mentor in my life. I learned so much from him,” Kaufman said.
The Genealogy Center of the Allen County Public Library—Fort Wayne, Indiana
Only the Family History Library in Salt Lake City is larger than Allen County’s Genealogy Center, a fact that often surprises family history newcomers. “A lot of people say, ‘Fort Wayne? Fort Wayne where?’” Witcher reported about his library’s home city. “People who have no idea of Indiana say, ‘Fort Wayne, that’s in Texas, isn’t it?”
Seasoned genealogists recognize the center, however, which traces its origins to 1961. The late library director Fred Reynolds, although not a genealogist himself, was a driving force behind its creation. As Witcher said, Fred “was able to look at the tea leaves and see that there was a lot of interest, predicting the growth that we see today.”
Libraries at the time of the genealogy center’s creation were well-equipped to handle a variety of patrons, but they didn’t provide the services that really met genealogists’ needs, who “are amateur historians, who come in, use the materials, ask a lot of questions, and stay a long time,” Witcher said.
“Fred wanted a place where genealogists could come and talk to librarians who were knowledgeable about how to do family history and how to connect to resources,” he explained.
The concept was a success. “It was like a match to dry wood, causing a bonfire. The idea took off, and people started coming to us,” Witcher reported.
Annually, 67,000 to 68,000 people from around the world visit Fort Wayne’s Genealogy Center. That number is down slightly in recent years as more individuals explore their family history in online resources first.
The center employs seven librarians who specialize in genealogy and manage its vast collections. These experts also help customers search for their roots. Witcher said the number of genealogy librarians who are continuously on the floor at the genealogy center and are directly interacting with customers is unusual. “It harkens back to Fred Reynolds and his desire for librarians who could do genealogy research and help customers be successful in their efforts.”
The Clayton Library for Genealogical Research—Houston Public Library, in Houston, Texas
The Clayton Library for Genealogical Research has roots in the 1960s too. Originally its genealogy collection was part of the Houston Public Library in downtown Houston. After a gift of property from the 1966 estate of William Clayton, a prominent Texas businessman, the genealogy collection moved to the Clayton historic home and later its own building when it outgrew that second location. It remains part of the Houston Public Library system.
The Clayton Library Center for Genealogical Research offers extensive collections covering the entire United States, although its collections have a special emphasis on Texas, Louisiana, and the Gulf Coast. “One lady found her ancestor in an Alaskan cemetery book here,” Kaufman said.
There are also extensive international sources for identifying immigrants from Canada, Mexico, and Europe. “We have material that you won’t find anywhere else,” Kaufman reported.
Extensive Record Collections
The Clayton facility’s open-access shelves hold 120,000 research volumes, 3,490 periodical titles, and a vast microfilm collection of census records, ship passenger lists, military records, and many state and local records that are unavailable on the internet. The library also has individual family histories.
At the Allen County Public Library in Fort Wayne, the Genealogy Center houses the largest genealogy collection in a public library. Its collections include 503,156 printed volumes and 661,532 items on microfilm and microfiche. Its collection generally focuses on North America but also includes a wide variety of British Isles materials and some German resources. Also included in the collections are holdings in Native American and African American genealogy as well as Civil War resources. The center also has an extensive collection of individual family histories and city directories.
Getting Help with Family History
Both libraries offer genealogy workshops, lectures, and one-on-one genealogy help. Both managers emphasize that helping genealogy buffs in their research is a main service of their facilities.
In fact, in 2016 Indiana’s lieutenant governor presented Witcher with the Hoosier Hospitality Award for his customer-oriented approach that attracts genealogy visitors from around the globe.
“We don’t want people to think of family history as hard research. We want people to think of it as fun, engaging research, research that you don’t want to put down. We want the library to be a welcoming place,” Witcher explained.
The managers of the Genealogy Center and the Clayton Library Center for Genealogical Research maintain close ties with local, state, and national genealogical societies. Each has served in leadership positions in a number of these societies. In March, 2018, Witcher and Kaufman were presenters of several workshops at RootsTech in Salt Lake City. Annually, they speak at numerous family history conferences.
Making Collections Searchable Online
RootsTech isn’t the only connection these libraries have with FamilySearch. As affiliates of FamilySearch, each library participates in an ongoing effort to digitize their historical books, publications, and other materials to eventually make them available online.
The Allen County Public Library
FamilySearch sends mobile digitization teams with specialized cameras, portable scanners, and laptops with FamilySearch’s proprietary software to locations worldwide. Currently, FamilySearch has 322 cameras in operation, including teams at both the Allen County Public Library and the Houston Public Library. FamilySearch offers these digitization services for free.
In Fort Wayne for the past six years, teams of FamilySearch volunteers have digitized a wide variety of records. The current nine volunteers continue to capture images from a collection of 1,000 ledger books from Lake County, Indiana, among the many other record books and family histories they scan. Additionally, other libraries send historical books to Allen County for the FamilySearch teams to digitize.
“It’s really a wonderful partnership. They digitize hundreds of books a month that will be posted to the FamilySearch website. It’s true dedication because scanning isn’t the most exciting activity in the world,” Witcher said, “yet it benefits so many.”
Kaufman believes that Clayton’s participation with FamilySearch has allowed it to be on “the forefront of digitization and sharing material with the larger genealogy community.”
“As part of the wider genealogy community, this allows us to spread the word about how important it is to find your family,” she said.
The library’s FamilySearch teams work in what Kaufman labeled “a small utility closet” and she too marvels at their dedication. “It’s an overwhelming concept of service because you have volunteers who close up their houses or sell their houses, and they come and sit in this closet for hours and are happy to do so,” she said.
Kaufman would like to see the Clayton Library become a FamilySearch hub for digitization, having other smaller libraries send their books and materials to be digitized. She also hopes that the digitization project, besides increasing the online materials, will prompt individuals to further investigate the resources available at libraries.
“There has been a whole shift in the way that people do family history. There is a learning curve of getting people to understand that it’s not all on the internet,” Kaufman said.
Witcher said that most library customers coming in have relied on precious few online resources. “There are amazing resources online, and most people only use just a very thin slice,” he reported.
The library managers embrace this ongoing collaboration between libraries and FamilySearch as helping their local customers as well as the genealogy community at large.
“We have always been believers in the old saying, ‘The incoming tide raises all ships.’ The more comprehensive, the more robust that FamilySearch can be as an online presence, the better it is for everyone in the genealogy space. And the better it is for us as librarians to help people find their family stories here in Fort Wayne or anywhere else,” Witcher said.
Learn more online about Allen County’s Genealogy Center and the Clayton Library for Genealogical Research, or visit them in person!
Genealogy and family history centers interested in the FamilySearch affiliate library program can email BushCD@FamilySearch.org to learn more.