What if you could go to work every day in the United States’ largest public library genealogy collection?
Curt Witcher does: He’s the director of the Genealogy Center at the Allen County Public Library (ACPL) in Fort Wayne, Ind., which has collections covering the United States and beyond.
Witcher kindly took time to be interviewed for the July/August 2014 Family Tree Magazine, but we didn’t have space to include the whole Q&A in the issue. Here’s the rest of our enlightening conversation about the Genealogy Center and a unique family history resource that its librarians produce:
Q. How many visitors do you get on an average day?
A. It depends on the weather. We could see only a couple dozen on bad days, but we push 1,000 people some days. In 2013, we saw just over 96,000. Between May and August, about 80 percent of patrons come from out-of-county.
Q. How does The Genealogy Center continue to thrive in the public library setting?
A. Libraries have a lot of competing priorities these days. It can be really challenging for libraries to have a large and noted special collection like we have. We were born more than 50 years ago out of desire to serve the underserved genealogists. It was like throwing a match on dry wood: the local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, Indiana state library and others started donating historical materials to us. We now have north of 1.1 million physical items.
We’ve had some pretty consequential endowment gifts specifically for the Genealogy Center. But to be honest, the community loves the fact that we have this center. We account for $6.3 million in indirect economic impact, like hotels and restaurant business. This community also has a century-long love affair with the library. Its per-capita support is in top 10 percent. The library takes up an entire block and has 13 branches.
Q. You must be very proud to watch PERSI grow up.
A. PERSI [the Periodical Source Index to genealogy articles in US and Canadian magazines and journals] is the brainchild of my predecessor as manager, Michael Clegg. He wanted to do something consequential for genealogists worldwide, like a Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature but for genealogy and local history.
We’ve run a pretty modest operation but through our partners over the years we’ve done pretty great things. First PERSI came out in paper. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, we had a partnership with what’s now FamilySearch International to put PERSI on microfiche, then broadcast it out to their Family History Centers. It was our first breakout from the traditional print library market—to make PERSI more mass distributed.
Then we worked with Ancestry.com, then HeritageQuest, to get it online. Now we’re over the moon to partner with FindMyPast and add digitized content. Customers today are not satisfied to find the indexed entry. Their expectation is to get to the article with a click. With keyword searching on Google, why do we still need PERSI? People are tired of huge datasets. We don’t want 31 million hits on a narrow topic.
The more-sophisticated searchers know that not everything most important is on the first five pages of Google search results. We’re so committed to having another way to find their family history. If you don’t use periodical literature, you risk missing 30 percent of the materials you need to move your research forward.
Q. What is your role with PERSI now at ACPL?
A. We continue to subject-index PERSI (it’s not an every-name index). We have the equivalent of 6 full-time staff on PERSI. We thumb through every page to make sure we don’t miss anything. Easily 25 percent of these publications have significant articles that just don’t make it to the title page. It’s not the most exciting job to index every article, but you understand you’re contributing to one-of-a-kind resource for the exciting family history world.
See the July/August 2014 Family Tree Magazine for more Q&A with Curt Witcher.