History in the Making

By Peter D.A. Warwick Premium

Libraries’ special collections can be either a blessing or a curse. The potential clues in their rare, old materials are a family history buff’s dream — unless those one-of-a-kind sources are in a library halfway across the country.

Enter the Making Of America, or MOA for short. This free special-collections department transports rare books and journals to your computer desktop via the Web. It’s a collaborative effort between the University of Michigan and Cornell University, with funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. MOA concentrates on primary sources of American social history from the antebellum period through Reconstruction. It’s particularly strong in US history, education, psychology, religion, science, sociology and technology — subjects that examine many aspects of your ancestors’ lives. About 8,500 books and 50,000 articles from the universities’ special collections have been scanned and put online.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that MOA is actually two different sites (which isn’t clear) with two different collections: the University of Michigan site, which we’ll call MOA I <>, and the Cornell University site, MOA II <>. This wouldn’t be too bad if the sites had a common search engine (said to be in the works). But the system has three search engines, two different ways of searching and two ways of browsing. This can be confusing — and you might miss relevant material if you don’t realize how the system’s set up.

Still, MOA’s resources can be really useful to genealogists. The sites have a mix of primary and secondary book sources, such as MOA I’s Records of the Colony and Plantation of New Haven, from 1638 to 1649 and Mary Powell Bunker’s Long Island Genealogies on MOA II. (MOA II has many books relating to New York state, where Cornell is located.) They also have a large collection of 19th-century journals. It’s hard to say which site is best for journals because MOA II has them neatly listed, while MOA I indexes them by author and article tide, not publication or subject. And searching for journal titles can be tricky unless you’re an expert in 19th-century magazines.

Of course, the dual-site setup makes efficient searching tough in general — you’ll have the best luck if you master each site’s search method. MOA I has two search engines: one for books and one for journals. Both offer simple and advanced searches. The advanced search allows you to do boolean, proximity and citation searches. You can also limit all your queries by time period (1800 to 1925 for books and 1839 to 1902 for journals).

MOA II has just one search engine; it can tap the entire site at once or search the book and journal databases separately. Like its sister site, MOA II can limit your search by time period (1815 to 1926). The advanced search allows boolean, proximity, frequency, bibliographic and index searches. If you need help, the sites have identical help pages to assist you with searching, reading and printing the text.

And that’s MOA’s real strength — the way it presents its content. You can view images of every historical page and see them in plaintext format; most also come as PDF files you can view and print in Adobe Acrobat Reader (download it free at <>).

MOA is one of a growing number of online archives where genealogists can virtually research old periodicals; you’ll find details on three subscription sites in the June 2002 Family Tree Magazine.

From the August 2002 issue of Family Tree Magazine