When it comes to unearthing information about her ancestors, Lori Bessler is decidedly “old school.”
Bessler has spent four decades searching for and finding genealogical details about her family, and she helps others do the same in her job as a reference librarian with the Wisconsin Historical Society Library-Archives.
Of the helpful advice she offered to some of the Dells area’s aspiring genealogists Thursday evening at the H.H. Bennett Studio, one bit of wisdom came through especially forcefully: The Internet, that modern-day font of all factoids great and small, is no substitute for age-old information sources and good old-fashioned elbow-grease.
That’s right: Ancestry.com is not a one-stop shop for completing your family tree, in spite of what its advertisements may suggest. Nor is the Internet the Alpha and Omega of genealogical information — even if you can find just about anything there regarding the Kardashian family.
“What we have blasted at us is Ancestry.com: ‘They got it all, all you have to do is start, and then you find every answer,’ ” Bessler said during an hour-long-talk to a group of about 20 during the final installment of the studio’s Spring Speaker Series. “We all know that’s not true.”
Ancestry.com and other genealogical websites can be helpful supplements, however, to what Bessler insisted are the indispensable, “core resources” for the genealogically inclined — censuses, vital records from government offices, and newspapers.
“You can use Ancestry.com and other sites to make sure you’ve done the preliminary start to your research,” Bessler said. “That [means] using three types of records to begin with: censuses, vital records and newspapers — they’re core resources because they are fairly easy to find and they give a lot of good, basic information about a person.”
That’s when using the aforementioned elbow-grease comes in, because you may need to travel to your county courthouse or local library to find that vital information about a distant relative, or even to Madison and the Wisconsin Historical Society where Bessler works, at 816 State St.
The Society has more than 3 million records including birth, death and marriage record indexes, newspaper clippings, photographs, property records from the National Register and State Register of Historic Places and the Wisconsin Architecture and History Inventory.
You can start looking for that distant relative’s information at the Society’s website, www.wisconsinhistory.org, under a section entitled “Research Your Family History.” The site also offers information about upcoming conferences, workshops and webinars — such as the workshop scheduled for May 9 and entitled “Our German Ancestors and Their World.”
Eventually you may end up communicating directly with Bessler, a situation even encourages.
She may not believe in the “one-stop shop” approach to genealogical research, but she does expect at least a few stops to take place at her desk at the Historical Society in Madison.
She said early and often during her talk that contacting her is a great way around those brick walls that even the most thorough and persistent genealogists encounter. She can be reached by telephone at 608-264-6519, by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, or at her desk at the library-archives at 816 State St. in Madison.
Of course, before you contact her or show up at her desk, Bessler recommended organizing the information you’ve collected, validating each bit of information by identifying its source and putting it in a timeline with gaps identified.
And make sure you’ve dug through those vital records first, with plenty of elbow-grease thrown in. You can bet that Bessler will determine rather quickly whether you did.
“When you come to my desk and you say, ‘How do I find the names of the parents of this person,’” she predicted, “I’m going to ask you did you do the censuses, did you do the vital records, did you look at their death record?’ ’’