Searching for family history with the Archives of Michigan in person, online

19th-century prison records from Marquette State Prison in the Archives of Michigan.

Jan. 3, 2013

Genealogy - tracing the roots of a family tree - is personal, creative and rewarding detective work. Turn on the radio or TV, surf the Web or pick up the newspaper - chances are you'll come across a story about someone who has discovered an unexpected family connection across the generations.

"Popular television shows like 'Who Do You Think You Are' - a program that captured the experience of celebrities exploring their family histories - tells me that this kind of research and the stories it unearths have a real hook in popular culture," said Kris Rzepczynski, senior archivist at the Archives of Michigan. The Archives of Michigan is home to plentiful prison records - a valuable research tool for genealogists. Shown here are 19th-century prison records from Marquette State Prison. (Image on the right.)

It's an experience that Rzepczynski sees play out time and again through his work at the Archives, and one he hopes to help encourage even more curious-minded folks to pursue.

Person reading local government records."As more content becomes available online and is easily navigated, we see more people having those 'Ah-ha!' moments," he said. "Once they find a birth record, census data or other evidence from people living real lives, most folks are hooked."

Sometimes, knowing where and how to get started can be among the biggest obstacles for beginners. For those searchers seeking Michigan content, however, the knowledgeable staff and rich resources of the Archives of Michigan provide an excellent jumping-off point.

In July 2012, the Archives of Michigan welcomed the transfer of the Abrams Foundation Historical Collection. The collection is a treasure-trove of resources sure to inspire family history researchers of all experience levels. Now, the Archives, in downtown Lansing, has become an even more attractive place to start the journey.

"The collection's emphasis has always been on the places Michiganders come from - New York, New England, the Great Lakes states. Things like county histories and cemetery transcriptions that tie back to those states are really popular," Rzepczynski said.

The Abrams collection also boasts:

  • Published family histories;
  • Passenger lists for immigrant ships;
  • Military indexes
  • City directories; and
  • Sanborn fire insurance maps.

An Archives of Michigan family history researcher leafs through a 19th-century scrapbook."When you look at what's now available, in conjunction with original materials like naturalization records, tax records and property deeds, this is an information hot spot for family researchers," Rzepczynski said.

Now that these resources are all together at the Archives of Michigan, whether your research takes you to Michigan, Canada or anywhere in the U.S., people have access to things in the stacks and online.

Rzepczynski cited the Archives' digital platform, Seeking Michigan - www.seekingmichigan.org - as a perfect place to start.

Information in Seeking Michigan is available and free to anyone. Key resources include death records, Civil War records and all of the known surviving records from state censuses - all a big draw for genealogists.

How does this information powerhouse - with the Archives' bricks-and-mortar location pegged conveniently in mid-Michigan - complement other family research offerings like Ancestry.com? According to Rzepczynski, quite nicely, indeed.

"Ancestry.com is a great starting point for people seeking out their family histories," he said. "But the information is being culled from our collections here.

A woman settled in at the Archives of Michigan takes notes from the book 'Michigan in the War.'"We want the Archives of Michigan and Seeking Michigan to be the destination for researchers who are seeking Michigan content," he added. "Ancestry.com contains indexes of certain death records and points the researchers back to Michigan. It's a nice entry point, but the bonus for us is that if you do come across a Michigan record, it brings you right back to us.

"The more of a footprint you have online, the more your collections are accessible and the easier it is for people to find you," he said. "If a researcher finds an image referenced online, but the image itself is housed with the Archives, most researchers will want to take the next step and see the real thing. It makes them more likely to visit us on site."

With recent enhancements - to both the physical space and the visitor experience - it's well worth the trip to see the Archives of Michigan in person.

"If you've been here before, you'll see it's completely different. Walls have been knocked down, and there's a more open feeling in the stacks and the reading room," Rzepczynski said.

Saturday, Jan. 5, 2013, marks the grand opening of the Abrams Foundation Historical Collection at the Archives of Michigan, as well as the start of public Saturday hours at the Archives from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; this is in addition to regular Monday-Friday hours of 1 to 5 p.m.

There's also a new sign-in procedure, in which users are issued a photo ID card that works much like a library card for seamless, instantaneous use. "After you 'scan in,' the library collections are all in the reading room area in open stacks, so people can find whatever resources they need," Rzepczynski said. "If they want to see original records (ledgers or diaries, for example), staff will pull the items from the vault for their use."

Rzepczynski believes the Archives has created a space that offers the best of both worlds: a customer-focused main reading room area where researchers have broad, open access, and space where staff has the ability to safeguard the primary source materials for future visitors' use and enjoyment.

Those who might still need a nudge to jump into the "family history" fray should consider joining the Archives of Michigan and the Michigan Genealogical Council on July 12-13, 2013, for the annual Abrams Genealogy Seminar - a two-day event offering breakout sessions covering family history tools, tips and trends. This year's featured speaker is Dr. Thomas Jones, a nationally recognized researcher and educator. The weekend is always a great opportunity to explore unique collections and get a good start on your research.

For Rzepczynski and the staff at the Archives of Michigan, that is perhaps the biggest reason they do what they do.

"When I think about the footprint of the resources we have here at the Archives, and the ways those resources can help people make connections, it's exciting," he said. "In the past, many would-be researchers have been intimidated by the process. Now, it's much more open and, thanks to Seeking Michigan, much more accessible. And that's exactly how it should be."

To learn more about the Archives of Michigan's family history resources or coming genealogical workshops and events, please visit www.michigan.gov/archivesofmi or www.seekingmichigan.org. The Archives of Michigan is part of the Michigan Historical Center, within the Department of Natural Resources. The Archives is located in the Michigan Library and Historical Center, 702 W. Kalamazoo St., in downtown Lansing – just two blocks west of the Capitol.