Exploring History

The Library of the Western Reserve Historical Society holds the keys to your past.

As Ann Sindelar fingers the silver repousse bracelet she wears on her right wrist, she proudly recounts its history. Her eyes sparkle as she talks about her paternal grandmother, Rose Nemecek Sindelar, born to parents who immigrated to Cleveland from Bohemia in 1891.

“Rose was a spirited woman who was clearly ahead of her time,” Sindelar says. “Although she married back in the day when it was more important to stay home and raise a family, she had wonderful business acumen.

Through the years,” she adds with a smile, “my grandmother developed what you might call an undercover career: My grandfather was a dentist, and she kept track of the books.”

It’s this ardor about her past, Sindelar says, that fuels her passion for family histories.

Including yours.

Each week, on average, more than 300 people visit, call or e-mail The Library of the Western Reserve Historical Society seeking clues about their ancestry. And, as the library’s reference supervisor, Sindelar has made it her mission to put patrons on the path to enlightenment.

“I tell people all the time that I have one of the best jobs in town,” she says. “This is a wonderful place of discovery. It’s one thing to read about the past. It’s another to find out how history impacted your family, and how your family links to history.”

Founded in 1867, the institution is one of the premier research libraries in the country. Its shelves are filled with more than 20 million documents, ranging from city directories to newspapers to birth, marriage and death certificates –– making it a mecca for genealogists and historians from around the world.

Through the years, the library’s reputation and Sindelar’s expertise have gained renown. Ken Burns sent a crew there to film manuscripts and photos for his epic 1990 PBS documentary, “The Civil War.” Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin has also called for assistance with research.

But it’s the personal stories Sindelar is most proud of: They include helping an adoptee fill in the missing pieces of his birth certificate, and watching a female patron’s eyes light up as she read her mother’s name on the 1930 census.

“There have been so many poignant moments,” Sindelar says softly, “that have been so moving to me.”

The idea of tracing your roots can be a daunting one. But Sindelar quickly allays pessimism as she proffers the library’s variety of databases, ranging from the three-volume Dictionary of American Family Names, which traces the origins of individual surnames; to Revolutionary War pension applications; to census material, dating to 1790.

“Those pension records,” says Sindelar, “are fantastic. Many men who fought eventually settled here in the Western Reserve. The records indicate not only where they lived, but often list the extent of their war injuries. It’s an amazing resource.”

So are the census records. At a glance, they provide a cornucopia of information, including names, ages and countries of origin. “The census allows you to really get a handle on where your people lived and what they did for a living,” Sindelar says.

Upon entering the library, fledgling genealogists are given a five-generation pedigree chart to begin their search. “People know more than they think they do,” says Sindelar, who encourages patrons to peruse what family documents they do have before making the trip. Others come seeking help with roadblocks they’ve encountered while doing online research.

“The added value of coming to this library,” Sindelar says, “is that it’s staffed by a team of experts who are problem-solvers in the field.”

As age 51 approaches, Sindelar has become even more cognizant of the importance of uncovering the past for the future.

“I think we reach a point in life where we wonder where our name and family came from,” she says. “Often a birthday or anniversary becomes a milestone marked by the beginnings of genealogical research.

“There’s no better gift,” Sindelar adds, “to hand down to the next generation.”

A Preservation Primer
Ann Sindelar and the staff of The Library of the Western Reserve Historical Society offer these tips on preserving pieces of your family history:

For Documents
• Remove staples, paper clips, rubber bands or other unnecessary plastics and metals from the collection.
• All items should be protected from heat, light, humidity and pollution.
• Place items in containers that will slow the deterioration process. This includes acid-free paper, folders and boxes, as well as chemically stable plastics.
• Charcoal and pastel drawings should not be placed in plastic sleeves as static electricity will smudge the document.
• Unfold and flatten papers and photographs.
• Use a soft brush to wipe away dirt.

For Scrapbooks
• Do not use magnetic storage albums, glue or tape
• Use acid-free paper
• Identify photographs and items in pencil on the scrapbook page, not on the document.

For Newspapers
• Photocopy articles onto acid-free paper and keep the original away from other documents.
• Most newsprint made before 1880 is cotton-based and should remain in good condition if stored out of the light and at the correct temperature.
• Newsprint after 1880 is generally made out of highly acidic wood pulp and will turn to dust at the mere touch. It should be photocopied as soon as possible.

For Films and Tapes
• All items should be kept in a cool dry place, away from heat, light humidity and pollution.
• Have a VHS or digital copy made for viewing, but save the original because technology will change and the original film will have the clearest contrast.

For Photos
• Keep original photos out of direct sunlight. Display copies only.
• When handling a photograph, wear gloves or hold at the edges.
• If a photograph is matted, remove the mat unless it threatens to damage the original image. Many mats have a high acidity content and will stain a photograph.
• If a photograph is mounted, do not attempt to remove it. Doing so may damage the image.

The Library of the Western Reserve Historical Society
10825 East Blvd., Cleveland
(216) 721-5722 • www.wrhs.org
or check the Web site for hours and admission fees.

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