We still need libraries for family history breakthroughs

January 28, 2019

We still need libraries for family history breakthrough

The last high school yearbook sat on the table before me, and I took a moment before opening it.

I’d spent the last 90 minutes at the *_______________ Public Library, the only noise the occasional shuffle of feet from patrons perusing the shelves or the clanging of a nearby radiator.

A bleak world sat outside next to me. Winters in northern Ohio along the Lake Erie shore are not for the feeble.

The only thing more lifeless than the bank of gray clouds above or the north wind skimming off the water was the town itself. The downtown had become a shell of empty windows and plenty of side street parking (because no one else was there).

A few pillars of smoke rose out of the stacks of the enormous steel plant, but otherwise, it sat mostly vacant, a blackened and rusting relic from the town’s former coal-fired magnificence.

Even the freight trains passing through seemed to want to come in and out as fast as they could, hoping for less icy locales wherever they were heading.

I’d come here to find my father’s birth mother. After uncovering a birth certificate for a Dorothy Lipp, born in _______________ in 1940, I made a special trip to see if I could find her.

At first I knocked on a few doors near where some old city directories said her parents lived, but that was 60 years earlier, and and of the one or two who answered, no one seemed to have remembered or even heard of her.

The library was next on the itinerary. If the girl grew up in this town, she’d appear in the high school yearbooks from the 1950s. They’d give me a clue if she was the one. They’d provide some insight into her personality and character — Honor student? Band? Athletics? A photo of her walking the hallways with her friends?

And if she was my father’s birth mother, perhaps there’d be a clue. If she was 16 when he was born, which is what the legend passed down through the years said, then wouldn’t it stand to reason any reference to her or picture of her, would vanish by her senior year?

Maybe. I had to find out.

Trying for a Breakthrough in Family HIstory Questions

We’ve lost something. Haven’t we?

Digitized records, faster-than-a-bullet-train database searches, social networks of genealogy enthusiasts … so much researching our family histories and mysteries can be done from our desktops, even our phones.

No complaints about that. I live hundreds of miles from where the family tree started as a sapling, and with children and a job, there’s little time to go galavanting through the archives of some rural Kentucky county hoping to find a clue.

But there’s still room in this WiFi age for good old fashion shoe leather journalism. I mean put on a coat, a good pair of shoes, and go walk the old neighborhoods. Go talk to people. Ask them what they know. Get a feel for what’s happened since your long-ago relatives lived there.

And libraries can be the kind of place where discoveries can still be made. Many of them in small communities have local history books you cannot find anywhere else, even in the vast trove of Amazon’s warehouses.

Shelves of books in a library
Libraries still matter when it comes to solving our family history mysteries | Photo by Susan Yin on Unsplash

We all reach dead ends in our research, but if all we do is sit at our desks and vainly type names into search engines, we’re missing a location ripe with possibility.

When I worked at a newspaper, I heard many times how reporters can’t report from their desks. They needed to walk the streets, have coffee with sources, eavesdrop on conversations, shake hands, network, get out of the newsroom and immerse themselves in their topic beats.

Same with family history research. Get out from behind your desk. Pound the pavement. Spend a few hours at the library where your ancestors lived.

That’s what I intended when I traveled alone to _______________. After obtaining a public copy of Dorothy Lipp’s birth certificate, I made plans to spend time in the town.

If she was my father’s birth mother, I reasoned, I needed to be there and to research there, not just search using my home computer in Pennsylvania.

And after many long hours in that icy town or in the warm, low-lit rooms of the library, I was arriving at a critical juncture in my search for Dorothy Lipp.

A Long-Shot Theory

I did find Dorothy Lipp. Dorothy Lipp. The one who belonged the copy of the birth certificate I’d laid on the library table next to the high school yearbooks.

She first appeared as a meek freshman in the _______________ High School yearbook of 1955. She sported wavy dark hair, dark wide set eyes and a small mouth, and was the shortest of the class.

Something about her face, the roundness of the cheeks as they curved toward her dimpled chin. I couldn’t deny a familiarity. But I had to test it.

I sent a picture via text to my wife. She responded instantly. “Looks like Ryan!” Ryan was our 2-year-old son. I felt so close to solving this family mystery.

Dorothy Lipp of _______________ seemed to grow in confidence as her sophomore, then her junior year, went by. She played a few sports, but her talent seemed to be singing and acting. There she was in the play. There she was in the choir. I felt like was getting to know the grandmother I’d never before seen by paging through these high school yearbooks in the library.

There was one book left to search, 1956-57. My father was born in September 1956. If I’d found the right Dorothy Lipp, it stands to reason she wouldn’t appear in this yearbook.

I took a moment to check my assumptions. The town of _______________ sat on the shore of Lake Erie on the opposite side of Ohio from Cincinnati, which is where my grandfather, Bud, was from and where my father was born.

However, Bud worked as a freight conductor for the New York Central railroad, and their tracks ran right through the center of town, once delivering a lot of coal and other supplies to the old steel mill.

A black-and-white photo of a streamlined New York Central locomotive
A mid-century locomotive for the New York Central railroad. | Cincinnati Archives

Was it reasonable to think Bud ran with a train crew through this town, even as far away as _______________ was to Cincinnati? Did the crew stop here for the night, run into a few girls in town, impress them with their old railroad and world war stories?

A long shot theory for sure. But within the realm of reasonable possibility.

Nervously I opened the last high school yearbook. I drew a breath it seemed with each turn of a page. I didn’t see her face. Page 5, Page 10, Page 15, Page 20 …

And there she was, a candid shot of her on stage, the lead actress in the fall play.

I’d found the wrong Dorothy Lipp.

*EDITOR’S NOTE: I intentionally left the name of the town blank. I wish to avoid any potential embarrassment for anyone not associated with my family or the events which led to my father’s abduction. This post discusses a significant-but-frustrating event in the search for my father’s birth mother, which is why I included it. As it will become apparent to the reader, it marked a significant turning point. It’s my hope the reader will understand why I exercised some discretion.

This post is part of Amy Johnson Crow’s 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks blogging challenge. The theme for this week is “At the library.” Previous posts can be found on the Maintenance of Way page.

Dave Pidgeon is a writer and photographer from Lancaster, Pa. He writes about fathers of the past and his own journey into fatherhood here at CausingDadmage.com. You can reach him at dave@writingintheafternoon.com

More about Dave Pidgeon

    1. Fascinating! I hope that you’re able to find the right Dorothy! Are you sure that this is not the right Dorothy? I apologize, since I don’t know the specifics of the story, but could it be that the fall play was later in the fall, after your father was born? Although it was common for pregnant teens to drop out of school, perhaps she didn’t drop out of school after all? Nevertheless, great sleuthing, and I hope that you’re able to track her down soon!

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