Rooted in Family History: Archivist Reflects on Four Decades of Genealogical Research

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Archivist Jonathan Stayer, center, assisting a family with online research during an event at The State Museum of Pennsylvania in 2015.

Archivist Jonathan Stayer, center, assisting a family with online research during an event at The State Museum of Pennsylvania in 2015.
PHMC

Jonathan Stayer had been working at the Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society for several weeks in 1985 when he received a call from the Pennsylvania State Archives. The PHMC bureau wanted to hire an archivist with experience in genealogical research and Stayer, who had previously worked for the archives surveying county records, was already immersed in the growing field of genealogy.

Stayer will retire this fall after nearly 35 years as a reference archivist at the State Archives. During this career, he has witnessed the evolution of how genealogical records are used and disseminated.

Genealogy took hold of the American public starting in the late 1970s, spurred on by the popular 1977 TV miniseries Roots. One of Stayer’s earliest jobs was assistant librarian at the York County History Center, where he helped patrons track down archival and genealogical records. “Initially, I was supposed to spend the summer painting the ceiling of the museum’s exhibit area,” Stayer said. “But, when I got there, it was 1979 and genealogy was really taking off. The library was busy, and they only had one person. They needed the help.”

Several years after joining the Pennsylvania State Archives in 1985, Stayer emerged as the face of the bureau in the genealogy community. He began by speaking to local genealogical organizations about various aspects of  the State Archives’ vast resources and their usefulness for documenting family history. Eventually, he expanded to statewide and national conferences.

In the early days of Stayer’s career, it was common for patrons to visit the State Archives to ask for assistance in mapping out their family histories. Over the years, with the advent of the internet, genealogical websites have changed the way people search for records, presenting both advantages and disadvantages.

Stayer located this Civil War conscientious objector deposition of his ancestor Adam Stayer in the Pennsylvania State Archives.

Stayer located this Civil War conscientious objector deposition of his ancestor Adam Stayer in the Pennsylvania State Archives.
Pennsylvania State Archives/RG-19

The State Archives currently partners with Ancestry.com to digitize birth and death certificates, military records, naturalization papers, and numerous other sources and to make the materials accessible online. This wider availability of information is a great advantage for thousands of people who are unable to travel to the facility to do research. Although many patrons start their genealogical journey from the comfort of their homes with the aid of computers, they can miss out on the context that, Stayer notes, can only be found by physical record searches. In other words, a person may find the naturalization record or land warrant they were seeking online, but they don’t get the benefit of seeing how those documents factor into other assets held by the State Archives.

“In the past, when you went to a library or archives, you had to go through the microfilm or the box of records to get to what you wanted. You could see how your record fit into a context. Today, we spend time explaining where a record came from, what it means, and how it fits in with other materials. I think, in the past, people had a better sense of that,” Stayer said.

For those just starting to outline their family history, Stayer recommends that they begin by recording what they know. Start your search by writing down birth and death dates, marriages, and occupations. From that point, you may take advantage of two tools that were not available to Stayer in the 1980s: the internet and genetic testing.

“The internet makes things more accessible and people became more aware of available resources,” Stayer said. “People can track what others were doing in terms of searches. With the rise of social media, people began to exchange strategies and information. And that’s what has really driven genealogy research. As genetic tests became more available and accessible, others began to scientifically trace their connections to others.”

A student of history, Stayer will stay true to his profession, despite his retirement. He plans to write a book on his family history, including highlights on his ancestor Adam Stayer, a conscientious objector in Pennsylvania during the American Civil War. “In my mind, there’s no separation between history and genealogy,” Stayer said. “Genealogy is just a way to understand history.”

 

Sean Adkins is digital director for PHMC.