Interview with Amy Coffin
This week we interview Amy Coffin, Genealogist extraordinaire. You may be familiar with Amy from her efforts at the WeTree blog, including her renowned series 52 Weeks to Better Genealogy. In addition, Amy has a master’s degree in library and information science and is a very keen online genealogy researcher.
You have a master’s degree in library and information science. We assume the skills that you learned while pursuing that degree are invaluable for your genealogy research. At what point did you begin taking genealogy seriously, and when did you feel comfortable in turning it into your career?
I did not take a traditional library career path out of school. Instead I provided research assistance to a non-profit organization. My responsibilities included gathering information on many subjects and reporting my findings. This experience allowed me to grasp genealogy quickly once I had an interest in it. The jump to professional genealogy was easy since I was comfortable researching numerous subjects at any given time.
In your We Tree bio, you mention that you find genealogy information in the “darndest places”. So, what is the “most darndest” place you’ve ever discovered a valuable piece of information? And further, what kinds of processes do you use when searching online?
Everything is a potential research tool to me and everyone is a potential gatekeeper to information. People often focus so much on finding the birth, marriage and death records for their ancestors that they don’t see the benefits of casting a wider research net. My “darndest places” for locating historical information include a courthouse memorial for burial information, trial records for a murder case, Facebook for contacting a distant cousin in Belgium, and seemingly dry 1880’s church minutes in which I found an entry accusing my ancestor of “card playing for amusement.”
There’s a method to how I approach searches online. I start by writing down various name and keyword combinations I plan to search. I use several different search engines, as well as Boolean search operators (AND, OR, NOT) when applicable. Contrary to popular belief, search engines don’t pick up everything on the Internet. I like to plan my searches and increase my chances of getting in those uncovered spots.
You’re very active in the genealogy community and many of our readers will recognize you from your work around the web. Of all the different sites you’ve worked with, what has been your favorite experience so far?
This response will sound staged, but I assure you it’s not. My answer is Geni.com. Once upon a time, I created a private tree and uploaded a bunch of old photos. I invited my small extended family to view the tree, with little expectation. I just wanted those who were interested to have a place to view our family history should they want to do so. My little Geni tree was passed to extended members of the family and I was contacted by a distant relative I hadn’t seen in decades. She thanked me for sharing this information and added some of her own. That gratitude made all my hard work worth it. The tree has grown since then. I am happy to share this information with my family. It is a record of our history that can be passed down to future generations.
Recently you visited Salt Lake City, UT, for the Family History Library Research Retreat. For our readers who haven’t been fortunate enough to attend one of these events, could you share your experience? How often do you travel to genealogy events, and what are your favorite parts of them? Did you learn anything new at this retreat?
I had the fortune to be a part of the Family History Expos Fall 2010 research retreat. These are guided trips to the Family History Library in Salt Lake City. Attendees conduct their own family research, but have access to professionals to help with questions about research and materials. I also attended morning and evening classes about pertinent subjects as well. Numerous groups and genealogy societies organize these types of retreats. I encourage everyone to visit the Family History Library at some point, and group-led retreats are a great resource.
Each year, I attend about 5 regional or national research related events. Most of these are genealogy conferences, but I still keep current in the library world for the latest research tips, tricks and tools. Though I enjoy the sessions, my favorite part of these events is networking with others. Often I learn valuable information and get quite an education just from casual conversation with other attendees.
One of our users created a project called the Starbuck / Coffin Family Project. Have you had a chance to look at this project, or Geni projects in general? What are your thoughts on this type of collaboration? And where do you see collaboration in genealogy research heading in the future?
I had not heard of the Starbuck / Coffin family project until you shared it with me. Coffin is my married name, and very well researched. Because of that, my own personal research is on less mentioned lines. I am pleased to see this level of collaboration and will be looking for projects in my own research areas.
This is a great time to be a genealogist. More and more online tools are being developed that will help genealogists all over the world connect and work together on common goals. I owe a great deal of my own personal research accomplishments to communication with others who have an interest in the same area. Collaboration is rapidly increasing in today’s genealogical pursuits. Look for it to be the norm in the future.
To wrap up, tell us what kinds of exciting things the genealogy community can expect to see from you in the coming months. Any big projects that you’re working on?
Anytime you see me, expect conversation on genealogy, online search strategies, information organization & management and using social media as research tools. I have an “idea book” filled with topics, outlines and plans in various stages of development. Look for more articles and various writing pieces from me in the near future. Of course, I will also be writing my genealogy blog and managing my research business as well. I love what I do so that pretty much sums up my future plans!