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Cathie Rowand | The Journal Gazette
Curt Witcher, manager of the Genealogy Center of the Allen County Public Library, talks about how the library became a major tourist attraction.

Librarian tells how roots enrich

It took unconventional and even idiosyncratic steps to make the Allen County Public Library’s Genealogy Center the highly touted, prominent tourist destination it is today, according to the man who heads up the center.

And Curt Witcher says unconventional thinking will keep it that way.

During a lecture at the Allen County Historical Museum on Sunday, Witcher said that making hefty portions of genealogy collections free on the Web is actually good for tourism and that technology brings people to the library who otherwise would never have set foot in Fort Wayne.

All of which flies in the face of conventional thinking that says people won’t come to see something they can call up at home with their fingertips.

“There are people who say, ‘What are you doing? You’re giving the store away for free,’ ” Witcher said after he gave the lecture.

Witcher can see the logic, but those who look at it that way do not see what a presence on the Web does for the library.

There are more Web searches for genealogical data than any other topic except pornography, Witcher said. Also behind pornography, there are more genealogy sites than any other kind on the Web, according to Witcher.

With the large pool of interest on the subject, the library began putting parts of its extensive genealogy collection online in 2008. Now, through several Web portals, including the San Francisco-based Internet Archive at www.archive.org, millions are being exposed to the library’s name.

People see what’s online and want more, according to Witcher, which brings them to Fort Wayne. Plus, with as much hearsay that can be found on the Web, people want the real scoop on what’s right and what’s not when it comes to their family histories.

As proof that this is happening, Witcher cited a number that has not declined even during the economic recession of recent years – between 80,000 and 87,000 people from outside the county have come to the center on an annual basis, bringing with them about $7 million of indirect economic impact.

The service they receive once here – unlike at many libraries, professional genealogists are always at the front desk of the center, willing to help in any way – keeps them coming back.

“Good service pays, and pays in every way imaginable,” Witcher said during his lecture.

That’s one of the cornerstones of the center, Witcher said, but one that went against the tide of library thinking at the time the genealogy collection became well known.

During its rise in the 1950s and ’60s, libraries did not deal too much with genealogical pursuits, Witcher said. Those looking to piece together their family trees were a time drain on librarians, with many hard-to-answer questions.

Plus, libraries rarely dealt with used books. Instead, using taxpayer money, collections were always bought new, Witcher said.

Former head librarian Fred Reynolds then did the unheard of – he placed emphasis on genealogists, who he believed were underserved patrons of libraries. And soon the Allen County Public Library was either buying used books or working out deals with larger libraries, photocopying rare books it otherwise wouldn’t have in its stacks.

The premium wasn’t on the newness or value of the collection but on the value of information inside, Witcher said.

While it may seem to be “giving the store away for free” by putting materials on the Web, Witcher said there should be no worry. Copyright laws keep much of the collection from being put online, and there is no way every single item could be digitized in everyone’s lifetime, anyway, as the library’s collection keeps growing.

Plus, even if it were possible, he said, the service the genealogy staff provides would keep people coming back. The staff knows where to point people, the staff knows the documents people need and how to do scholarly research.

All things that are needed for the large number of people Witcher said Web data show are trying to piece together their history.

“Everybody has a family, everybody is somebody who came from somewhere,” he said.

jeffwiehe@jg.net

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