Making Manitowoc: Library genealogist Meredith Meier
Manitowoc Public Library offers an array of resources for those interested in tracing their roots. A specialist from the Genealogy Society is available every Tuesday from 2 to 5 p.m. to assist. Josh Clark | USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin
MANITOWOC - Meredith Meier has proved to be pretty good at a job she found by accident.
She has been a public services associate for Manitowoc Public Library for about 11 years, starting part-time and mostly helping visitors find genealogy resources, running book discussions and playing a small part in ordering books.
Today, genealogy takes up about 10 percent of her job. She also runs a citizenship class, orders books, works the service desk, does community presentations and organizes library events, such as a recent "Doctor Who" celebration, among other duties.
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"I found this job by accident," said Meier, who majored in history at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. "It was not a goal of mine. But it worked out really well."
Her success, in fact, earned her the title of Paralibrarian of the Year from the Support Staff and Circulation Services section of the Wisconsin Library Association for 2017.
She said she loves the variety her position provides, but history has always been a first love. And this job was the first that uses her undergraduate degree.
"In school, I did a lot of Wisconsin research, because it's easier to do research in the area you are researching," Meier said. "I submitted my paper on Wisconsin history for this job, because they wanted a sample of my writing."
One of her first library tasks was becoming familiar with genealogy references at the library and ways to help patrons find them. Much of the information had already been digitized by the time Meier arrived, but she was able to help digitize taped interviews about Manitowoc history that had been done in the 1970s so people can find them online. She's learned to help patrons find the resources they need, and even helped the Manitowoc County Genealogy Society set up a time each Tuesday afternoon when volunteers help patrons find specific information for which they are looking.
She also hosts a genealogy class, and people can set up appointments to meet with her one-on-one as they do research.
"I don't know everything, but I'm pretty good at knowing where to look for things," Meier said. "I've had people ask me to do their family research completely, which I cannot do."
These days, much can be found online, if people know where to look, she said.
"If someone asks a question like 'I think my great great grandfather died in 1806,' that's a lot of microfilm to go through," Meier said. "I can't responsibly spend the time to go through that, and they don't want to spend the time going through that. I want to empower people to come here or go online and do their research themselves. The fun of genealogy research is actually doing the research, not have someone do it for you."
Meier recalls a man who was looking for maps because he was doing a replica of the Northwestern train in his basement, and he wanted things to be accurate.
"I helped a man scan his dad's journal from World War II," she said. "We were reading parts of that, too, as we were scanning. I'm really glad he let me do that. We got to share stories. A lot of times in summer we'll have people on vacation and they'll stop to look up information while they are here."
Although mostly older people do genealogy, younger people do, too, as well as kids who come in for class assignments.
Sometimes it's helpful for people to work with her or with others during Meier's genealogy classes.
"For one class, I let people bring their own stories," she recalled. "Often times when researching you hit a dead end, and you think 'What do I do now?' Start researching someone else and often you will find the dead-end person."
She suggests people interested in learning about their family tree start with themselves and work backward.
"Then, interview older members of the family," she said. "You might have some of the dates, or they're easier to find, but where there's holes in stories, that's where you can start looking."
That technique works for Janet Haus, a member of the Two Rivers genealogy group, who volunteered recently at the Manitowoc Library's archive section.
She started writing short chapters of her family's history, starting with herself and her husband, and working back by generation. She makes copies of each completed chapter and shares them with her children.
Meier and the library have been helpful in her research.
"I especially like using their newspaper files," Haus said. "There are times when I can find things there. They have good indexes and newspapers going back to the 1800s. The other things that have been very useful are the plat maps. Fortunately for me, most of the family I am searching for settled right here in the Manitowoc area."
And it's the stories that keep her motivated.
"One of the most interesting things are just how people lived," Haus said. "How they lived, or how they died or how they passed their property on to their kids. A lot of times it was, 'You will get the property, but I need a place to live.' One great great grandfather said 'You need to build me a place to live on the property.' Another said they needed to have one cow, and so many pounds of grain each year. It gave you an idea of how people really lived."
Her advice to those dipping a toe into genealogy is to do the legwork.
"You need to go to the courthouses," Haus said. "The library helps you pull everything together. Having everything here at the library makes it a whole lot easier. You also should start with what you know, and talk to older relatives while they're still here.
"I do it because I'm interested in the past," Haus added. "It's so important for our young people to know where everyone came from. It gives us a better understanding of who we are and where we came from."
This story is part of the Making Manitowoc series of stories that highlights the people, places and things that make the Manitowoc region one-of-a-kind. If you know of an interesting person, place or thing made in Manitowoc that you think could be featured, contact Patti Zarling at email@example.com, by phone at 920-686-2152 or on Twitter at @PGPattiZarling.