A quick visit to the society website may settle any fears of dead ends. The journal has been digitized and transcribed, providing researchers and genealogists alike with an important aspect of the Underground Railroad’s legacy.
Still’s journal is just one of the more than 21 million items in the society’s archives, which explains why researchers, genealogists, and students flock to the location at 13th and Locust Streets in Center City.
Sandra M. Hewlett has been working closely with the society since 1987, when she started volunteering with the Genealogical Society of Pennsylvania. Hewlett’s interest in genealogy began in the late 1970s after the death of a family member who had been compiling a family history.
"I can remember staying up all night reading it," Hewlett said, noting the instant spark she felt to complete the rest of the research.
Hewlett, who lives in Oaks, Montgomery County, began working on an in-depth history that traced her lineage across the United States and to England.
"I have a fifth great-grandmother who is buried in the Tower of London," Hewlett said. "She’s buried at the Chapel Royal of St. Peter ad Vincula."
Her discovery came after genealogy led her to England, both for her family and eventually for others. Hewlett started receiving requests from friends to conduct some basic genealogical research. In 2001, Hewlett decided that she would become a professional and acquired the title of certified genealogist.
Hewlett’s client load varies, depending on the depth and breadth of a project, she said. One English client wanted her to look up information about a person who came to Philadelphia. The client hadn’t been able to find any indication that the ancestor ever made it to the states. Hewlett discovered why — the man had died on the ship. She spent time poring over documents from the customs office and connected the names with customs ledgers.
"The man was thrilled to get confirmation," she said. "That’s the beauty of genealogy. It’s always full of surprises."
Hewlett says that genealogy has been increasing in popularity since the post-Civil War era. During that time, the influx of immigrants caused many people living in the United States to want to find out if they were "truly" American.
"In the day, people would send letters to other family members they know and everyone would write back with dates of marriages, deaths, everything they knew," Hewlett said.
Over the years, institutions have built up around the idea of genealogy, such as Ancestry.com and the Family History Library in Salt Lake City.
The advent of the Internet has made acquiring information easier, Hewlett said. But the vast archives populating Internet servers do not offer much help when researchers get stuck.
That’s where Hewlett comes in. Professional training helps her cull data from libraries across the country, as well as using Google.
"Everyone has a different mission," she said. "There’s so much available, we often forget how many resources are available to us."
While there is truth in Ancestry.com’s motto of "You don’t even have to know what you’re looking for, you just have to start looking," Hewlett says that it’s important to start researching what you and your family already know.
The sheer volume of articles and a staff of librarians at the disposal of the society’s patrons has Lee Arnold, senior director of the library and collections, convinced that few better places exist to aid genealogical research.
"That’s what sets us apart from online organizations," Arnold said. "You might be able to get a rough sketch from them."
Arnold explained that the librarians on hand provide researchers with a "context" that online sources just don’t have.
"You need people like us to help clear up the confusion," Arnold said.
Those interested in genealogy sometimes create a family history, an often self-published work that chronicles the timeline of a specific lineage in narrative form.
Though bearing the name of Pennsylvania, the society has genealogical records from every state east of the Mississippi River, as well as more than 10,000 family histories, most of which are donated.
Though the library carries a significant number of family histories, Arnold warns researchers that nearly all remain unverified.
Hewlett cautions those who are interested in genealogy that there are some costs, subscriptions to websites being chief among them. And there is also the addictive quality of genealogy to worry about, but Hewlett doesn’t seem to mind: "I could be locked in here for a year and I wouldn’t complain."