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Cynthia, a Genlighten co-founder, launched a website for Chicago research in 2003 and since that time she has helped hundreds of researchers locate Cook County records. Her offerings include Chicago death certificates, 1923-1947 and naturalization, probate, and divorce lookups at the Cook County Circuit Court Archives. A former Family History Center director, she enjoys sharing her passion for research with others. She provides site-user support for Genlighten.com and spends her free time playing old-time fiddle music.
1) How did you get started doing genealogy research?
Back in 1979, I enrolled in a beginning genealogy class in college and started gathering family records. I remember quizzing my grandmother on ancestors’ names and dates and jotting the information down on old-school pedigree charts and family group records. Luckily, I married someone who shares my interest in doing research and we’ve been visiting cemeteries and vacationing at archives ever since.
2) Do you have a genealogy “superpower”? If so, what is it?
I am good at brainstorming lots of different approaches to solving problems and that works well with my patient, optimistic, I’m-not-going-to-give-up-easily sort of approach to tough research questions.
3) Describe a tricky research problem you’re particularly proud of having solved?
A researcher was searching for a Chicago death certificate for her ancestor. She had an approximate death year and a cause of death but she didn’t know the surname because the woman had remarried. She knew there was a stone not too far from the woman’s son’s grave and I offered to drive to the cemetery to help solve the mystery. I spent hours carefully reading stones but had no luck finding the right one. The cemetery shared a list of burials with me and I began checking possible matches with death certificates. Eventually I found the right certificate—it had an unexpected given name—and I returned to the cemetery to photograph the stone only to find that it had toppled face down into the mud. That was the reason I hadn’t been successful on my first visit. The researcher had the stone reset and I returned a third time to take pictures.
But it doesn’t end there. Some time later, a patron at the local Family History Center was looking for a woman with a similar story—remarried with an unknown surname. As the story unfolded, I realized that the person she was looking for was buried in the same small cemetery as the first woman and because I still had the list of burials, I was able to help the patron locate the correct death record in just a few minutes.
What were the chances of the two of us being at the same Family History Center on the same day at the same time? I can’t say that I’m proud of that experience, but I am thrilled and humbled to have been able to help that day.
4) What are the ideal elements you like to see in a well-formulated research request?
I specialize in document retrieval, but I still like to know what information the client is hoping to find. Why? Because unless clients are very familiar with Chicago records, they might be requesting a record that won’t answer the question they’re asking. For example, people will often ask for a marriage license hoping to find parent names but early Cook County licenses don’t provide that information. In some cases, early Polish Catholic records, for example, a church record would be a better source of information.
5) What’s the most interesting record source or repository you’ve utilized in your area?
I’ve found that the local Family History Center has a number of very accessible, little-known resources for Chicago research. My favorites are the Chicago Lying-In Hospital Birth Records and the Coroner’s Death Certificates.
6) What technical tools do you use to produce the digital images you provide to clients?
I use a CanoScan LiDE 200 portable flatbed scanner and then tweak images, as needed, using Picasa and GIMP. I usually provide 200 dpi jpgs for single documents and jpgs and a pdf for files with multiple pages (divorce and probate) but I’m happy to meet clients’ needs for other file sizes and formats.
7) Any new research offerings you’re considering?
I’m thinking of adding the Chicago History Museum to the list of repositories that I visit on a regular basis.
8 ) What advice would you give to someone who wants to get started as a genealogy research provider?
Learn all you can about the records that are key to research in your local area. Know how to find them and know what information they provide. Then you’ll be ready to draw on that information to help others.
9) What other passions do you pursue when you’re not at the archives doing research?
I love old-time string band music and if I’m not working, I’m probably playing the fiddle. I started lessons in 2008 and it’s a very happy part of my life.
13 Aug 12:42 AM
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I am good at brainstorming lots of different approaches to solving problems and that works well with my patient, optimistic, I’m-not-going-to-give-up-easily approach to tough research questions.
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