Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Volunteer Highlight: Ruth Ann Downer and the Bible Project



The family Bible is a mainstay of genealogical research.  For some families, the Bible is where essential information about births, baptisms, marriages, and deaths are recorded for current and future generations.  Family photos, Mass cards, and other keepsakes are also sometimes inserted between the pages.  For the amateur or professional genealogist, getting hold of a family Bible can be a mother lode of family facts.

Over the years, the Godfrey Library accumulated a significant number of Bibles in its collection.  Most were purchased on eBay, the online auction service.  These Bibles may have gotten separated from their original owners for a variety of reasons:  some were lost, some were sold when elderly relatives died, or some simply were given up by a branch of the family that had no interest in keeping them.

In 2008, our librarian, Sharon Dahlmeyer-Giovannitti, came up with the idea of trying to reunite these Bibles with their families.  Ruth Ann Downer, who started volunteering at the Godfrey in 2009, was enlisted to work on the project.  We spoke to Ruth Ann about her experiences with the project.

To find a Bible's “lost” family, Ruth Ann does the reverse of what most genealogists do:  rather than searching the past for ancestors, she looks toward the present for descendants.  This involves selecting the name of a family member noted in the Bible and tracing that person’s descendants until (hopefully) she can find someone living today.  It is a painstaking process.  Ancestry.com is a helpful tool in her research, not only for tracing the Bible owner's descendants, but also for determining which, if any, of these family members are interested in genealogy.

Ruth Ann does extensive research to confirm that these people are, in fact, related to the family that owned the Bible.  She then weighs several important factors:  Which descendants are interested in genealogy?  Where are they currently located?  How closely related are they to the Bible owner in question?

After careful consideration, Ruth Ann writes the best candidate a letter, stating that the Godfrey has information regarding their family history and asking the candidate to contact us if they are interested.  She deliberately does not mention the Bible at first.  The goal is to reunite the Bible with a descendant who wishes to use it for genealogical research or simply have it as a family keepsake.  It would be pointless to give the Bible to someone who wishes to resell it for profit.  Ruth Ann gives the person a year to respond to her letter.  If the person does not respond, Ruth Ann returns to her research and tries to identify another good candidate.

To date, the Godfrey has reunited about 30 Bibles with their families.  Most people are excited to find out that we have their family's Bible and often make a small donation to the library as thanks.  Some people just want the information in the Bible, not the book itself.  In such cases, we send them scans of the relevant pages.  Other people are thrilled to be reunited with a Bible that had been lost, as was the case of John Leonard.  The Bible was owned by an elderly relative, who had no children, and he did not pass it on to another family member before his death.

We have had people travel from as far away as England after learning we had their family's Bible!  For those who cannot travel, we ship the Bible to them instead.  Just this year we shipped a Bible to a woman who was unable to make the trip.  The Bible in question last belonged to her mother, who died as the result of an awful tragedy many years prior.

Guiding a Bible home is a rewarding experience for all involved.  We at the Godfrey take pride in our efforts to reunite families with a piece of their lost history.  For the families, these Bibles not only contain valuable genealogical information, some of which cannot be found anywhere else, but also hold incalculable sentimental value.

If you don't know where your family Bible is, the Godfrey Library might just come knocking on your door someday!

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