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‘History is alive’

Anne Billeter is library director and board member at Rogue Valley Genealogical Society. [Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune]

Editor’s note: Community Builder is a periodic Q& A series providing perspectives from local people involved in significant change in Southern Oregon. Today’s conversation is with Anne Billeter, library director and board member of Rogue Valley Genealogical Society.

Q: How does the Genealogical Society assist people in researching their family heritage?

Anne: We teach classes, offer mentoring, have free monthly programs and help people organize their research. We offer extensive library and internet resources to our members.

Q: Why do people get involved in genealogical research?

Anne: It varies. There are people who just do a DNA test out of general curiosity about their ethnic background. Others may be looking for a lost family member. Some people have unexpected surprises when they discover a person they thought was their father or their grandfather really isn’t. This can open up relationships with newly discovered half-sisters or grandparents that changes their life.

Q: What drew you to genealogy?

Anne: I love the detective aspect of finding answers to questions. Unexpectedly, I found I love learning about history. I was not engaged in history in school; I was an English major. Now history is alive because I’m reading about individuals and events in the past, in the words of people writing at that time. I had a breakthrough and discovered that an ancestor, Nathan Curtis, was actually in the Civil War. His health was impacted by the war. He couldn’t farm after the war because he didn’t have health or strength that was required. Trying to trace him after the Civil War meant looking for married daughters that he lived with. Gradually, the Civil War developed meaning and a connection for me.

Q: What are the advantages of being involved in a group setting for discovering genealogy, as opposed to doing it individually?

Anne: I’ve seen people who do research by themselves, and that’s one way, but they miss the camaraderie. That camaraderie develops when people discover that they have research angles in common. We have interest groups that are meeting virtually and, previous to the pandemic, met in person monthly. We have an Irish interest group. We have a genetic genealogy interest group. We have a very active German genealogy interest group. They are focused on an aspect of their research and giving each other hints and suggestions they’ve uncovered. There’s definitely a social aspect that makes genealogy interesting to many people.

Q: Why have a genealogical library when so much information is digital?

Anne: No matter what genealogy library you go to, you find that local resources are critical for the local genealogy. In September, we celebrated 10 years in this building. When we moved here, we had just under 16,000 cataloged print items. We now have 23,000 print items. A digitized book and good software allows you search for a word or phrase, but you need the context, and that can be difficult with just the digitized record.

Additionally, there is a great deal of information that isn’t digitized and may never be. Research can’t be done exclusively on the internet. There is information that is only available by going to libraries, courthouses and cemeteries. The only source of an infant’s name may be on her gravestone. The only indication of a divorce, a maiden name or a second married name may be found in a deed record.

We own materials that are digitized and available online, but we have a core group who really prefer the print. Genealogy libraries don't just have local resources. RVGS Library has books about every state and quite a few countries. With the addition of the internet, especially our subscription websites, anyone researching in Southern Oregon can access information worldwide.

Q: Your training was as a librarian. How does genealogy work fit with that?

Anne: Genealogy work fits in beautifully. Having the advantage of knowing how libraries are organized and how library catalogs work allows me to help people find information. Because we do so much of it virtually now, many people come to genealogy without really knowing how libraries operate. I feel at home in a library and know how it is organized.

Q: What was your role in writing “Over the Applegate Trail to Oregon in 1846”?

Anne: I didn’t write it — Bert Webber wrote it — I simply did the genealogy research. I put together the family tree information that’s in the back of that diary. I’ve done that for several of his diaries. It’s the only diary that’s ever been found that was written on that trail in 1846, as opposed to reminiscences. But Virgil Pringle didn’t put a lot of detail in because they were busy and tired. We wanted to know who was on that wagon train because they don't travel in isolation; they went in a group. Almost every list that you find of people on a wagon train is of the men. Usually lists of participants don’t include the women and the children. So I tried to put together a list of everyone on that wagon train, including their ages. And I had to use genealogy to do it, particularly the 1850 census, which was only four years later.

Q: Your career was as a library manager in Jackson County. What are the community benefits of having a healthy public library system?

Anne: A supported library system provides an entire community an opportunity to find information for themselves or to share with their children. A library helps develop a love of reading and books and expands our horizons. We can discover the world that’s out there through books, magazines, media and through the internet. Because of the internet, libraries are becoming more of a community center rather than just a location to find written materials. I was impressed that the Jackson County library system opened the meeting room as a cooling shelter when we were having a heat wave. That’s definitely an expansion of services that we didn’t have when I retired in 2007.

Q: What changes have you seen in libraries?

Anne: The internet has caused libraries to grow in different directions. It’s a more holistic sense of how the library can be involved in the community. Activities that the library does with children have expanded with speakers and presentations. Now they’re doing a hybrid approach where you can attend in person or virtually. The library is serving a wider population than the library was reaching before. Homebound people are not only getting books delivered, but they also have presentations available to them through Zoom. We had audio books on cassettes, then they were audio CDs, which they still have, and now they’ve moved to Libby and Hoopla for digital access. Online resources have expanded the library’s reach.

Q: What brought you to the Rogue Valley? How did you end up here?

Anne: When Bob and I married, we were both graduate students at the University of Illinois. We gave ourselves five years to get his career going and then decide where we really wanted to live. Bob took a job with Hughes Aircraft in Southern California. We knew LA wasn’t a permanent location, so during those five years we would fly to vacation spots somewhere we had researched.

We wanted woods and forests and more rural, but we needed a place where he could start his own business as a computer consultant. Initially, we thought we needed a larger population area, and we were looking at Eugene, but it’s so rainy up there. We flew into Medford, rented a motor home, spent some time with a realtor and then went out in the woods. We didn’t see a single person for the whole week, but we saw a bear — it was terrific! We fell in love with the Rogue Valley, although we first lived in the Applegate Valley.

Q: So what keeps you here?

Anne: I guess the sense of community and people that I really enjoy spending my time with. I feel like I’ve grown roots here. I don't have any ancestral roots here, but most people don’t. There’s a small group of people who are multigenerational from the Rogue Valley, but not many.

Q: Recently you were crowned queen of the Children’s Festival. So if you could wave your magic wand, what would you change to make life better in Southern Oregon?

Anne: Well, it would have to be a very good magic wand because the thing that would really make a difference would be for the region to not be as dry. The fires and smoke are really inhibiting us from getting outdoors and doing many of the things that we treasure about Southern Oregon, including attending Britt and the Shakespeare Festival. Smoke and fires are certainly on our minds.

Q: What’s clearer to you now?

Anne: I’ve learned that human nature is not easily changed. A person is who he or she is. For the most part, you can’t really change people. You have to accept the way they are and roll with it.

Q: What has genealogy taught you?

Anne: Genealogy has taught me that the sense of belonging and connection with other people is so important. That connection could be with an actual relative or with an ancestor or even with somebody who’s interested in genealogy. We used to take a genealogy bus trip to Salt Lake City every year. Initially I thought, ‘What a waste of time: two days to get there and two days to get back.’ But the camaraderie that developed on that bus trip was so important.

I wasn’t interested in history in school nor throughout my adult life until I got involved in genealogy. Seeing an ancestor’s handwriting on his pension application from the Revolutionary War is a personal connection to my family’s past and our nation’s history.

Rogue Valley Genealogical Society

The mission of Rogue Valley Genealogical Society is to inspire interest in genealogy, inform and educate the public and maintain a growing, sustainable library with a strong online presence. RVGS was founded in 1966 and owns and operates the Rogue Valley Genealogical Society Library, which houses the largest collection of genealogical materials in Southern Oregon.

The objectives of the society are:

∙ to secure information of a genealogical nature from public and private records by way of historical research as well as indexing and abstracting.

∙ to provide for the preservation and publication of results.

∙ to preserve and protect the collection for future generations.

∙ to acquire genealogical materials including books, maps, electronic media, documents, records and artifacts of genealogical and historical interest.

∙ to cooperate and/or affiliate with other nonprofit entities/organizations with like purposes.

Individual and family memberships support genealogy courses, research assistance, library materials and internet subscriptions. RVGS is at 3405 S. Pacific Highway, Medford. Call 541-512-2340, email reception@rvgslibrary.org or see rvgslibrary.org