Library mines family Bibles for genealogy

Tuesday, April 23, 2002

HAGERSTOWN, Md. -- The history of Bob and Jean Beck's family is written in their Bible, on a few yellowed pages between the Old and New Testaments.

"Mother Beck," it begins. "Susanna Miller was born May the 30, 1793."

Subsequent entries cover generations of births, deaths and marriages, ending with the wedding of their daughter, Jeanne, in 1999.

This cherished handwritten record of a Washington County family is now a public treasure, too. The Becks are among hundreds of area families who have had their Bible pages photocopied and placed on file at the Washington County Free Library for genealogical studies.

Genealogy experts say the project is a rare and unusually well-organized effort to create a public repository of such material. Many of the nation's private genealogy societies also have collected such material, said Russell Henderson, spokesman for the National Genealogical Society in Arlington, Va.

"Some of those old family Bibles are better records than anything else," he said.

Copying since 1968

In Maryland, systematic public recording of births and deaths did not exist before 1898 in counties and 1875 in the city of Baltimore.

"Frankly, I don't know of any other project like it," said Nancy Bramucci, director of special collections at the Maryland State Archives. "I actually thought about doing the same thing at one point because it really would be a valuable resource, but it was just more than I could do."

The library in downtown Hagerstown has been copying family records from Bibles since 1968, and now has 400 to 500 such files. This year, the library is using a grant from a private estate to begin compiling and indexing the records, which it is hoped will be published.

"When this is all completed, it will be a capitulation of vital statistics from all those Bibles," said John Frye, director of the institution's Western Maryland Room.

Large, hardcover Bibles often contain a handful of blank middle pages for recording important family events. Those entries, along with church records of christenings, weddings and burials, can prove invaluable in documenting early Maryland life, said R.J. Rockefeller, the state archives' director of reference services.

"If you know a woman had five children and that she died the same day as the birth of her fifth child, and from that same family Bible you know that only two of those children lived to adulthood, then you know how hard life was in early America," he said.

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