UIndy students, faculty, and staff are exploring their roots, thanks in part to a first-of-its-kind partnership with Ancestry.com. Through the campus Internet connection, the UIndy community has free access to the genealogy website’s 11 billion searchable documents and images, which include census records, prison logs, ship manifests, historic newspapers, and yearbook photos in addition to 40 million online family trees. The one-year agreement also includes access to Fold3, the company’s archive of military documents dating to the Revolutionary War.
The vast database is a key component in this year’s University Series of lectures and events, which carries the theme “Who Do You Think You Are?” Students are being encouraged to explore and think critically about their family histories and personal identities.
“This is about being able to make sense of yourself—past, present, and future,” said Dan Stoker, UIndy’s executive director of student services. “In confronting the truth, you can learn something vitally important and see the world in new ways.”
Although Ancestry.com has partnered previously with libraries and other institutions, this is its first such relationship in the field of higher education. The company is providing on-campus workshops and seminars to help the UIndy community make the most of the technology. Faculty members, particularly in disciplines such as history, also are enthusiastic about the classroom potential of giving students easy access to Ancestry.com’s searchable archives. As a starting point for this exploration of heritage, the University adopted a common reader, the 2009 book The Ties That Bind: A Memoir of Race, Memory, and Redemption by Bertice Berry (pictured). The African-American sociologist explored her family history and found a story far more complex than the black-and-white tale of slavery and tragedy that she expected.
Three-fourths of UIndy’s incoming freshmen bought the book, and hundreds of students packed Ransburg Auditorium on September 18 when Berry came to speak. Other University Series speakers so far have included author and family rights advocate Zach Wahls, as well as UIndy’s Dr. John Langdon on October 25, discussing his historical research in Franklin County, Indiana, where a trove of public records has become a mecca for genealogists. Upcoming events include a Martin Luther King Jr. Day address January 21.
Delving into one’s past can lead to surprises that are not always pleasant, said Dean of Ecumenical & Interfaith Programs Michael Cartwright, who coordinates the University Series with Stoker. In his own family tree, for example, Cartwright has found a history of mental illness and institutionalization. The campus Counseling Center is prepared to assist students in the event of any troubling discoveries, or information that contradicts a family’s longtime assumptions.
“We live in a culture in which people are starved for meaning, and for stories, but some stories are more true than others,” Cartwright said. “We’re dealing with an explosion of information that calls for critical thinking skills.”