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“Not Trying to Hide That It Has Lived a Life”: An Interview with Book Conservator Noah Smutz

I was recently introduced to Noah Smutz through a mutual friend. When she heard what he did for a living, she had a feeling he and I would hit it off – and she was right. On our Zoom call last week, I had to really try and stop myself from asking him too many questions – something I’m prone to do when I get excited about a topic – but I just found myself wanting to know more and more about his fascinating line of work. Because you all love history as much as I do, I asked Noah if he would be interested in doing a formal interview about his job. Lucky for us, he said yes! 

Read on to find out little bit about his unique career, some expert tips on family bible storage, and where you shouldn’t be keeping your old family photos…

Hi, Noah. Thanks for taking the time to talk today. First, can you tell us a little more about what you do for people who are not familiar with your work?

Hello – and sure, I’d be happy to. I’m a conservator – someone who cares for and repairs cultural heritage objects. Specifically, I am a book conservator. This means I conserve and repair old books and all types of archival records. 

In the past year, for example, I’ve had books from the sixteenth century to the twentieth century, French and Indian War officer commissions, books on St. Louis history, a few prints, and of course, some family bibles.

Wow, amazing. So what is a typical day’s work like for you?

Basically, I make items whole and usable again. This includes tasks like reattaching the boards to a book, creating a new binding for a book, flattening a map that’s been folded for 70 years and mending the tears, and other things like that.

Noah at Work

That sounds fascinating. How did you get started in the field?

I have a bachelor degree in Classics from the University of Kansas. My original plan was to become an archaeologist, which culminated in spending six weeks on a dig in Crete. I loved Crete, but soon figured out that archaeology and I weren’t a good fit. While on the dig I was introduced to archaeological conservators, which was my very first interaction with conservators – and I was intrigued.

So, when I returned to the University of Kansas, I got a job as a student worker mending circulating collections – any books that can be checked out of the library and thrown in a backpack or book drop. That was when I knew that this career was for me. After finishing my undergraduate degree, I went to West Dean College in the United Kingdom and completed a two-year masters degree in conservation studies.

Learning to work with old books in the United Kingdom sounds like an incredible experience. What’s the oldest item you got to work with there?

While interning at the Bodleian Library in Oxford, I worked to repair a book from 1342 (though the binding was from the nineteenth century).

You’ve got me beat! The oldest document I’ve worked with is 1533 – and that book is from a full two centuries before. That must have been a great experience. Is that the most interesting document you’ve worked with, or would you say something else?

That was definitely interesting, but at the Smithsonian Libraries, I had the opportunity to work on a book called Principles of Beauty. It’s from the late 1700’s and depicts women with different shaped faces in profile. Different hair styles were then printed on very thin, see-through tissue paper. The book allowed readers to mix and match these different hair styles to see how they look with different shaped faces. 

It was a fascinating piece because of its function. It was also an incredibly rewarding treatment. The binding had to be fully re-sewn before the original boards were reattached and a new leather spine was created. The tissue paper overlays were dirty, creased, and torn. So we then had to wash, flatten, and mend those. Finally, I created an enclosure to house all of those pieces together (For more information on the process, see here).

Old Book Before and After Treatment

Wow, I would be so nervous I would accidentally tear something! What is the hardest task you face when conserving books?

Nineteenth century materials can be tricky. As I’m sure you genealogists know, paper from the nineteenth century is usually very poor quality and extremely brittle. Leather from the same time period is similarly poor quality. This is due to the industrialization of production techniques without fully appreciating the long term effects of, at the time, new chemical processing procedures. Due to the delicacy of these materials, brittle paper, and crumbling leather, it takes additional focus and sometimes time to coax these items into doing what you want.

You need a lot of tools to work with old books!

That’s so interesting to learn that about the nineteenth-century paper. It is very brittle, and I never knew why. In addition to letters, a lot of our readers have family bibles, which I know you work with a lot. What would you tell people who want to keep their family bibles in good condition? Any steps they should take?

A box of some type can be incredibly helpful to protect family bibles. These bibles tend to be large and their own weight can work against them. A box keeps the boards from getting scuffed on the shelf and protects the bible if it’s frequently going from one family member to another. I’ve seen many bibles where the spine was detached 20 years ago and has been misplaced, or the marriages page came loose and disappeared at some point. A box helps prevent things like that from happening.

Additionally, if the bible is stored in an open place – on a table for example – make sure it does not receive direct sunlight as that will cause damage over time. 

Book Before Treatment

Same Book After Treatment

Those are great tips, thank you. I see that you also provide photo storage services. Can you tell us a little more about that?

Sure. My family, like many of your readers’ families most likely, has boxes of old photographs that typically lived in garages, basements, or attics. There’s very little organization and you’re as likely to pull a photo out from 1880 as 1980. 

There are many photo storage products on the market that claim to be ‘archival’, but that term is a marketing term that doesn’t mean anything. So it can be difficult for individuals to determine which product to purchase and which product is best for the type of photograph they have.

There are many different photographic processes and they can’t all be stored in the same type of folder. In addition to these items, when a person goes to purchase photo sleeves or envelopes, they may only need 5 or 25 – but the minimum order size can be 100+. NS Conservation offers a service to rehouse all of a person’s family photos, and we then return them in an acid-free, archivally-sound box. This way all the items are stored correctly and the individual is not left with 75+ expensive photo sleeves that they have no use for.

That makes sense. I know a lot of my readers have some very old family photos. I always love when they share them with me and I get to see the faces of the people I am translating about! What’s your number one tip for photo storage?

Don’t put photos in the attic, garage, or basement. The climate in these areas is usually unregulated and large temperature and relative humidity fluctuations are especially damaging to photographs. It’s much better to store them somewhere in the main living space, even if it’s on a high shelf in a closet. Also, keep photographs out of direct sunlight.

All great tips, thank you! And finally, one last question for you, which you told me you get asked a lot. What is the difference between conservation and restoration?

Conservation is the act of repairing an item so that its lifespan is increased, while also not trying to hide that it has lived a life. Restoration is repairing an item in such a way that it looks like it did when it was new. For example, to conserve a book, the original boards will be retained even if they have water staining and are faded. Whereas restoring that book might mean making a new binding, or redying the cloth so that it is not faded and the water staining doesn’t show.

Noah’s Workshop

That’s a great explanation. I love the phrase “not trying to hide that it has lived a life.” That really fits well with what we also try to do as genealogists. 

Thank you, Noah, for taking the time to explain book and photo conversation to us. Where can people find you if they want more information on anything we discussed?

Thanks for having me. My website is www.nsconservation.com and my other contact information is as listed below. Please feel free to get in touch!

Email: noah@nsconservation.com

Phone: 314-810-9184

Instagram: @nsconservation

Noah Smutz is a book conservator and the owner of NS Conservation.Noah has been in the field of conservation since 2011 when he started as a student worker in the University of Kansas Libraries conservation lab. He has since held internships for the Smithsonian Archives and Bodleian Library amongst others. He graduated with his Masters Degree in Book Conservation from West Dean College in the United Kingdom. Previously he has worked as a Book Conservator for the Smithsonian Libraries. Noah has worked with institutions such as the St. Louis Art Museum, the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, the Missouri State Archives, and the Missouri History Museum. He has been a member of the American Institute for Conservation since 2010 and a Professional Associate since 2019.

Book Before Treatment

Book After Treatment

The Magic of German Church Records: The Book

Learn how to extract your ancestor’s information from German church records – without needing to speak German!

If you are researching your German ancestors, it is more likely than not that you will run into church records at some point in your research. For years, it was the German churches – not civil authorities – who meticulously kept track of their members’ births, baptisms, marriages, and deaths. Filled with information such as your ancestor’s name, parents’ names, occupations, dates, relationships, and more, these records are an amazing find for any German genealogist. But there is just one problem – they’re not in English.

In this how-to guide, learn how you can extract the information you need from German church records – without having to decipher every word on the page. Complete with handpicked examples from real German church records, this book teaches you to:

  • Locate those valuable church records for your German ancestor
  • Take yourself step-by-step through baptismal records, marriage records, death records – in both column and paragraph format – to pick out the details of your ancestor’s life
  • Recognize the different spelling variations of your ancestor’s name and hometown
  • Understand what church record phrases, symbols, and abbreviations mean and how these can help your genealogy research
  • Convert names of commonly-seen feast dates into actual dates of birth, marriage, and death for your ancestor
  • Work with the best technological tools and resources to make your genealogy journey easier – and more fun!

Best yet, this book includes the German transcriptions and English translations of multiple sample records – as well as comprehensive German vocabulary lists with handwritten examples of these important genealogy words.

Whether you are just starting out in the field or have worked with church records for years, this book will teach you the must-know methods to unlock the mysteries of your ancestor’s past. Are you ready to get started?

My 5 Favorite Books for Deciphering German Records

The Association of Professional Genealogists recently asked me about my favorite books for German genealogy, and it got me thinking – I should share them with you as well! I always include a slide in my presentations at conferences about the books I’d recommend, but I’ve never written them on the blog before, so I’d say it’s high time I did so. Check out the books that I use in my translation work below (in no particular order).

This post contains some  affiliate links, which does not affect you at all, but does help support my business as I earn a small amount from qualifying purchases as an Amazon associate. This in turn helps me to continue supporting you with educational (I hope!) genealogy content. That being said, I personally own – and personally love – all of these books, and hope that they help you as much as they have helped me. I couldn’t translate without them!

My 5 Favorite Books for Deciphering German Records

  1. German to English Genealogical Dictionary by Ernest Thode

  

I only discovered Ernest Thode’s dictionary two years ago, and I wish I had known about it so much sooner. It would have saved me hours of Internet research trying to figure out what obscure and old-fashioned German words mean. Do you remember my blog post 10 German Words You Won’t Find in a Dictionary? Well, you actually will find a lot of those words in this wonderful dictionary! Focusing on genealogy-specific words, this almost-300-page dictionary is a must-have for anyone researching German records. It’s sitting on my desk as I type right now! 

2. If I Can, You Can Decipher Germanic Records by Edna Bentz 

 

Edna Bentz’ book was one of the first books I bought when I started learning the old German handwriting.  Filled with lists of genealogy terminology plus what these words look like in the old German script, this book is extremely helpful for someone beginning their German genealogy journey. From common abbreviations and months of the year to illnesses and occupations, this book will save you a lot of time and frustration as you decipher your documents. 

3. Deciphering Handwriting in German Documents by Rogert Minert

This book was the first book I bought when I decided to become a genealogy translator. Minert teaches you the individual letters of the German script, explaining how to recognize each one, and also provides numerous examples of various records with their transcriptions and translations. Truly a great resource for anyone looking to decipher records themselves.

4.  The Family Tree Historical Atlas of Germany by James M. Beidler 

This newest book by James M. Beidler is another must-have. Filled with over 100 full-color maps, this atlas is both incredibly beautiful and educational. The maps in the book allow you to see the border changes of Germany throughout the centuries – making it much easier to find your ancestors’ hometown and where their records may be kept. Plus, it looks pretty on a coffee table! (For more of Beidler’s great genealogy books, see here: www.JamesMBeidler.com). 

5. Tips and Tricks of Deciphering German Handwriting by Katherine Schober

I can’t let you go without mentioning my own book, can I? Tips and Tricks of Deciphering German Handwriting is everything I wish I would have known when I was first starting to learn the old German script. During those first few years of starting my genealogy translator career, I spent a lot of frustrating time on the Internet, trying to find the answers to all of my questions as I ran into them on various documents. This book summarizes all of those answers for you, which I hope will save you a lot of time and frustration yourself. It’s all of my best secrets, summarized in book form!

So there you have it! These are the five books that I have in my office right now, and every one of them is helpful in a different way. What about you? Do you have any of these books, or would you add any to the list? Let me know in the comments!

 

 

Ortssippenbücher: Important Sources for German Genealogical Research (Guest Post by Scott Holl)

Church records are a vital source of genealogical information, and this is certainly true for German family history research. Once you discover your ancestor’s place of origin, the local parish registers can take your as far back as the mid-16th century. Such research has challenges. Besides the language barrier, you must also be familiar with the handwritten script used in various periods of record keeping. If only there was a short cut!

Luckily, you might find one in the form of an Ortssippenbuch (OSB). Ortssippenbuch (plural: Ortssippenbücher) translates as “local clan book.” You may also see them under the names Ortsfamilienbücher or Familienbücher, and some titles use the phrase, “Die Einwohner von… (“Inhabitants of…”), as in the OSB, Die Einwohner von Oppau und Edigheim, 1480–1813. Regardless of what term is used, OSBs feature concise genealogical information about inhabitants of a specific village or parish, based primarily on surviving local church records. They cover the period from the beginning of church records (as early as the mid-16th century) to about 1900. Some OSBs use local civil records, such as tax lists and court records, to expand and supplement the vital information found in the church books.

Format

OSBs present genealogical information by family groups. Their use of a standard format and common symbols, terminology, and abbreviations makes the entries easy to decipher, even if you do not know German. Families are listed alphabetically by surname, and some include surname and place-name indexes.

Let’s look at an example from Ortsfamilienbuch Heinersreuth, 1559–1900 mit Denzenlohe, Flur, Vollhof und Tannenbach: eine Familiengeschichtliche Untersuchung (Genealogical Register of Heinersreuth, 1559–1900, including Denzenlohe, Flour, Vollhof, and Tannenbach: A Family History Investigation). Heinersreuth is a village near Bayreuth, a city in northern Bavaria.

This OSB uses standard symbols commonly used in German genealogical sources:

* = birth

~ = baptism

† = death

The symbol for marriage (∞ or oo) is not found in this example, because individuals are listed by marriage date within the surname.

Each individual is assigned a reference number for cross-referencing purposes. The text for individual no. 791, the first entry above and shown in detail below, would read as follows:

791—Marriage: 21 July 1646 in Bayreuth

Hacker, Johannes; Protestant (ev.); stockman in Mosing; born on 15 Nov. 1610 in Unterpreuschwitz; baptized on 15 Nov. 1610 in Bayreuth; died in Aug. 1666 in Heinersreuth; buried (begrab.) on 22 Aug. 1666 in Bayreuth.

­

[Wife] Popp, Margaretha; Protestant; born on 19 Jan. 1611 in Laineck; baptized on 19 Jan 1611 at St. Johannis Church in Bayreuth; buried after 1653.

In this case, Margaretha does not have a reference number, which indicates that no information about her baptism or parents is available in records used in for this OSB.

Information about their children follows, and you will find more information elsewhere about them under the reference numbers in brackets.

Let’s look at their son, Andreas.

3) Andreas, born on 11 Dec. 1650 in Heinersreuth, died on 3 June 1710 in Heinersreuth. [793]

Further down the page you will find under no. 793 the individual entry for Andreas Hacker with information about his marriage and children. In this case, Andreas married Anna Weigel, who appears as a child of the couple listed at no. 3226.

Other Possible Information

Genealogical information is the main feature of OSBs, but many also include histories of the community, the church, the school, and civic organizations. Some include lists of emigrants with their destinations, information about “non-locals” (Ortsfremde) or refugees (Flüchtlinge, Exulanten), and rosters of soldiers killed in war.

Finding Out if an OSB is Available for Your Ancestral Place of Origin

OSBs are not available for every village, and they are more common for some areas than others. Many are available for places in Baden-Wuerttemberg and the Rhineland, for example, but few exist for Lower Saxony (outside of East Frisia) or Schleswig-Holstein. Many have been published for German-speaking villages outside of Germany, such as in Alsace and Lorraine in France, and in the Donauschwaben settlements in present-day Serbia, Romania, and Hungary (Banat and Batschka).

No comprehensive name index for OSBs exist. It is therefore absolutely necessary to know your ancestor’s place of origin. Once you have the location, consult the OSB lists on the GenWiki website. Villages are listed alphabetically.  Clicking on the village name will return the title of the OSB and relevant bibliographical information.

Finding an OSB

Once you have the OSB title, look for a library that owns it. The St. Louis County Library History & Genealogy Department has one of the largest collections of OSBs in the U.S. A list is available here. OSBs cannot be checked out or requested through interlibrary loan, but the library staff will do lookups and copy up to 30 pages. Send requests to genealogy@slcl.org. A limit of three requests per email applies.

The Family History Library, New York Public Library, and some academic libraries also collect them. The Peoria, Illinois Public Library has many for East Frisia. You can also check WorldCat  to find a repository that has the OSB you are looking for.

OSBs as Secondary Sources

The information in OSBs were extracted and compiled from original records and are therefore subject to the accuracy, interpretation, and criteria of the person doing the work. OSBs are reliable, but you should take the additional step of checking the information against the original records yourself, if possible. OSBs include a list of sources (Quellen) from which information has been extracted. Online access to German church records is increasingly available and bring the task into the realm of possibility as never before.

Further Information

More information about OSBs and aids for using them are available on the St. Louis County Library History & Genealogy Department website.

 

About the Author

Scott Holl is manager of History & Genealogy at St. Louis County Library in St. Louis, Missouri. He holds a BA in German from Fort Hays State University, an MA in Theology from the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, and an MLIS from Dominican University in River Forest, Illinois.

For Locating Ancestral Villages, Maps in New German Atlas Come to the Rescue! (Guest Post by James M. Beidler)

*This post contains some affiliate links, which does not affect you at all, but does help support James Beidler’s business as he earns a small amount from qualifying purchases as an Amazon associate.

It’s been said that many historians can avoid being genealogists, but that no genealogist can be effective without also being a historian.

And when the genealogy involves the German-speaking people of Europe, somebody’s going to need a map—well, a lot of maps, actually!—and fortunately many of them have been collected in the new tome I’ve compiled, The Family Tree Historical Atlas of Germany (A note for those who’ve heard and are wondering: Yes, this publisher—Family Tree Books, a division of F+W Media—is going through Chapter 11, but the books are being printed!). 

Germany Has Complicated History

The reason for needing this book is that the history of German lands is complicated—and that’s before you hone in on the details! But those details are essential to be able to have a shot at tracking down every last record of your ancestors because it is your German village of origin’s political and church affiliations in the past that likely have an impact on where the records of particular villages are archived today.

This can be somewhat challenging because Germany has what I call a “non-linear” political history. In the United States, new municipalities and counties are generally created from existing entities – a “linear” political history. Germany, on the other hand, was a collection of small, independent states that were constantly being sliced, diced and otherwise disconnected as noble dynasties went extinct, lost wars or were divided amongst sons.

Three Time Periods Crucial

Truthfully, you often need to know at least three of the political and church allegiances for a village: during the era when an ancestor lived there; during the Second Empire period (since those affiliations are found in MeyersGaz.org and the Family History Library Catalog on FamilySearch.org); and today’s boundaries, both to help find villages on the modern map as well as what the current archives are.

Indeed, researchers should play what I call “Heimat Tic Tac Toe” and create a grid with sites of a village’s political jurisdiction, church parish and civil registry locations.

What’s in the Atlas

This publication brings together more than a hundred maps from Roman times through the present day, with an extra focus on the nineteenth century when peak immigration to America took place. It includes closeup two-page maps of every German state and Prussian province from this period. In addition to the partial index of cities and immigrant hotspots included in the print-version of the atlas, there will be an every-place index available online.

For each area of Germany, there is also at least one detail map for the pre-Napoleonic era to show the smaller states; other chapters include modern-day German state maps, as well as some showing demographics such as religion and dialects and also a few maps showing German-speaking Austria and Switzerland.

History of Germany Included

The book begins with a history highlights section that covers the main themes of German history as they relate to genealogy, including an explanation of how German boundaries became so complicated.

In part because of the German preference for following the Salic Law of partible division (in which all male children get a share of an inheritance), what is today Germany became a crazy quilt of small states. Other causes of disunity included the elective nature of the Emperorship (candidates offered bribes of territories and enhanced status).

In many cases all of the territory of a small state wasn’t contiguous; there abounded many enclaves (a territory, or a part of a territory, that was entirely surrounded by one different state) and exclaves (a portion of a state or territory geographically separated from the main part). It was only during the Napoleonic time period in the early 1800s when many of the small states and all of the religious states (ruled by so-called “Prince-Bishops”) were annexed into larger neighbors; this remained the rule after the defeat of Napoleon, with only the region of Thuringia remaining a spot with many small states.

Case Study: Hessen

Here’s an example of how maps and the political boundaries they show (as well as that historical background knowledge genealogists’ need) can help narrow down the focus of research even when a village of origin isn’t known.

Researcher Melissa Dunkerley has been trying to find the origins of Ernst Scharff, whose birthplace is variously identified as Hesse-Darmstadt and later as Prussia—and sometimes as the entirely unhelpful “Germany.”

While censuses just can be plain wrong, there’s a map of Hesse (Hessen in German) that gives Dunkerley a decent theory on how to square the circle of these various assertions of Scharff’s birthplace.

The map “Hessen bis 1866” shows the boundaries before they were adjusted by a Prussian land grab that occurred in a war that year. The red boundaries on this map show Hessen-Darmstadt before that war; among the changes as a result was that the thin arm centered on Biedenkopf was ceded to Prussia, making the relatively small number of villages in that “arm” the prime suspects for Scharff’s Heimat, since that would be consistent with him showing Hessen-Darmstadt as his place of birth in records before 1866 and Prussia afterwards.

To Order the Atlas!

The Family Tree Historical Atlas of Germany is available here – get your copy today.

Beidler is a freelance writer and lecturer on genealogy as well as a research-reports editor for Legacy Tree Genealogists. Contact him by e-mail to james@beidler.us. Like him on Facebook (James M. Beidler) and follow him on Twitter, @JamesMBeidler.