Back to the future


Roberta Martin explores family history and opportunities in genealogy

By Heather Lusk

Even as a child Roberta Martin, of Zionsville, enjoyed hearing stories about her family and learning about her past, so the lack of information about her mother’s grandfather always intrigued her. She finally decided to research the family history to learn more.

“I thought I would find this answer and be done,” she said.

Fifteen years later his identity is still a mystery but in the meantime Martin, a former tax attorney, has discovered a new career: as volunteer staff genealogist of the SullivanMunce Cultural Center’s genealogy library. Additionally she was recently named Boone County Genealogist by the Indiana Genealogical Society – an honor bestowed upon one genealogist in each Indiana county.

Over the course of this year, she will provide genealogical advice and counsel to persons such as students, professors and family researchers within Boone County.

She is also responsible for familiarizing herself with the county’s genealogical records, and she will serve as liaison between the Indiana Genealogical Society and Boone County to address issues regarding records preservation.

“I was flattered that they thought enough of my work to recommend me,” she said. “My hope is that it will make SullivanMunce more visible within the Indiana Genealogical Society and give us more of a presence nationally.”

Martin began volunteering at SullivanMunce’s genealogy library in 2009. A year later the librarian left for maternity leave and decided not to return. What was going to be a temporary fill-in position became permanent. In 2012 she officially became the museum’s full-time volunteer staff genealogist.

“Genealogy can be more than what people think it is: it’s puzzles, organizing things, doing research,” Martin said. “Put together all of my favorite things and there’s a hobby for it.”

The SullivanMunce library contains more than 4,000 volumes and is the largest privately funded genealogy collection in the region. The volumes are part of the Evergreen system and most may be checked out with an Evergreen library card, which is the same card system used for Zionsville’s Hussey-Mayfield Memorial Public Library.

Martin was instrumental in SullivanMunce attaining FamilySearch Affiliate Library status. This provides access to billions of birth, marriage, death, census, land and court records from more than 130 countries. The records on microfilm are stored in the FamilySearch archives in Salt Lake City and can be shipped to the SullivanMunce where they may be viewed.

“So many people think that because they have no Boone County relatives that there is nothing at our library for them, but we have a full bookcase on Virginia, we have a full bookcase of Maryland, we have a lot more to offer than just local information,” she said. “I think so many Zionsville residents are not from here; that’s where a lot of the disconnect happens.”

Among the thousands of books and documents housed at the library are military records, city directories, Sanborn Maps, volumes relating to almost every state, local family and obituary files and collected genealogies for countries outside of the United States.

“Roberta has meant a lot to us because she’s able to help people make breakthroughs in genealogy,” said SullivanMunce executive director Cynthia Young. “A lot of time you run into brick walls and she’s good at breaking through that. She’s really brought attention to us through genealogy and increased traffic through the library.”

While the past several years have seen a growth in library patrons, Martin would like to see even more foot traffic at the SullivanMunce in the future.

She encourages people to learn about their families and appreciate the search.

“I think that if you don’t understand your past it’s much harder to understand the future,” Martin said. “Genealogy gives people a great sense of who they are.”

As for the identity of her great-grandfather? Martin believes that he may have had a different name at some point in the past. She may never know the truth, but “I’m not giving up,” she said.  “I’ll never give up.”

Genealogy, she has discovered, has given her direction and purpose.

“If it was easy, it wouldn’t be fun, and I wouldn’t still be doing it,” she said.

The SullivanMunce Cultural Center’s genealogy library is open Tuesday through Friday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Saturday 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Free reference assistance is available at the library on Thursdays by appointment. This includes a tour of a library and advice on how to begin a genealogy search. There is a charge for staff to search obituary records.

Martin’s tips to research family history:

  • Start with what you know (e.g., yourself and your parents).  Ask family members for information and details.
  • Get organized from the beginning.  Martin likes to bring her “Mary Poppins bag” filled with a clipboard, looseleaf paper, handheld scanner, laptop/tablet, flash drive, coins for copies, stapler, pencils, pens, sticky notes and water bottle among other things.
  • Always record your sources and make copies.  Write down every book that has been opened and what was found to avoid backtracking.
  • Start without an endpoint in mind.  Limit yourself to one family or one objective at a time.

More about Roberta Martin

What is your favorite local restaurant? Patrick’s Kitchen on Main Street

Kids? Spouse? 3 grown children, husband John

Favorite movie of all time? “White Christmas”

Favorite pastime? aside from genealogy – reading

Favorite book? “What’s Your Excuse” by John Foppe

Favorite vacation spot? Jamaica

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