On any given day, hundreds of customers make their way to Columbus Metropolitan Library’s (CML) Local History & Genealogy division on the third floor of Main Library.
According to Angela O’Neal, manager of Local History and Genealogy (LHG), nearly 90,000 people have visited during the past year.
Some have questions about the history of their homes. And some want to know more about their family history. Others are curious about the history of their neighborhoods. Government staffers stop to research local statutes.
William Otten came to LHG seeking additional sources of genealogical information to help in his research. What he found has changed his life.
As a child, the Clintonville resident listened to family stories shared by his father Richard. But his father’s death when Otten was 12 left him with unanswered questions and a yearning to learn more about his family’s history.
In anticipation of travel to Germany with his wife last year, Otten began online research into his German-Jewish ancestry. Initial online inquiries, Otten said, yielded some unexpectedly rich information about his ancestral hometown of Goppingen in southern Germany.
He shared his findings with CML’s O’Neal and her colleague Aaron O’Donovan who were excited about the information Otten had collected and offered strategies to help him learn more.
“Local History and Genealogy does genealogy far beyond central Ohio,” O’Neal said. “The connections our customers have are far and wide, and we have resources from all around the world.”
O’Donovan taught Otten how to use Google Earth as a tool in his search. Entering the address printed on the naturalization card Otten’s father received in 1944 while in the U.S. military, a street-view photograph of the building appeared that—based on its age—offered evidence that his father had lived there. O’Donovan also shared information about genealogical websites available free of charge through the library including Ancestry, FamilySearch, and Fold3 (veterans’ materials), as well as links to census and military records.
O’Neal invited Otten to attend a workshop about genealogical research led by a nationally known practitioner. There, he learned how to use the Internet and software to construct a comprehensive family album that can be updated as information is collected.
Printed materials available to CML customers include an extensive Columbus collection, materials from every county in Ohio, and a selection of materials from each state. LHG is also home to several significant genealogy resources including the Palatine to America (Germany to America), British and Irish, and Huguenot (France to America) collections.
For Otten, the lessons and tools offered by the LHG division and one-on-one work with library staff have been invaluable in his quest to learn about his heritage.
From the library’s collection, Otten located cemetery records in Goppingen and a contact for the local Jewish museum. He emailed the museum mentioning the possibility of a visit.
At the conclusion of their trip to Germany last November, Otten and his wife traveled to Goppingen where a welcoming committee shared stories, gifts and a proclamation with the couple. Otten said a highlight was a ceremony to place markers outside his grandparents’ home.
His grandparents, Luise and Alfred Ottenheimer, raised two sons while operating the Factura von Gebrüder Ottenheimer (Factory of the Brothers Ottenheimer) in Goppingen.
In 1937, before the Holocaust, Otten’s father, Richard, trained as a chemical engineer, was able to get a sponsor and immigrate to the United States. His uncle went to Cuba.
Otten’s grandfather died in 1938, shortly after being forced to sell his home and his business that was left under Nazi control. His grandmother was deported in early 1942, ending up near Riga, Latvia. She was killed there or in the Jungfernhof concentration camp in Latvia.
Otten said one of his primary objectives in doing genealogy research was to provide his children and grandchildren with a viable genealogical history so they have better self-awareness and a deeper knowledge of their family history.
“As I’ve shared information, they have learned more in a few hours than they have known in their entire lives about part of their heritage,” Otten said. Through contact with other family members to share information and find answers to questions that have arisen because of his research, he has also begun to build new relationships.
After returning from Germany, Otten met again with O’Neal who offered additional information and suggestions about further sources he continues to use.
“It’s amazing to watch customers learn new things through their research here,” O’Neal said. “Their lives are changed by what we do and it’s a powerful thing to be part of that discovery.”
Otten plans to share his discovery with the hope of inspiring others to begin or continue to learn about their heritage and to pass along the products of their efforts to their descendants. He also wants to share experiences of his family before, during and following the Holocaust in public forums as a way of connecting these experiences to the current socio-political climate both in the United States and the world.