History comes alive, thanks to award-winning librarian

August 12, 2011
photo - Because of his work in genealogy with the Pikes Peak Library District, Tim Blevins has won the Filby Award. Sometimes, Blevins works on the information desk at the Palmer Wing of the Penrose Library.  Photo by Jerilee Bennett, The Gazette
Because of his work in genealogy with the Pikes Peak Library District, Tim Blevins has won the Filby Award. Sometimes, Blevins works on the information desk at the Palmer Wing of the Penrose Library. Photo by Jerilee Bennett, The Gazette 

Tim Blevins, mild-mannered and bespectacled, spends much of his time looking for lost people, ferreting out obscure clues about them and sometimes finding them across oceans or hundreds of years back in time.

Blevins is manager of special collections for the Pikes Peak Library District, and most days you can find him poring over obscure documents, gumshoeing on the computer and examining brittle, yellowed history books in a climate-controlled vault in the Car-negie wing of Penrose library.

The National Genealogical Society recently honored him with the prestigious Filby Award for support of family-history research.

His achievements “have significantly enhanced the ability of Colorado Springs-area residents to research their family histories,” officials said in presenting the award.

John Putnam, president of the Pikes Peak Genealogical Society, said, “This is a major accomplishment, to be nationally recognized. Tim is cutting-edge, but also an easygoing guy who has been able to build loyalty and camaraderie with the community to get a lot done.”

Blevins is a bit embarrassed by all the fuss, saying the award really belongs to his library colleagues, the society and volunteers, who tackle incredibly detailed and laborious projects to make the past come alive.

Meet Melba Mayall, a 90-year-old volunteer who assists Blevins and the special collections team.

Genealogy may be more popular than ever, perhaps in part due to several TV shows devoted to the subject, such as NBC’s “Who Do You Think You Are,” in which genealogists help celebrities research ancestors. Another favorite is “History Detective” on PBS, in which teams investigate old found objects.

“Those shows reflect what we do at the library, but on a smaller scale,” Blevins said.

Genealogy is one of the top two hobbies in the U.S., he said. Utah-based FamilySearch.org, the largest genealogy organization in the world, receives more than 10 million hits a day. It’s run by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

“Learning about your ancestors can change how you perceive yourself and the world,” Blevins said.

Many people catch the genealogy bug because it establishes a personal link to their ancestors’ roles and experiences in history. “Events like the Civil War, settlement of the West and women’s suffrage become a lot more interesting when you can put your family in context with historical milestones.”

Blevins was never interested in genealogy growing up in Santa Fe, even though his paternal great-aunt had researched family history at the National Archives and created a family tree that went back generations to Scotland and Wales. Her work took decades. Today, with the Internet, it would have been much faster, he said.

While at New Mexico State University and after graduation he worked in the college library’s special collections. His mentor urged him to get a master’s degree in library science, which he did through University of Texas at Austin.

He has been with the Pikes Peak Library District 10 years.

“I never dreamed I’d work for a public library,” he said. “Actually, it was because I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to answer all the questions that people ask.”

But he said, “I feel really blessed to be here. I really enjoy helping people. And every day there is something new and novel, like solving a puzzle.”

The special collections department is a treasure trove of genealogy and history information. “They have a lot of things that Denver and other libraries don’t have,” Putnam said.

Blevins was instrumental in adding more than 1,500 titles to the Pikes Peak collection. The society has donated thousands of dollars for materials.

Some of the titles are obscure, but the type of information that makes genealogists’ hearts go pitter patter: “Warren Co., Ky. Ancestral Graves Revisited,” “Orphans and Infants of Prince George’s Co., Pa., 1695-1750,” “Corrections and Additions to Pocahontas’ Descendants,” “Lee County (Ms) Deed Book.”

Blevins advises genealogists to keep good research records. It’s important to document the source of information, giving it credibility and allowing others to check records themselves.

Computers have revolutionized genealogical research, making it less frustrating than in the past, Blevins said. The special collections department provides free use of ancestry.com, a real boon for patrons who do not want to pay a monthly fee.

But there’s false perception that the Internet has replaced the library, Blevins said. The library’s special collections department had more than 41,000 visitors last year, and half the questions were about genealogy. Many others were about regional history, often related to family stories.

One project the National Genealogy Society lauded Blevins for was negotiating, obtaining and digitizing the original ledgers of death and interment from Evergreen Cemetery from 1875 through the 1950s. It is being indexed and placed online. There are more than 600,000 records, which volunteers are integrating with the library’s newspaper index.

He also produces the popular annual Regional History Series symposiums. The latest is “Enterprise & Innovation in the Pikes Peak Region.” Next summer’s topic is “Disasters of the Pikes Peak Region.”

Although many people are ecstatic to learn tidbits from their family’s history, other news is not so welcome.

“Families are complicated. There are skeletons in closets and some find it troubling,” Blevins said. “But I’ve known genealogists who are as proud of being the descendent of a horse thief as they are of any royalty they may find in their family tree.”

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