Meet a Local Genealogy Research Pioneer

Cynthia Van Ness helps patrons research records at The Buffalo History Museum


Since 2007, Cynthia Van Ness has been the Director of Library and Archives at The Buffalo History Museum. Prior to that, she was employed at the Buffalo & Erie County Public Library for thirteen years and independently created, a guide to researching ancestors, buildings, and companies in Buffalo.

Van Ness earned her Master of Library Science degree (MLS) from the University of Buffalo in 1994. After getting hired at the Buffalo and Erie County Library downtown location, she transitioned into the Grosvenor Room, where she helped establish the special collections, which includes local history and genealogy.

Van Ness’ affinity for researching the past dates back to 1993, when she was still in graduate school. She became involved with a genealogy web page on Buffalo Free-Net called Roots, created by Richard Penn, who later passed it on to Van Ness in 1995. When researching the history of an old building that she and her husband were considering purchasing for a rehab project, she added information on area properties. As time progressed, she consolidated the genealogy and property information, along with area maps, links to local history publications, and other sources on her own website

According to Van Ness, the nation’s interest in genealogy began when the mini-series Roots aired in 1977. There were not any established training programs for assisting people in genealogy research. The methods progressed and were refined as people began looking into their past. Now, there are many how to books, websites, and classes on genealogy.

When someone comes to The Buffalo History Museum to research their ancestry, the first thing Van Ness does in interview them to ascertain what information they have. She recommends that people create a family tree and compile a family group sheet, which will provide detailed information on the people listed. It is best to start with yourself, complete your family group sheet, and keep expanding from that point. Van Ness emphasizes that she is not a genealogist, she is a genealogical librarian. This means she will not find your relatives, but she will point you to the resources where you can do the research.

Folks must remember that genealogical information is not online unless someone put it there. You have to go to various sources to obtain the information. A good place to begin is local records section in The Buffalo History Museum Library, Grosvenor Room at the Downtown Library, libraries at area universities, and town historical societies. Review city directories, birth records, death records, marriages, property sales, tax files, church records, census files, legal notices, and military enlistments. Read old newspapers, research Ellis Island files and ship manifests. Look through high school yearbooks and elementary school enrollment files. provides a listing of places to obtain information in the "Local Links" section of the website. Research one thing at a time rather than trying to do everything at once. Van Ness cautions, "if you cast too wide a net, you will get frustrated." A lot of work, time, and effort will go into researching your genealogy, but you will enjoy it and the results will be worthwhile.


More research sources

Another source of accumulated records is the Western New York Genealogical Society, which was founded by June Partridge Zintz in 1974. The society has information on people from the eight-county Western New York area and is located in the Grosvenor Room at the Downtown Library. Everyone can access their information at the library and if interested, you can become a member of the society. Membership provides additional access, their quarterly journal, volunteer opportunities, and meetings and events, which include speakers, workshops, and field trips.

The Church of the Latter-Day Saints has created the largest collection of family records in the world and has information on more than three billion deceased people. This collection includes all people, not just those of the Mormon faith. These records are available free of charge at the website and the Family History Library in Salt Lake City. A network of 4,600 Family History Centers exists in 126 countries, with one of the largest WNY centers being the Family History Center on Maple Road in Williamsville.

Talk to your older relatives before they are gone. They can fill in some of the holes in your research. Ask them about their childhood and general information about when they were growing up. That may lead you to additional discoveries about your ancestors. Also, when you find new relatives or relations you have not spoken to for years, contact them and mention that you are researching the family genealogy. They may have done some research that they can share with you and provide additional information.

Begin your personal genealogy research by visiting Cynthia Van Ness at The Buffalo History Museum or one of the other sources that she suggests. You will be rewarded by learning about your roots and, you never know, you may even discover famous ancestors in your family tree.  


Rick Falkowski gives presentations on Buffalo music and history. He is the author of History of Buffalo Music & Entertainment and Profiles Volume 1: Historic & Influential People from Buffalo & WNY – the 1800s.




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