‘Photo detective’ to speak at virtual genealogy conference

Maureen Taylor and a guide to family history for children that she wrote in 1999. (photos provided)

Maureen Taylor and a guide to family history for children that she wrote in 1999. (photos provided)

Most people enjoy the opportunity to stump a world-renowned detective, and Maureen Taylor is the kind of sleuth who loves a challenge.

Hailed by The Wall Street Journal as the “nation’s foremost historical photo detective,” Taylor will be one of the principal speakers Saturday at the annual Capital District Genealogical Society Conference between 9 a.m.-5 p.m. The conference, being held on Zoom this year, is celebrating the group’s 40th anniversary, and organizers have asked the public to submit old photographs they can’t identify. That’s where Taylor comes in, and while she can’t guarantee she’ll have the answer to every question directed her way, if anyone has a shot at solving a few old family mysteries she’s the one.

“I’ll have had an opportunity to look at these old photos, and I’ve been at this a long time,” said Taylor, who got her four-year degree and masters in history from Rhode Island College. “There are things you can look at in old photographs. They’ll be things that are no longer commonly used, and there are clues in looking at old military uniforms and fraternal organizations that can help you. I have a lot of experience and I’m a visual person. I walk around with a catalogue in my head.”

Still, Taylor admits that even she gets stumped now and then.

“Way back when my mom showed me an old family album and I was hooked,” she said. “I could never get my grandmother to talk about our family history that much, but I got interested in genealogy as a kid and it’s never left me. They call me the photo detective, so I’m pretty good at it. But even I get stumped, and when that happens that’s fine. But it’s important that we try.”

In 1999, Taylor authored “Through the Eyes of Your Ancestors,” a guide to family history for children, and she has been interviewed in various national publications as well as on “The Today Show,” “The View” and MSNBC.

Taylor worked for the Rhode Island Historical Society and The New England Historic Genealogical Society before going into business for herself. She is a past president of the Rhode Island Genealogical Society.

“Most people get into genealogy when they retire, but I’ve been at it my whole life,” she said. “It’s been popular for a long time, and there are times when it reaches a peak because of shows like ‘Roots,’ and then more recently ‘Finding Your Roots’ with Henry Louis Gates.”

Between the tv miniseries “Roots” (1977) and “Finding Your Roots” (now in its seventh season on PBS), the internet was invented.

“Now we don’t have to wait months for someone to answer a query, and you can find a lot of what you need on the internet,” said Taylor. “Not everything is online, especially when it comes to photographs, but having the ability to search for things easily really helped genealogists.”

Although we now live in a digital age, Taylor says some people still like the old black and white glossy photographs.

“There is a vintage movement going on, and I know there are plenty of young people out there who love to have something to touch,” she said.

Those who don’t have the time to see Taylor’s presentation on Saturday, can contact her on line at www.maureentaylor.com.

“I’ve been Zooming for 10 years, so I’m very comfortable doing it, and I’m happy to help people online,” she said. “That’s what I do. They contact me and I help them. I have different levels of help, and I charge people, but I want to keep it affordable. It’s important to help people and to identify these old photographs and find out what we can about them.”

Taylor handles all kinds of genealogy questions, not just photographs.

“There are all kinds of stumbling blocks people face,” she said. “I have six generations of Jameses on both sides of my father’s family. With so many of the same names it does get annoying. But it’s also fun. My favorite is to find someone who’s doing their family genealogy, and they can trace things back to 1880 but they have a photo dated 1850. They have this great old family photograph, but it’s of someone they haven’t found yet.”

Also a part of Saturday’s program will be Fred Voss, a professional geneaologist who is also education chair of the Genealogical Society of Bergen County, and Thomas W. Jones, editor of the National Genealogical Society Quarterly.

Voss, a volunteer docent at Ellis Island, will talk about DNA matches and how to use that information, while Jones will help people deal with popular surnames, as well as ethics for family historians.

Capital District Genealogy Society Conference

WHERE: A virtual event
WHEN: 9 a.m.-5 p.m., Saturday, Sept. 25
HOW MUCH: $35 for members, $40 for non-members
MORE INFO: Visit www.capitaldistrictgenealogicalsociety.org

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