Resurrecting the dead

Adam MacInnis, The News
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Librarian has spent years digging up past details

Karen MacLeod brings the dead back to life.
She recently resurrected a John Hugh MacLeod, the oldest stagecoach driver at the time of his death at 93. She found him buried in the Jan. 11, 1929 edition of the Eastern Chronicle.

“Picture it!” she says to a local historical author John Ashton. “John Hugh MacLeod driving a team of six horses coming over Blue Mountain on his way between New Glasgow and Sherbrooke.”

She talks of the other details she learned about the man’s past – his wife’s name, various places they lived and who his parents were.

For almost a quarter of a century, MacLeod has worked as the reference and research clerk at the New Glasgow library where she has used the tricks and skills she’s learned over the years to unearth the past for the present generation. From the graves of newspapers and microfilm to the latest databases and ancestral websites, she’s reunited people with their ancestors and brought back to light forgotten lives and little moments that mattered once upon a time.

MacLeod, who will retire at the end of this month, started her job at the library in August of 1989, but her love of books and the knowledge bound within them, was sparked much earlier.

In 1952, you would have found her, a Grade 2 student, studying at the little white school in Thorburn. Her mother a teacher and her father a CNR policeman, there was never a shortage of books in their home. Still, one of her great delights was the vehicle the library sent around with books for rural children to read.

“That bookmobile would arrive and my goodness was that a great occasion!” MacLeod said. “Over I would go. You can imagine the people on the bookmobile would make a big fuss over you and you’d get that next set of books.”

As she grew up her enthusiasm for books and details never waned. She went to university and studied plant families. Now as a hobby she is a bird watcher and studies bird families. But at work is her perhaps her favourite subject – people’s families.

“That’s kind of where my mind is at. I’m kind of a person who is always trying to put things back together.”

That gift has made her much sought after locally by individuals looking to track their family tree to the roots. But all around the country and throughout the world, her services have been requested and praised by authors, illustrators, professors and historians, who she has helped find pieces of the past.

As she cleans up her office space in preparation to leave, she’s found notes from places like South Africa, Australia and America, with words of gratitude for her help. It’s those kinds of notes that remind her of the worth of her own life’s work.

“When I think back of all the time, I guess that has to be one of the best things about this job is the people are really, really appreciative of the fact you have helped them discover their family, their roots – where they’re going.”

Looking back, she’s amazed at how much technology has enhanced the speed and ability to access information from the past. Government documents and historical vital statistics that she used to have to plan trips to go see are now available with a couple quick clicks.

Through all the changes, though, she hasn’t forgotten the value of microfilm or the wealth of information hidden in archives housed in small communities. Wherever she travels she makes sure to stop by and dig for a while.

Ashton says MacLeod has been both an inspiration and a great help to him personally as he did research for various projects.

“Anytime I myself would hit a road block, I’d say ‘Gee what am I going to do,’” he said. “I would call Karen.”

More often than not, she would set aside the large stack on her desk and put his request as top priority.

“You’ve been so good to me,” he tells her.

MacLeod is sure to have time for some more of her other interests now that she’s retiring, and she says she’ll take some time to figure out what she wants to do. Her position is being filled at the library, but she has plans to preserve some of the personal projects she was working on.

“I don’t want things to just disappear. Some of it I will take with me.”

On Twitter: NGNewsAdam

Organizations: Grade 2

Geographic location: New Glasgow, Blue Mountain, Sherbrooke Thorburn South Africa Australia America

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Recent comments

  • Carol ((McKay) Wagar
    May 21, 2014 - 21:00

    Karen, congratulations on a well earned retirement. You have helped so many people find family members from the past. The talent and experience you have will be impossible to replace. I am glad I don't have the job of recruiting for your replacement! Wishing you a long and healthy retirement.