Sunday, 22 January 2017

The Genealogist’s Best Friend

For those just getting into family history it’s easy to be overwhelmed.

Google “genealogy” and find well over 100 million hits. Where to start? One good place is your local library. Larger libraries often have one or more genealogy specialists. Your's may offer a free one-hour one-on-one consultation to help you start off on the right foot and focus your research. The resources available will depend on your ancestry. The librarians will be able to direct you to the most promising sources once they understand your particular needs.

If you’re moving beyond the beginner stage but still learning—a happy place to be—you may seek advice from someone you met through Facebook or another social network, a fellow member of your local family history society, or a volunteer at a nearby family history centre. Keep an eye out for educational opportunities being offered as webinars as well as in-person talks offered by a local society or your public library. These delve more deeply into all kinds of specialized topics such as genetic genealogy, military records or Jewish ancestry.

As you explore your family history in depth, beyond names and dates to your ancestor’s life and times, you’ll find libraries and librarians coming to the fore again.

Database resources are given ever more profile by libraries. Through library access to a collection of British newspapers online I have found a great-grandfather, a Church of England minister, being fined for keeping a dog without a licence. Another relative was convicted for purloining money from the bank where he worked, a third fined for selling fake patent medicine. A distant relative exhibited a contraption, the Tempest Prognosticator, at the 1851 Great Exhibition in London to forecast the weather based on jumping leeches. Look hard enough, if you dare, and you’re bound to find interesting stories in your ancestry!

The National Library of Australia’s magnificent Trove collection of digitized newspapers became the source for finding out about my father’s return from being a German prisoner of war in the Pacific in 1941. The Chronicling America digitized newspaper collection, made available through the Library of Congress, provided insight on the life of my relative who left England to join the US Army, serving in Texas.

Sadly Canada is lacking such a national collection online.

You’ll also want to consult maps. Many libraries have local collections. Online you can turn to national collections such as the National Library of Scotland website offering free high-resolution zoomable images of over 160,000 maps of Scotland, England and Wales. For locations further afield, consult the David Rumsey Historical Map Collection.

In word association tests library and book go together. Books, an essential resource for understanding historical context, remain the major component of today’s broad range of library services. Think about appropriate subject terms for a search in your local public library catalogue; probably online, as are those for major specialist, university and national libraries, often through WorldCat which brings together many of those catalogues. If that search finds a publication of interest not in the local library collection the librarian doesn't just throw up her hands. Interlibrary loan offered by most libraries will most often obtain it for you. That sets the librarian apart from the archivist, valuable in their own way, as they don't just focus on the resources in their own in-house collection.

While there may be a charge for an interlibrary loan many out of copyright digitized publications have free access through services such as the Internet Archive and Google Books. Your librarian can tell you about them. Not to be overlooked are specialist libraries, such as the Wellcome Library, one of the world's major resources for the study of medical history.

Libraries and librarians are about connecting people to the information they need and educating them about finding that information. That’s why they’re known as the genealogist’s best friends. Are you taking advantage of the free in-person and virtual services librarians and libraries have to offer?


Anonymous said...

It seems as if libraries everywhere are coming under pressure due to ever increasing costs of operation and constant cuts to their budgets. I have heard the same story over and over again from people in many different countries around the world. In some places public libraries are being forced to close their doors altogether. Please support adquate funding for all our public libraries so they can cintinue to provide access to their resources, including the portal they offer to many who have no other way to access the internet.

Jane E MacNamara said...

John, that Tempest Prognosticator is a wonderful piece of equipment! Can't help but wonder how often the leeches needed to be replaced.

Linda Reid said...

Just last week two librarians of the Humanities and Social Sciences Section of the Toronto Reference Library gave a special genealogy-focused "tour" of their resources for twenty members of Toronto Branch of OGS. They will be repeating it again in the spring for another group of members. The most important message-- the library has many sub-collections so it is easy to get confused. We shouldn't hesitate to come to the desk and ask for help.

Gail B said...

As Anonymous says, please support your local library. In Ontario, budget constraints are causing huge issues in purchase of books. In Britain, many small libraries have closed. Here be dragons.

If we want our children and grandchildren to grow up and know important world issues, become a civil citizen, a library can help. The internet cannot.