Oh, my fellow genealogists. We have become blinded by the light, we have taken the wooden nickel. Ancestry. Familysearch. Fold3. Any digital archives. We have left our strong and steady marriage for a fling on the wild side. I’m talking about libraries. Good old faithful brick and mortar libraries.
Now, I will be the first to admit how much easier it is to look at census records in my pajamas at home as opposed to going to the Archives, opening the drawer to find the right box and putting the microfilm in the dusty old reader which always seemed to have something on it broken. And it is true I have made some wonderful discoveries in records I found online. But it is my hope in this post to encourage you to reassess your devoted spouse (the library), who is patiently waiting for you to get over your latest crush.
There are local libraries and there are college and historical libraries (/archives) and there is lots in both for genealogists to love. We can find resources to add rich social history to our family stories, we can add facts and details that make our ancestor’s stories come alive and make them more than just names and dates and places. We have to do that. I want to share with you some of what I found while walking down the reference aisles at the New York Public Library a few months ago.
As seen in the very small sampling above, there are an endless amount of books we can use to tell our family’s stories. Most groups are covered with specialty encyclopedias covering the Asian-American,Pacific Islander, Irish- and Italian-American experiences. There are books for the (European) immigrant experience overall, and for Women, and for the South as a region and for New England. Time periods such as the Revolutionary Era and the Colonial Era can be found here, and don’t even get me started on the Civil War. There’s virtually an entire row of books for that subject alone.
I don’t think there is any aspect of American Life that isn’t covered. Now, because my special interest is the African American experience, I want to share even more:
“The American Slave,” above is the published version of the slaves narratives that can be found online and on Ancestry today. However, the published versions are significantly easier to navigate and to search for surnames and counties of interest. You can see they are organized by state. There’s more:
(Here’s a tip: if you read my previous post about finding slave laws in the HeinOnline database, the set of books above on “Judicial Cases Concerning American Slavery aand the Negro” is available and searchable for FREE!!!)
I want to include some of my favorite references for the African American experience and ones I’ve used many, many times in my research:
“Historical Statistics of Black America” is a dream for African American genealogists. It has statistics on every conceivable topic of interest and is organized in an easy to understand format.
“The Harvard Guide to African American History” is a more of a guidebook–it arranges reference articles and books by topic. For the genealogist always looking for source material, it’s simply excellent. I also really like the Daily Life series of books by Gale research company, although I forgot to take photos of them.
How do I use these books, you might ask? Since most are reference works, you can’t take them home with you. Usually if I have earmarked a library for research, I will plan to stay for at least 4 hours. Whatever topic I am researching for the day, I will often copy the relevant chapter using the copy machine if it’s short, and using my digital camera if it’s longer. If I am researching my family in Maryland, I will review these works for that state and for the specific county and timeframes. If my ancestor owned land, how common was that for the place or time? What crop did they grow? If they were an antebellum free black, were there a few or a large number in the area? If they went to school, was that rare for the time & place? What kinds of crimes and legal cases were heard in the area? What social groups were in operation that they may have been a part of? How oppressed were black people socially, politically & economically in that area?
As you can see, there are no shortage of questions these books can help us with and all of those details help us to better understand what our ancestor’s lives were like. That’s what this is all about, after all.
If you are interested in a specific title you’ve seen above, you can search Worldcat to find the library closest to you that carries it. You may be able to get a copy sent to your local library using an Interlibrary Loan. In closing, I hope this long walk down the reference aisle has made you reconsider using your library for more than just its computers and free digital subscriptions. The books we can find there, very few of which are available online can add content and layers to the lives of the people we are rediscovering.
The library is calling to you–it’s saying “Remember me? You used to know me.” 😉 I hope this post might be just be enough to make you fall back in love with libraries.