Saturday, 27 July 2019

Some of genealogy's best-kept secrets

National Library of Ireland

Now that the summer holidays are here, I have friends travelling around Britain who will doubtless be spending at least some of their time ancestor-hunting.  This has reminded me that although I’ve blogged before about using your local public library, there are four well-kept secrets around the UK and Ireland that can help you grow your family tree, also for free: our national libraries.

Here’s a short introduction to each of these great institutions.  They have countless resources which a visit to their websites can fully explain, so here are just a few stand-outs from their collections, as well as some tips that apply to all of the national libraries.  Anybody can join; you don't have to live locally.

The first of these, and probably the most well-known, is the British Library in central London.  As well as providing visitors with reference materials, they have one of the largest collections of oral histories in the world.  It’s not a well-used source of genealogical information, but before literacy was quite as widespread as it is now, families passed on details of their ancestry by word of mouth.  Recorded memories of past times and communities preserve ways of life that our ancestors would have known.

The BL is also home to the India Office collection – this includes both official records such as births, and personal papers of individuals and families with a connection to India.  This collection is a must to investigate if someone in your family worked for the East India Company, or was in military service in the subcontinent.

The National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh, although its genealogical focus is on Scottish families, has an excellent online presence in their UK Map Images which anyone researching British places will find invaluable.  NLS e-resources, including newspaper collections, are freely available to Scottish residents.  And their guide to Scottish family history is well worth a look, too.  Their onsite collections include the papers of many Scottish landowning families, so if your ancestors worked for them or crofted on their lands, you may find them mentioned in correspondence or rentals.  Coincidentally, the NLS also has a collection relating to Scots with links to India. 

Located in Aberystwyth, the National Library of Wales describes itself as ‘the main repository for family history research in Wales’.  Like other libraries, some of its holdings, such as census returns, are widely available elsewhere, but the unique archives, manuscripts, newspapers, nonconformist church records, and tithe maps are not.  The archives at NLW hold many estate and family papers which will provide insight not only into the lives of the landed gentry, but to their tenants and employees as well.

The National Library of Ireland in Dublin offers fantastic on-site support for family historians.  Its free Genealogy Advisory Service provides an opportunity for you to sit down with a specialist who will give you tailored pointers on where and how to continue your research.  Useful for both beginning and experienced genealogists, this is best done at the start of your visit so that you can take advantage of the resources the library holds, including Catholic parish registers, estate papers, and maps.  No appointment is necessary for this service and its hours are posted on the NLI website.

Registration at each of the national libraries is essential and you will be issued with a reader’s pass.  Check the requirements for the library you plan to use and see if you also need to register online in advance of your visit.  Information sessions and talks are part of the work these libraries do to promote their services, and it may be useful to time your visit so that you can take advantage of one of these.  Another bonus is free in-house access to subscription websites such as FindMyPast, the British Newspaper Archive, or Ancestry.

As with any record office, you should search the library’s online catalogue before your trip to determine what they have that will help your research. Search for place and family names to discover what the library holds about the subjects you are interested in.  This is particularly crucial if the material you want to look at is stored off-site and needs to be ordered well in advance of your visit – or even just to save you a long wait while your order is retrieved from the depths of the repository.  You may want to contact library staff with any questions you have about your planned research. 

Exhibitions and displays are also part of national libraries; great for when your brain and eyes need a break from research for a bit.  And of course there are cafés and restaurants and the inevitable gift shops to enjoy.  But don’t be too tempted by the expensive wares on sale in the British Library shop!

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