A Quick Guide for Americans -  Exploring our Library and Archives Part 2

Come and visit the British family history experts -  by Sherryl Abrahart

Have you been preparing for RootsTech London? Are words like ‘records’, ‘database’, ‘index’ and ‘transcription’ filling your head right now? They are all key terms in genealogy so of course they are. But, here at the Society of Genealogists, we don’t think of them as records or indexes or whatever. We know that they are the story of your family and all our families.

It’s our focus on family stories that makes us a must-visit stopover during your stay in London.

Why this blog has two Parts

In Part 1 of our Quick Guide for Americans we explained how to explore our Upper Library as you search for evidence or more information on how and when your ancestors migrated to the US from all over Europe. Plus we described the huge amount of information we hold on early settlers in each of the 50 States. We also encouraged you to browse the shelves of the Middle Library, where you can find books, papers and indexes covering every county in Britain. This is especially essential background if you’re planning to visit your ancestors’ birthplaces.

Here in Part 2, we want to take you downstairs to the Lower Library where we store and care for thousands of people’s family stories.

What’s in the Lower Library?

The Lower Library doesn’t look anything like the Middle and the Upper Libraries. There are no books, for a start. There’s a row of PCs, lots of fiche readers and more boxes than you want to count.

This is where we store family history documents, images and records and where we give you access to online databases and the main genealogical websites. Over the last 110 years, many families have deposited or bequeathed us their family history papers and photos. We collate everything and index them by surname. For example, the Coldham collection holds family history papers relating to 16th and 17th century migration to North America and people involved in the War of Independence We take great care to store everything aiming to keep them safe and make them as available as possible to everyone.

These collections offer great opportunities to family historians. There’s a reasonably good chance that some of the families’ papers held are related to your ancestors. There are more than 44,000 surnames – so yours is probably included, although they might be other branches of your family. The collection includes legal documents, wills, photos, newspaper clippings and letters.

We might have been around for over a century but we are totally up for 21st century research. You can search the indexes online before you visit. If you are a Member, you can also see digitised items or more details online. Now that you’re here, we’ll let you sit down at a table and explore all the boxes that relate to your family names. If needed, we’ll set up one of the microfiche readers and show you how to use it.

Document Collection

Start with the Document Collection. The Collection sits in loads and loads of boxes. It holds: legal documents, wills, photos, newspaper clippings, letters, draft pedigrees, extracts from registers, photographs, unique family papers such as marriage settlements, and certificates. In fact, anything a family researcher might have in their own family history files at home can be found in this Collection.

You can search the online index on the Society’s website (tip: go to the Search Records tab then select Index to Documents). Type into the Search box your family surnames, to see if any families that share your name have deposited family history papers with us. Make a quick note of the surnames you find. Then come to the Help Desk and tell a member of staff or a volunteer the names you are interested in. They will bring the boxes out for you. Enjoy! Take as long as you need. You can take photos on your phone or get photocopies – just ask us at the Help Desk. We will charge you a small fee for whatever you want to take.

Special Collections

Now check out the Special Collections. In many ways, it’s just like the Document Collection. The difference is that each Collection is the work of just one researcher, like a genealogist. For example, you might be interested in the Currer-Briggs Collection. Noel Currer-Briggs was a specialist in early American families and their origins. He indexed the names of every person he encountered in wills and legal documents between 1550 and 1700. It’s rich with surnames and family details. It’s especially good for migrants to early Virginia and New England.

As you can imagine, each Special Collection is quite large. There are approximately 350 Special Collections – yes, you guessed it – lots of boxes. Each Special Collection holds a lot of information on a small number of families. The families may not be related but they will have something in common. For example, Box 1 of the Commander Collection holds correspondence and pedigrees that connect the UK Commander family with the family members that settled in North and South Carolina. The Bentall Collection holds papers covering migrants from Britain to Lincoln, Nebraska.

It’s quite easy to find the surnames held. You can work through a card index, held in a lovely set of old drawers, in alphabetical order of surname. Or you can browse through a set of binders, near the Help Desk, that is organised by Collection. For each Collection, there’s a list of all the surnames featured, with brief notes on what is held. So you will get some clues about geographic location and sometimes that there are pedigrees or photos. Make a note of the Collection and the surnames.

Then just tell a member of staff or a volunteer on the Help Desk what you would like to see. Generally, you’ll be able to sit at a table and explore boxes of documents and images. However, some Collections have been microfilmed to conserve them because they are getting quite fragile. But that’s not a problem - we’ll help you to get set up so that you can view them.

Birth Briefs

Another way to look for your family is to check out our Birth Briefs. We always encourage family historians to share information and collaborate. So, when Members join us, we ask them to record, on a Birth Brief form, all their ancestors back to their great-great-grandparents. We have more than 30,000 Briefs. And, of course, many of them name family members that migrated to other countries.

For example, the Kerst family completed a birth brief that shows us that their ancestors come from England and Wales. It records ancestors named Kerst born in Pennsylvania in the late 1770s. It also shows that one member of the Kerst family married someone from the Baker family. The Baker family seems to have lived in Virginia and the married couple also lived in Ohio.

You can browse our indexes online on our website before you visit (tip: go to the Search Records tab, select Index to Birth Briefs) to look for your family names. You can also search the Birth Briefs on a dedicated PC in the Lower Library. Just ask a member of staff or a volunteer. When you find an entry you’re interested in, you can actually see a preview of the information held and it shows the volume, quarter and folio details.

The other brilliant thing is that when you visit us, you can look at the actual Birth Briefs. You could find that a distant relative is a Member, loves family history just like you, and has already found some of your ancestors.

Come and see us

Everything you need to know before you visit is held on the Preparing for your visit web page. Do take note of our opening hours. It would be tragic to plan to visit us on a day that we are closed. You can find our special open hours for RootsTech on our Opening hours and closures web page.

Check out what else is happening on the day you’re going to visit. There are free tours of the whole Library to help you easily find your way around. There are free talks and you might find Else Churchill’s talk ‘Surname Searching and Finding Pedigrees Online and at SoG’ especially useful. It’s on Wednesday 30 October from 2 – 3 pm and you can book a seat in advance on our Events web page.

There are loads of sandwich shops and coffee bars in the area so you can pop out for food. Plus everyone eats lunch in the Common Room so you have an opportunity to meet other people as passionate about family history as you are.

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