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 view census records in my pajamas at home. I have made wonderful discoveries in records I found online.
I hope this post will encourage you to reassess your devoted spouse (the library), who is patiently waiting for you to get over your latest crush.
On the Library Shelves
There are local libraries, and there are college and historical libraries /archives. There is so much in these “old school” repositories for genealogists to love.
We can find resources to add rich social history to our family stories, and make them more than just names and dates and places.
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 ethnic 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.
Works related to specific timeframes, such as the Revolutionary Era and the Colonial Era are available. Don’t even get me started on the Civil War. There’s virtually an entire row of books for that subject alone.
African-American Reference Works
Because my special interest is the African American experience, look at these incredible works:
“The American Slave” shown above is the published version of the 1930s slaves narratives. The published versions are significantly easier to search for surnames and counties of interest. You can see they are organized by state.
(If you read my previous post about finding slave laws in the HeinOnline database, the books above on “Judicial Cases Concerning American Slavery and the Negro” are available and searchable for FREE!!! That point is three exclamation point worthy, LOL.
Statistical References and Social History
I want to include some of my favorite other references for documenting the African American experience.“Historical Statistics of Black America” is a dream for African American genealogists. It contains statistics on numerous topics of interest and is organized in an easy to understand format.
There is also the “The Harvard Guide to African American History,” now online. Is a more of a guidebook that presents reference articles and books by topic. For the genealogist always looking for source material, it’s excellent.
I also really like the Daily Life series of books by the Gale research company, although I forgot to take photos of them.
How To Use Reference Books
How do I use these books, you might ask? Since most are reference works, you can’t take them home with you. I will often copy the any chapter using the copy machine if it’s short. I’ll use my digital camera if it’s longer.
I usually use these to answer questions about my ancestor’s life. If they owned land, how common was that for the place or time? What crop did they grow? If they were free black living in the antebellum era, was that rare? If they went to school, was that rare for the time & place?
What kinds of crimes and legal cases occurred in the area? What social groups existed they may have been a part of? How oppressed were black people socially, politically & economically in that time and place?
As you can see, there are no shortage of questions these books can help us with. All of those details help us to better understand our ancestor’s lives.
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.
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.
I am an engineer by day, but my true passion lies in genealogy. I have been a researcher, writer, lecturer and teacher for over twenty years. This blog is where I share family history methods, resources, tips and advice, with an emphasis on slave research, slavery and its aftermath. This lifelong quest has helped me to better know my family’s past. I’ve taken back– reclaimed– some of that lost memory, especially that of my enslaved ancestors. I hope you’ll sign up to receive my posts—if you do, you’ll get a free PDF with some of my favorite tips! And please do share posts that interest you.