Next week is Libraries Week, and with a digital theme this year, we're continuing our focus on the important digital resources and support provided by our public libraries.
Ever considered uncovering your family’s past? Every year, many people take steps to understand their ancestry, heading in the direction of their local library. There are rich resources and expertise waiting to be used as part of these highly rewarding projects. So what are you waiting for?
In this blog post, we talk to Isobel MacLellan, Special Collections Librarian at the Mitchell Library in Glasgow, who has advised library customers on tracing their family history for the last 10 years.
Why is the library the best place to conduct family history research?
Firstly, libraries have a range of genealogy resources available free-of-charge and the computers to access them. If you google family history and Glasgow, you’ll quickly get sent in the direction of the Mitchell Library.
We provide Ancestry.com library edition and Find My Past, which are also available in our local branch libraries. The Mitchell also provides access to the British Newspaper Archive and we have census returns, old parish records on microfilm, and historic voters rolls for Glasgow. It’s all free to access here. Plus you can print out at only 10p per sheet! All you need is a Glasgow library card and anyone can join.
There are library staff available to advise you – we try and point people in the right direction to help with their family history research. We can also refer customers to the City Archives for other family history resources and the Registrars Service for access to the Scotland’s People website for further information on births, marriages and deaths.
How do you assist customers coming into your family history department?
We advise customers on how to start their family tree and people also come to us if they get stuck during their research. There’s no need to make an appointment – you can just drop in. We also run family history events twice a month (also free!) which provide advice on where to start and introduce the sources you can use.
We guide and support people as they make their discoveries. It can be quite emotional and we often build relationships with our customers as they make significant findings or confirm their suspicions about a family rumour. It’s amazing what people can find out!
Why do people research their family trees?
People are motivated by a variety of reasons. Many retired people come in as it’s a popular hobby. It can provide huge satisfaction and leads people to discover new things – they might be surprised by what they find out.
Some people think they might be related to Robert Burns or William Wallace. They might have a shared surname or just feel they have a connection. Or they might have a family secret or mystery that they are trying to solve. One lady hoped there was some family wealth to uncover and asked if we could help her find a treasure map – unfortunately we weren’t able to help that time!
We also have private researchers use our services. Local history societies drop in and we see students from the local university which runs a course on genealogy.
Has it grown in popularity in recent years?
Family history has definitely become more popular due to TV programmes such as Who do you think you are? The recent History of a House series has helped to spark interest further.
Ancestral tourism has also taken off with organised trips and cruises. Here in Glasgow, we have people from all over Scotland and abroad visit us. We have visitors from as far as America, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. We often show tour groups around the library.
What are some of the more surprising findings uncovered?
Sometimes family histories reveal forgotten marriages and children, for example, when someone has remarried and the first family stays hidden. It might be generations ago but of course it can also concern a person’s own parents.
One time a customer discovered that she was a twin. When there was no death certificate to be found we put her in touch with the Salvation Army. They can help trace living relatives and in this case she was reunited with her twin. That was definitely one of the more unexpected outcomes!
What do people usually do with their findings?
They often share them with their families. They might go on to research the local area further, the streets where ancestors lived – even though sometimes they’re no longer there due to city development. They’ll look for photos of where they lived, or the shop where they worked.
We’ve had some customers publish books of their findings and send us copies for the library. So it can lead them to become authors!
Have you researched your own family tree?
Of course!! It’s good to carry out your own family history project as it helps when you’re supporting others.
What would you say to someone who is thinking of researching their family tree?
Start by speaking to relatives to gather information from those who are still living. Ask for certificates, photos and possibly burial papers. Try to make as many connections as possible. Then visit the library for further help.
What do you think libraries do better than any other service?
Libraries are free, welcoming and they never judge. They are open for everyone and a vital public service. People use them as a place of safety, warmth and comfort. They have computers and resources and you can get things done here, whether it’s building your family tree or something else.
Digi-Pals can help you complete online forms to get a new job and there are advisors that can help with government services. But there doesn’t have to be a particular reason for you to come in. You don’t need to be researching, or studying or building a family tree to make a visit worthwhile – although we’d love to help if you are!
There’s always lots of interesting things going on here. If you haven’t visited a library for a few years then you’re missing out on an awful lot.
With thanks to Isobel MacLellan at the Mitchell Library, Glasgow.