As part of a series revealing the hidden treasures at the Library of Birmingham, Graeme Brown examines family history sources
At a time when the internet is opening up billions of documents worldwide, the library still remains a vital source of clues for people researching their roots.
The success of programmes like Who Do You Think You Are? – along with the advent of the internet – have made genealogy more popular than ever.
And while searches may begin on the sofa at home, thousands of people flock to Birmingham Central Library every year to discover stories from their family’s past .
The library has access to records such as births, marriages and deaths, the Census, baptism registers, places of burial and church records – all of which have been used to bring people together who never knew they were related.
Library and archives assistant Elizabeth Palmer said people are drawn to the library for many reasons – from those researching family trees that stretch back hundreds of years to people looking for biological parents or medical information.
She said: “It is very fashionable and it is a lot easier to do because of the internet – but it is not all on the internet.
“Ancestry searches have gone beyond just the birth, marriages and deaths.
“Increasingly people want to put the flesh on the bones of their ancestors as much as they can. People like Who Do You Think You Are? and it makes them want to learn more and go back through the generations.”
People from as far afield as Australia, the US and Canada have visited the library in search of information – one of whom came to look up a relative of Buffalo Bill’s travelling show.
The American soldier and showman had visited Birmingham years before and a woman involved in the show had given birth to a child while in the city.
A total of 5,097 people used the archive search room last year, browsing 21,635 documents. Meanwhile, the library’s ancestry website gets more than 2,000 visitors a month while applications for family history certificates from Birmingham Register Office have risen by more than a third in three years, from 11,368 in 2005 to 15,622 in 2008, according to latest records.
Ms Palmer said many people succeed in tracing back their family histories – but it is important to do the groundwork first.
She advises people to write down what they know, talk to other family members and check if any research has been done before proceeding.
“We have people coming in wanting to prove that they are related to William Shakespeare but it’s not that easy,” she said.
“But the majority of people are researching ordinary lives, but often the most ordinary lives are extraordinary.”
She added: “People come in and say ‘I want to do my family history’ and your heart sinks. I usually advise people to write down what they know already and start from there. You have to check things first. For example there are a lot of myths in families. It could be that someone everyone knows as Gwen has a real name of Barbara.
“Then you start with the parts you don’t know, so you know precisely what you want to find out. It is a lot easier to find things this way. There is so much information that it can be overwhelming.”
For those in search of information on ancestors, birth certificates show the name, place and date of birth, and the names of both parents. Marriage certificates give more specific information – which can lead to follow-up searches – like occupations and addresses.
Census returns include occupations and dates and places of birth of all people in a household. As well as the more well known routes, other searches such as newspapers, wills, parish records, trade and residential directories and photographs can be used to trace family members from years gone by.
Ms Palmer said inquests are often a good source of information – particularly from people who may not have been literate.
“Inquests can often really shine a light on people’s lives – and obviously deaths,” she said.
Since 1976 anybody who has been adopted has the right to find their original parents – and those who have given children up for adoption have rights to find them.
Ms Palmer said: “It is not just about people who want to see their family was in 1600, we also get some people who want to find out more current things.
“There are quite a few people coming in looking for their birth relatives and legislation has changed so they can do that more easily. Since 1976 anybody who has been adopted has the right to find their original parents – and since 2005 those who have given children up for adoption have rights to find them, albeit by the use of an intermediary.”
Recently the library was visited by 69-year-old – who was trying to find details of her birth family having only just found that she had been adopted.
“It is actually a lot easier to find someone who is dead because there are issues around confidentiality, and we don’t have too much about people today – the electoral roll is only available until 2002,” Ms Palmer said.
However, she said searches into family history can sometimes raise some home truths that people would sooner not know – and can refuse to accept. She said: “A common problem we have is people come in and they won’t accept the dates of births in their families, because they won’t believe that their relatives would have had a child before marriage. Looking at the records you learn people are people. This idea that people wouldn’t have done that in Victorian times can get in the way. People are imperfect.”
Starting your family tree
1) Write down any information you already know about dates and places of family births, deaths and marriages.
2) Talk to family members and collect together any documents, like births, deaths and marriage certificates and photographs.
3) Check if any family research has already been done or if anyone else is interested in helping.
4) Compile a basic family tree including all known details.
5) Choose which branch of the family you are going to start with.
6) Start your research, working backwards from your earliest information.
7) Search General Register Office details for registers of births, deaths and marriages.
8) Purchase copies of certificates and use the information to examine records such as birth certificates, wills, electoral registers, marriage certificates, occupational records, death certificates and Census forms.