By

Naomi Leon

THE KEEP RECORD OFFICE, BRIGHTON: THE FUTURE FOR FAMILY HISTORY IN EAST SUSSEX

Earlier this week, I went to visit the site of The Keep, the new Archive and Record Office for East Sussex, which is currently under construction at Falmer, just outside of Brighton.

Like many people in the area, I have mixed feelings about the loss of the Brighton History Centre, once Brighton Reference Library, that is housed in what is now Brighton Museum & Art Gallery.  It is a great shame to lose this wonderful resource in the centre of Brighton’s North Laines, where a huge array of local history records are easily available on an open shelf basis, and unobtrusive guidance is provide by its team of helpful staff (read more here).

Nevertheless, in these straitened times, it is no surprise that there are not the resources to keep it open alongside The Keep and we must, I guess, be grateful that such a big investment is being made in local archives at all.  It also makes some sort of sense to house everything under one roof.  And, having now seen it, I must confess to being quite impressed by the prospect of researching at The Keep.

The £19.5m development is a joint initiative of Brighton & Hove City Council, East Sussex Record Office (ESRO), the University of Sussex and Sussex Family History Group.  When construction finishes in May 2013, the complete collections of ESRO and the Brighton History Centre, as well as the Special Collections of Sussex University, including the Mass Observation Archive, will be transferred to The Keep.  It will ultimately house the records of eight different Sussex archives in six miles of mobile racking, held in its 3-storey repository wing.  How long the respective archives will be effectively ‘closed’ for is not yet entirely clear – probably in the region of six months.  However, the project is apparently on target, on budget and on programme to open towards the end of 2013.

While The Keep is never going to offer the charm and sense of living history of working in the Brighton History Centre, a great deal of thought and careful planning has gone into the new building.  Attention has been focused on sustainability with its external energy centre and biomass boiler, and future-proofing the new site. There should be enough space for new acquisitions for the next 20 years.  The very latest technologies are being used, including climate control technology currently undergoing 12 weeks of testing in the repository before records arrive.  A bespoke repository is being built on the first floor for photographic material and glass plate negatives.  The risk of fire is also being carefully managed, especially important when Sussex’s records will be henceforth mostly under one roof!

The exterior of the building is plain and modern, wrapped with an original ornamental panel alluding to various aspects of Sussex life.  Inside the main block, the space is light and airy, with two workrooms downstairs.  One of the rooms will be reserved for ‘open shelf’ study, hopefully on the same basis now provided by the History Centre, and will include lots of desk space and PC terminals.  The adjoining room, on the other side of  a glass wall next to the ‘Document production room’, will be for accessing more sensitive or fragile  original records and maps.  There is a separate room for the collection of the Sussex Family History Group, and another large flexible workspace that can be divided into three rooms for teaching, school visits, talks and other events.  Wifi access will be available throughout the building.  Sophisticated copying facilities are currently being worked out and consideration is also being given to the possibility of housing original films from the Screen Archive South East.  Upstairs, the second floor of the main block, there are bespoke new facilities for ongoing digitisation projects, masterminded by the record office and staffed by volunteers, as well as staff rooms and offices.  There will also be a cafe and green space outside for picnicking!

All looks very promising, if rather utilitarian especially on a bleak November day while under construction!  My only concern on visiting the site was that the two main ground floor workrooms might not be big enough, once equipped with shelving, desks and PCs but it will remain to be seen how things pan out.  They key to the success of the new archive will be its staff’s ability to make the site and the space work for its users.  Some of the finer details including transport links are still being ironed out; new bus routes, timetables and vehicle access are still to be negotiated.  Consideration will also need to be given to opening hours, including evening and weekend access.  Hopefully, the new website planned to accompany The Keep will also help to make the new resource approachable and accessible for all its users, in a straightforward and intuitive way.

Above all, the planners and staff will need to work hard to quell the doubters by making sure users can still easily access the existing resources and have appropriate support in finding the answers they seek, as well as acquainting users with the benefits of the new facilities and technology The Keep promises to provide.  The attitude of the planners and the personal approach of the staff will play a crucial part in transforming a pristine edifice into a living, breathing, useful resource.

Please contact us if you would like help researching your family history in Sussex.

Research your family history

CASE STUDY: DISCOVERING THE GRANDFATHER I NEVER KNEW

Discovering my grandfatherThis post has been generously contributed by recent client, Christine Glover, who we have helped to trace the life of a grandfather she never met. If you would like help exploring your own family stories, please contact us for further information.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve always been curious about my paternal grandfather, William, a British citizen living in Egypt, who was expelled during the Suez crisis in 1956. He left behind my grandmother and their two young children; my father, aged ten, and his five year old sister. Already in his late fifties at the time, and having lived abroad for all his adult life, he returned to England, where he lost contact with the family. They eventually heard of his death in 1965.

My grandfather was born in 1897 in Yeovil, Somerset. I had been told that he was an only child, orphaned at a young age and raised by an uncle. He left England as soon as he could, and after travelling the world, settled in Egypt, at that time a colonial outpost. I knew from my father that my grandfather had been previously married to an Italian lady, and that they had a daughter before divorcing. My father didn’t know his half-sister’s name, though, or what had happened to her after her parents’ divorce.

Wanting to find out more, I had at various times tried to look for official documentation relating to my grandfather and his parents. Despite having the details of his date and place of birth on my own birth certificate, I could never find any trace of a birth certificate for him, or anything confirming the existence of his parents, whose names I’d been told were Walter and Hilda. When public records including census returns started to be made available online, I searched again, but still nothing appeared. I wondered about his mysterious daughter, my father’s elder half-sister who had disappeared without trace; what had happened to her, and whether she had any inkling that she had other family. She could be anywhere in the world, and I had so little information about her that I had no idea where to start the search.

Getting help

Occasionally I made some headway, but every time I found some information that I thought might lead me to my grandfather, the link was too tenuous. I suspected that he was illegitimate; in my over-active imagination, I toyed with the idea that he was a bigamist, perhaps even a criminal, an elusive character hiding a dark secret, who escaped all my efforts to track him down. I eventually realised that I would need professional help to dig deeper, but work and family commitments meant that I kept postponing looking into things further.

At the beginning of this year, I heard that Naomi Leon, a former colleague, had set up Research Roots. This spurred me to renew my efforts; I spent the morning typing up everything I had ever been told about my grandfather, and emailed it off to Naomi, not expecting to hear back for a few days. I’ll always remember the moment I emerged from the darkness of the tube station on my way home from work that January evening; the most incredible email from Naomi flashed on my phone screen, outlining the first twenty or so years of my grandfather’s life in amazing detail. Since then, I have read and re-read this document too many times to count.

My grandfather’s story

Naomi confirmed what I suspected; the reason I had never been able to find a birth certificate for my grandfather was because he was born under another surname, the illegitimate son of a 21 year old glove maker. A year after my grandfather’s birth, his mother married his step-father, a railway platelayer, with whom she went on to have eleven more children. Walter was my grandfather’s step-father, and presumably the only father figure he had ever known, but for some reason, my grandfather had concealed the first name of his mother, who was not called Hilda, but Jane. Hilda was actually one of my grandfather’s younger sisters; strangely, despite the confusion about her first name, Jane’s maiden name was correct.

At some point, my grandfather had informally adopted his step-father’s surname; he used both his first and second names, William and Reginald, interchangeably, so he was known by a combination of four names. No wonder I had found it so hard to track him down. I had chanced upon this family in my previous census searches, but too much differed from what I had been told, so I had never made the connection. The key had been in his army records; Naomi had managed to put the next-of-kin information from these together with census information and birth and marriage records, to corroborate that she had found the right family. With eleven half-siblings, my grandfather was obviously not an only child as we had been led to believe, and he was not orphaned young either; he was a grown man serving in the army when Jane died of heart disease in 1918 shortly after giving birth to her twelfth child at the age of 41. Walter lived to quite an old age, dying in 1945.

I had suspected that my grandfather might have been institutionalized as a child, as I could never find any trace of the uncle he said had raised him. But what Naomi uncovered in the 1911 census was even more shocking. At the age of nine, with his mother and step-father living in Yeovil with their other children, my grandfather was in Bath, detained at an industrial school, a semi-penal institution set up to take in children who were destitute or in danger of falling into bad ways. I wondered what terrible deed a child of nine could have committed to be sent away to such an institution. Had he been abandoned by his family?

With Naomi’s help, I wrote off to the Somerset Archives for the school’s records, and spent several weeks anticipating the worst. When the records arrived, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. His character was described as “good” and his “sentence of detention” until the age of sixteen was for “non-attendance”. I obtained a copy of the school rules; discipline was harsh, and children were allowed little contact with their families. My grandfather was an inmate there until the age of fifteen. He was released early, with a much better education than he would have received otherwise, and a glowing reference (“he should do well in life”) to join the army as a boy soldier in 1912.

This could have been the best thing that ever happened to him; he escaped the horrors of the trenches, having been already stationed in India and China when the First World War broke out, and was eventually posted in Cairo. Army life was not for him though; a series of incidents including “improper behaviour before the band president” and kit going missing, culminated in him being court martialled for going AWOL. He eventually bought his way into a civilian job with the Cairo police for £35 in 1920, and settled in the country that was to be his home for the next thirty five years of his life.

Now I knew that my grandfather’s first marriage probably took place in Egypt. After doing some more research, Naomi managed to locate the marriage in 1921; the information about his first wife being Italian proved to be correct; her name was Maria, and I was shocked to see that she was only sixteen at the time of her marriage to my twenty four year old grandfather.

Finding Aunt Nelly

Then followed a period of tracing different leads; after a couple of false starts ordering birth certificates of girls with the same surname born in Egypt, Naomi found the birth certificate of their daughter, my father’s half-sister, Nelly, who was born in 1922; strangely, her birth was only registered when she was thirteen years old. My father then remembered that following their divorce, my grandfather’s first wife had subsequently married an RAF pilot before leaving Egypt, so we tried to find this marriage certificate in the hopes that this would lead us to where Maria and Nelly had eventually settled.

Naomi managed to locate Maria’s second marriage to a pilot called Jim, in of all places, Barnsley, Yorkshire. But Jim’s job meant that they moved around, and it was tricky to trace them. Naomi made some contacts from Jim’s family through a genealogy website, and was told that he and Maria had moved to Wales. In August this year, Naomi told me that she had traced Nelly. Sadly, we were too late as she had passed away some years ago. However, Naomi had made contact with Nelly’s daughter, my first cousin, Lydia, who now lives in Canada.

Approaching my relatives

I wondered how Lydia would react to my contacting her. After all, I didn’t know under what circumstances her grandparents’ marriage had broken down, and what she had been told about our grandfather. I had nothing to worry about, as Lydia was delighted to hear from me and fascinated to hear all about the information Naomi had uncovered. She also had some amazing stories of her own to share, including how Maria had married our grandfather to get away from her controlling father, and how after their separation, our grandfather had taken Nelly away, and she was found several days later in an Arab tent. Apparently, the disappearance even made the press!

Aside from Lydia, I have made contact with several other cousins, the children of our grandfather’s siblings. Poignantly, the first cousin I made contact with, told me that his mother Lillie’s last memory our grandfather, her elder brother, was of her running in the field waving goodbye as his train pulled out of the station to take him to join up. Apparently, he kept in touch with Lillie for some years, but the letters eventually petered out. After their mother’s death, Walter didn’t remarry, and Lillie raised the remaining younger siblings. My grandfather never returned to Somerset, settling in Portsmouth when he was expelled from Egypt in 1956.

I’ll never know why he lost contact with all his family, but exactly a century since he left, it has been an incredible experience for me to connect with them. I now know the names not only of my great grandparents, but also of my great-great grandparents, what they did for a living, how many children each generation had, and where they are all buried. I hope to visit Somerset soon to see my new-found cousin Ann, who will be the first member of my extended family on my grandfather’s side I have ever met in person.

Photos reproduced with thanks by kind permission of the family.

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How to find missing relatives

GUIDE TO FINDING LIVING RELATIVES

Find missing relativesFor a variety of reasons, I am regularly commissioned to find missing people in my work at Research Roots. When someone has died, I may be asked by a solicitor or accountant dealing with probate to find someone named in a will or, when no will exists, to construct a family tree and locate surviving beneficiaries to an estate.  We may even have contacted you as a possible beneficiary (for more information, please see here).

A living relative may sometimes be traced to help with a medical emergency, such as a transplant, or to be reunited with someone with a terminal illness.  We also work with registered support agencies in cases of adoption.  In other cases, the motivation may be simply to reconnect a family, or connect for the first time,  to find out more about a shared family history or to ask a specific question.  The reasons are various, and the circumstances seldom the same.

Many people don’t know where to start with tracing living relatives, but the truth is it has never been easier to track down living people and you don’t necessarily need specialist tools.  As a talk I attended this weekend reminded me, there are a number of cheap and easy avenues you can try before contacting a research professional.

Find people for free

  • Telephone book or its online version.  While it is estimated that more than 45% of people in the UK are now ex-directory, the telephone book remains a good place to start research.  Also try 118 118’s People Finder.
  • Write letters.   It’s always worth trying good, old fashioned snail mail when seeking out living relatives.  Write to old addresses and any associated people who may be able to help your search.  Letter writing also puts the recipient under less pressure, especially if the reason for your contact is quite sensitive (see below).
  • Check with the neighbours.  Neighbours can often be a good source of information when the person you are searching for has moved away or died.  They may not be able to give you specifics, but they can often give you enough detail to send you in the right direction.
  • Google search.  Never underestimate the power of a Google search!  Enter as much detail as possible including names, places, addresses, company information, occupation and try different permutations of words.  It’s often amazing what comes up!
  • Facebook. With 35m members in the UK alone (approx 53% of the population), Facebook is an incredible tool for tracking down relatives a this country as well as overseas.  It also manages the process of making contact quite well as people have the option not to respond.
  • Genes Reunited has over 11m members, often with considerable family information attached.
  • LinkedIn, which now comprises an estimated 20% of UK professionals, is an increasingly important tool for finding living people especially, say, if you have a name, know roughly where someone is living and what they do for a living.  LinkedIn often complements publicly available company records.

How to approach living relatives

Of course, these sources do not always yield the answers you’re looking for.  Sometimes specialist experience, skills and data sources are required to find people and this is where companies like us can help.  The point is, don’t discount the obvious in the first place.

And, finding someone is only half the story.  A great deal of our work at Research Roots is concerned with managing the process of making contact with living beneficiaries or relatives.  Whatever the circumstances, an amount of delicacy and tact is required, as well as an understanding of how the recipient may feel about being contacted or about the information you may have for them.  Not everyone wants or is pleased to be found, and people’s privacy must be respected.  It is a fundamental principle of UK law that people have the right to go missing.

Unless you know the person you’re trying to reach very well and are confident they will be pleased to hear from you, I recommend if possible an approach by letter in the first instance.  When I trace people, I prefer not to put them under pressure by asking them to answer questions there and then.  People are often suspicious when put on the spot, and in some cases you will only get one chance.  A well-judged letter telling them why you are contacting them, providing sufficient information to reassure them that you are who you say your are and that your contact is genuine, will help to allay most suspicions.  If you must phone or Facebook message, it is often best to ask for a contact address so that you can write to properly explain the nature of your enquiry.

In many cases, people are surprisingly helpful and willing to talk.  Gauge your individual situation carefully and don’t forget that information regarding people who are long dead may be painful or provocative.

Depending on the nature of your search, you may find it preferable to use a researcher or intermediary company like us to help you through the process sensitively and discreetly, making sure that all the facts are correct before making contact.  In adoption or other sensitive cases, we can also put you in touch with specialist counsellors and registered support agencies.

Happy hunting!

Please contact us for more information about finding people, or to find people outside the UK.

WW1 SERVICE MEN’S HISTORIES: A SON’S STORY

In my last post, I talked about uncovering the personal stories amongst the collective experience of the First World War. Our new WW1 Servicemen’s Histories are intended to give you an insight into the particular experience of your relative using WW1 British Army service records, pension records, casualty lists and regimental records.

Of course, from this vantage point, the experiences of our family members who were left behind are just as fascinating for us as those of the soldiers themselves. In digging around in my own family’s First World War experiences, I came across this rather amazing letter, written by my grandmother’s Uncle Norman about his own father’s death during the Great War. In recollecting a specific soldier and a single story, it is also exemplary – alluding to an experience that a whole generation would have identified with.  No doubt similar letters survive in your own family.

I’ll let the letter speak for itself.  A transcription is below.





I would have been around seven years old, an only child, and at home with my mother: father a soldier. The last year of the ’14-’18 War. I so vividly remember my mother telling me to answer knocking at the front door and when doing so was handed a telegram by a telegraph boy in Post Office uniform. At that moment mother came to the door, signed for the telegram, and we both went into the kitchen. On looking back I think it was obvious that mother had guessed at the contents of the telegram as she had not opened it when the telegraph boy called.

She sat for some moments and then undid the envelope and read the telegram. How, other than putting arms around a weeping mother and joining her in her tears, can a seven year old bring comfort to someone who has just received a message reading, “We regret to inform you that your husband William Finn is reported Missing, believed killed in action.”

Father had been in the Royal Engineers attached to the 8th Gloucesters. Mother at that time, heard of odd instances of men returning home who had earlier been reported as “Missing” and within a very short time following receipt of the telegram grew to believe that Dad would return to us.

For two full years our old-fashioned copper boiler in the kitchen was lit each night and hot water kept available therein for Dad – he would want a bath (a round metal one kept hanging in the shed) when he came home. Between our house and the next was an alley and any footstep or sound heard there or in the street during the night would be a signal for my mother – and usually myself – to spring to instant wakefulness.

Sometime in, I think, 1920 mother received a letter from an ex-soldier living in Kent and, as a result of this, he came to visit us in Southend. He told us he had served with Dad and had, in fact, been with him when he was killed. He himself had subsequently been injured and following discharge from hospital after two years returned to his home in Kent. He then thought he would endeavour to track down his old friend’s widow – Lillie Finn; he knew she lived somewhere in Southend-on-Sea: this he did and told us the following —

It was at a time then known, I believe, as the ‘Big Push’ when the Germans had thrown in every man and halted the Allies’ advance; indeed the latter had fallen back on many fronts. Dad, this man and eight other Royal Engineers had been out tracing and repairing cut lines of communication at night. At about one or two a.m. a thick fog came up and it was not possible to return to their own Battalion so the ten men took shelter in a “Pill Box” hoping the fog would ease off with the dawn.

However, although lighter by about 5 a.m. fog was still dense with visibility down to a few yards and the party decided to leave and find their way back. A short while afterwards the fog lifted to some extent and they realised they were surrounded on three sides by Germans who were themselves advancing preparatory to an attack.

The ten men had only one escape route between two shell holes which were filled with water; this they attempted but as they ran through it the Germans opened up with a machine gun. Only one man, the Kent soldier, escaped and reached British Lines – only to be wounded soon after he told us (he had, up to then, assumed we were well aware that father had been killed). He had seen Dad shot through the head and had seen him fall into the water-filled shellhole. This was of course why we had been informed “Reported Missing” – his body had never been found or, if found, had been unidentified.

This news was very merciful.

In 1925 or 1926 mother and I went with a group on a Battlefield Tour (possibly then run for Widows by the war Graves Commission?). Menin Gate. The Tyne Cot memorial. Father was killed at St. Eloi, not far from Ypres. We visited many areas – Poperinge, Bethune, Hazebrouck, Arras, Abbeville, Amiens, Cambrai, Mons etc etc. I remember our driver, a Frenchman with but little English – he came into the Cemetery with us. In second year High School French, I managed to tell him my father had no known grave and the nearest I could come to making him understand this was to describe Dad as one of ‘Les Inconnus’.

If you would like to explore your own WW1 Ancestors, please visit Military Histories on our website and contact us for further information.
WW1 service records

RESEARCHING YOUR WW1 ANCESTORS

These are my great-grandparents, Gerald Alfred Alexander Pack and Edith Jane “Jen” Wells.  In launching our new personal histories of WW1 servicemen, I have been thinking about them a lot lately.  A handsome young couple, they have always seem to me emblematic of the romance and tragedy of that WW1 generation.  Separated throughout the war in which he was decorated as a Royal Army Medical Corps ambulance driver, we still have many of the loving letters he wrote home to “my dear Jen”, before marrying her after his discharge in the spring of 1920. My grandfather was born three years later.  Yet by that time, photos show the clear eyed young private was gone.  Gerald, thirty or thereabouts, was already an old man – a shadowy, heavy-browed figure.  One might imagine plagued by the things he had seen at Ypres, Vimy and Passchendaele.  He was dead by the age of 38.

I know I am not alone in finding something about the First World War uniquely compelling.  There are the banner headlines, of course – so familiar they have almost lost their power.  The massive sacrifice.  The lost generation, a scar on almost every family in the British Isles.  The loss of sons, brothers, fathers, uncles, husbands.  No men to marry.  A poppy for every casualty.  A generation “known unto god”.  Their name liveth forever more.  We will remember them.

And the First World War is interesting in so far as it symbolised, in so many ways, a watershed in this country’s history and the history of European warfare.  It marked the first and last time ordinary men would be called up to serve and give their lives on such an enormous scale.  It more or less signalled the end of  hand-to-hand ‘battlefield’ warfare, pioneering new forms of aerial intelligence and destruction.  It led to women gaining the vote.  It sowed the seeds for that other ‘great’ war, twenty years later.

But that’s not quite it.  What I find fascinating are the individual stories that lay behind this collective experience.  The thousands of separate impulses, circumstances, motivations that pitched this generation of young men into the mud of Flanders, or up impossible Turkish hillsides, to fight for a few metres of ground – otherwise known as ‘the greater good’ or ‘liberty’.  My grandfather used to say that the First World War couldn’t happen now – young men of today’s generation have far too great a sense of their own individual rights.  Ordinary men would not – could not – be disciplined or obedient enough to serve in the way that their great-grandfathers did.  They just wouldn’t go.  I think to some extent he was right.  But, unconsciously or not, are today’s attitudes shaped by the experiences of our grandfathers and great-grandfathers?  And, are we being too simplistic in ascribing a lack of individualism to a generation that laid down their lives?

God knows, the searing poetry that came out of the First World War describes what individual sacrifice felt like, what it cost.  And perhaps just as eloquently, spoke the silence of those thousands of servicemen who could never afterwards articulate what they’d been through.

It is the individual experience, amidst thousands, that interests me.  How it felt to sit in a freezing trench for a whole winter, to see the insides of your friends, brothers and comrades, to look into someone’s eye before killing them.  What backgrounds shaped ‘heroes’ and ‘cowards.’  And, while we can never approximate the thoughts and emotions of our WW1 ancestors, surviving records can go a long way to help us individually reconstruct ‘their war’.  Using a mixture of service, pension, regimental and casualty records, it is possible to piece together a great deal of detail about when and where relatives served, what they would have seen and experienced, whether they were recognised for their bravery, where their scars came from.  And, for those that survived, it is often possible to decipher how their wartime experiences might have shaped their later life.

As recent episodes of Who Do You Think You Are? have shown, First World War records offer many of us with relatives who experienced the Great War first hand, a fascinating opportunity to better get to know what they went through.  And thereby, to honour it.

If you’d like help exploring your own WW1 ancestors, or would like to commission research as a gift, please contact us for more information.

Happy hunting!

Research your family tree using local libraries

LOVE YOUR LIBRARY!

Research your family tree using local librariesSo yesterday, I put on my specs and my best brown sandals and headed out on an exploratory visit to Brighton History Centre to reacquaint myself with local records.

I have to confess an interest and an affinity with the place.  My mother worked in what was then Brighton Reference Library when I was a child and I have vague memories of it, seen from behind her skirt and tinged with the smell of the long, polished wooden trestles that used to be there.  While the old desks have long gone, the History Centre for the time being is still recognisable.  A grand, airy room, housed in the Dome next to the lovely Brighton Museum & Gallery (and convenient tea room!), adorned with ornate cornices and plasterwork – and shelves upon open shelves of genealogical material, ready for the picking.  A veritable sweet shop…

With the great wealth of material now available online through sites like Ancestry, Find My Past and FamilySearch, it’s easy to forget what amazing and accessible resources local libraries and history centres are for family history research.  From the novice to the experienced genealogist, it is incredibly helpful to be able to browse for relevant material without having to contend with sometimes complex and incomplete catalogues.

Typical of many other local reference libraries, Brighton History Centre’s resources include:- City and professional directories, census returns and electoral rolls, newspapers dating back to the mid-eighteenth century, parish registers, rate books, maps and surveys, criminal records, workhouse registers, muster rolls and much, much more.  There are also a number of collections of photographs, and private research projects, donated by people who took the time and trouble to observe the city around them and give back to it.  It is nothing short of a treasure trove and invaluable to our house and pub histories of the local area – see here.

It is then a great shame that the History Centre, currently easily accessible in the bustling heart of Brighton’s North Laines, is set to close in the next couple of years.  Having already been granted several reprieves, its collection is due to go behind closed doors at the soon-to-be-opened ‘Keep’ at Falmer, an outpost of East Sussex Record Office.  That is, unless the efforts of the Friends of Brighton History Centre are successful.  The collection will still be available for public use but no longer on its joyous open-shelf basis.   I will be joining the Friends petition.  For more details of how to get involved in the campaign, please contact the History Centre.

For the time being, we must make the most of what we have.  Here are my top tips for making the most of local library resources…

Tips for getting the most out of your local library visit
Plan ahead

Work out what information you want to gain from your visit, so as to make sure you make the most of your time. Have a good look around the library’s website and online catalogue (if there is one) in advance, so you know roughly what you can expect from the visit. Prepare a list of questions to help focus your visit. Check whether you need to be a member to access records and what ID is required before you go; sometimes membership applications have to be processed in advance of your actual visit.

Take the right kit

Alongside any ID you need for membership, make sure you take along materials for making notes, a good quality camera (you will need to check whether photos are allowed!) and change for photocopying. The latter is likely to be the only cost you incur.

Ask for a guided tour

You may want to arrange this in advance at a time when the library is usually quiet. If you are new to the library, it is really helpful to be given an overview of the library’s range of records and resources before you get started. Librarians may not thank me for this!

Make use of librarians’ knowledge

Reference librarians may not know the answers to your questions but their detailed understanding of how records are kept should help you to find them. Many librarians are incredible repositories of local knowledge so make sure you ask them for help and guidance.  They may also be able to tell you where you can find other records to answer questions your visit may have raised.

Allow time for specialist resources

Bear in mind that a variety of (expensive) specialist resources may be accessible through the library, that can be used alongside original records. Many libraries, for example, subscribe to key newspaper archives such as The Times Digital Archive and the British Newspaper Archive, electoral information through 192.com, the Dictionary of National Biography Online, as well as key genealogical websites like Ancestry and Find My Past.

Happy hunting!

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