So 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
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.