Finding Genealogical Gems Tucked Away in Libraries & Archives

I volunteered last month in the ECHS Library & Archives, tasked with packing a special collection of rare books, readying them for the impending move to the archives new location on 6th Street. The particular unit I worked on contained three shelves of books from the Battles Collection. I might have gotten the job done sooner, but as I picked up each title to wrap it in tissue and bubble wrap, an overwhelming curiosity urged me to open its cover, and look through the first few pages. I was particularly drawn to, no surprise, the dictionaries, grammar, and spelling books, inscribed with the names of their young owners. Many of them belonged to CHARLOTTE M. and JAMES WEBSTER, JR., of New York and, later, Girard. Naturally, having a penchant for family history, I wondered all kinds of things: Were they siblings? Did both survive to adulthood? Did Charlotte use her education, privileged as she must have been to be receiving a formal one in the first decade of the 1800s? And, how were they related to the Battles family?

It occurred to me that this small collection of schoolbooks, dating from as early as 1786, is a rich source of information about the Webster family. The subject and condition of the books hint at the family’s lifestyle and provide context to their family activities. The copyright dates place the family in a particular decade and suggest ages of the children. The inscriptions in the front situate the family and suggests migration patterns. The use of such things as “Jr.” in a name provides clues to paternity. The very signature themselves could potentially be useful in establishing identity in records made by persons of the same names later in life. Wow! I can definitely see this kind of resource coming in handy when reconstructing families who predate more typical types of genealogy sources, both here in Erie County, and elsewhere. So, add this to your arsenal of records to check when creating your research plans. Check catalogs at historical societies, libraries, and archives in the communities where your ancestors live. And don’t forget—if your find something useful, take the time to write a complete source citation!!

(This article was originally published in the November 2014 issue of Keystone Kuzzins, the Erie Society for Genealogical Research’s quarterly newsletter.)