The fun of the genealogy service in the National Library is that we never know in advance who we’ll meet, or what stories we’ll hear. Our job is to listen, to identify verifiable facts and events, and to guide enquirers in their research. The search never ends, because family history isn’t just about the past, it allows people to explore personal identity.
Here are some of the stories we’ve heard from recent visitors to the Library’s Genealogy Room.
Sometimes tracing lost ancestors can be a very simple process. Recently I talked to an American couple both investigating their own sides of their respective families. One side of the family was proving difficult and the lady was exasperated. She knew where her family were in the 19th century but wasn’t able to find them in census records. We just needed to put in the option of ‘surname variants’ and we found them in two late 19th century U.S. Census records. They were originally from Ireland and their surname suggested they originated from Ulster. Fortunately, they also had unusual Christian names and using the names of the children we were able to pinpoint a parish in Fermanagh. The couple were touring Ireland and there and then decided to include Fermanagh on their itinerary.
Sometimes, ok often (!), tracing an ancestor isn’t so easy. I’m reminded of one American lady who had carried out a large amount of research on her family. It was a quiet afternoon, for once, in the library and we reviewed her family history. She was puzzled by a number of items including the fact that her ancestor’s wife was born in France. We made no real headway with the research and more visitors to the genealogy room meant that we had to finish up. Her story was intriguing and my curiosity meant that I spent the evening after work trying to find out more. Eventually using digitised newspaper records I found a short death notice for her ancestor. The notice stated that he had been part of the guard who were stationed on the remote island of St. Helena during Napoleon’s exile there between 1815 and 1821. This death notice opened up a whole new perspective on her family and new research opportunities.
As this blog[?] has the word ‘Library’ in its title I feel that I have a license to recommend a book that relates in part to my second story. The English translation of Jean-Paul Kauffmann’s The Black Room at Longwood: Napoleon’s Exile on Saint Helena is wonderfully haunting story told by a person who was himself a hostage in Beirut for three years.