My local library has been so much a part of of my life I can’t imagine a world without it. It has been there at all stages: from the magical joy of childhood stories; to the text and reference books for my school studies; the escapist pleasure of novels transporting me to different worlds, times and places from my armchair (or bus seat); and full-circle taking my own little girl to choose her first books.
But more than that: 10 years ago it provided my gateway to family history.
When I took my first tentative family history steps, they took me to the familiar surroundings of Batley library. There I got used to operating the microfilm and microfiche readers to look at the local censuses, newspapers, parish registers and cemetery records. There I practised deciphering old handwriting and making transcripts and abstracts.
In those early novice days I don’t think I would have dreamed of going to West Yorkshire Archives. The prospect was far too daunting. It would be full of experienced, serious researchers. Not a place for a “newbie” like me who didn’t have a clue what a microfilm reader was, let alone how it worked.
I felt far more comfortable going to my local library where I knew the staff. And they had endless patience showing me what records were available and how things worked.
Their holdings provided a very local focus. Beyond the newspapers and parish registers they had those peculiarly local resources, often provided by researchers with a love of and affinity with the area. From the card index of local War Memorials compiled by Christopher Frank, (I still don’t know who he is but I’m eternally grateful to him because it was through his index that I had the jolting realisation that one of my ancestors was on the Memorial, a fact never mentioned by the family), to the research piece by Janice Gilbert on “The Irish in Batley”.
Even now my local library is a go-to family history research location. It is still the place for local newspapers – neither “The Batley News” or “The Batley Reporter & Guardian” are on the British Newspaper Archive or FindMyPast. Not all West Yorkshire Parish Registers are on Ancestry. There are resources such as Batley Cemetery Records, Batley Borough Council minutes, Directories, Batley Grammar School Magazines and various programmes, brochures and memorabilia from a multiplicity of local events. Then there is the wonderful Soothill War Register which I wrote about in a recent post.
One of my particular library favourites are the annual Reports by the Batley Borough Medical Officer of Health. I briefly referred to them in “A Short Life Remembered“. They provide a fascinating and detailed insight into all aspects of health, disease and social conditions of my Batley ancestors: from school-by-school statistics of Batley children, to breakdown of causes of death; from birth rates and infant mortality to incidence of infectious diseases. I find them an invaluable source for giving context to the times, lives and deaths of my ancestors.
They even have free computers, Wi-Fi and Ancestry access!
The impressive Batley Market Square library building is steeped in history. With funding from philanthropist Andrew Carnegie it opened to the Batley public in 1907. I imagine my ancestors browsing through the thousands of lending and reference library books or catching up with latest local, national and international events in the newspaper room. And over a century later I am researching the lives of those ancestors in the very same building.
In an era of Government spending cuts and their knock-on impact on Council funding for services, libraries are easy targets. “My” library was a fundamental first step up the genealogy tree all those years ago; and it is just as relevant for me today. I do so hope that such valuable community hubs, important at all stages of life, are not lost.
Given the subject it seems appropriate to post this on World Book Day.