Discover Family History At the Library


Libraries Help With Your Family History Search

She was young, in her mid-twenties, her blond hair pulled into a tight ponytail. She walked into the library’s Local History Room with a nervous energy, a mix of eagerness and fear that I instantly recognized. I greeted her from where I sat at the reference desk. “What are you looking for?” I asked. She took a deep, shaky breath and smiled tightly before answering me. She needed to look at the library’s collection of yearbooks, particularly those dating from the mid-1960s. I directed her to the research table and laid a pile of books next to her before going back to my desk.

After about twenty minutes, the sound of crying splintered the silence of the room, deep sobs that came from the direction of the research table. Turning toward the woman, I could see that her shoulders were hunched and shaking as she tried to suppress her tears. Slowly, I got up and walked over to her. “Are you all right?” I asked gently, afraid to intrude. She looked up and silently held the yearbook out to me, where rows of black-and-white faces smiled at us from decades before. Her eyes were red and puffy, and tears still clung to her cheeks, but the smile she gave me was jubilant, exultant. “I just found my grandma,” she told me proudly, pointing to a 16-year-old blond girl with a smile that matched her own.

She explained that her mother had been put up for adoption and had never been interested in finding her birth mother. So she had taken on the task of finding out where they had come from and discovering who that young girl had been. She had found a birth certificate and a name. And now, sitting in the library, she had finally seen her grandmother’s face.

During my time as a Genealogy Librarian, I met so many people who came to the library searching for family, for lineage, and for meaning. A gentleman tracking his ancestry back to the Revolutionary War. Two women trying to find their great-aunt’s grave. In connecting people with the record of their families’ lives, I learned that we all have stories waiting to be discovered. You probably do too. Maybe your family history is full of half-said truths and secret tales. Maybe you have no idea where your ancestors came from or what they saw.

Either way, you can start your family history journey at your public library. There’s free access to Ancestry.com, as well as digital collections and newspapers that you can access from home with your library card. For example, you can read the Whitewater Register starting in 1857 on the Irvin L. Young Memorial Library’s website; newspapers, photos, videos, and more from Fort Atkinson’s history are available to view online at www.fortlibrary.org. Some public libraries even have physical collections of local history and genealogy records that you can look through. Or log into the Archive of Wisconsin Newspapers at badgerlink.newsmemory.com/wna/badgerlink to look at newspapers throughout the state of Wisconsin. The Bridges Library System is currently working on adding to these collections by getting more Waukesha and Jefferson County papers digitized in the future. No matter who your family was, the library is here to help you discover your ancestry. You never know who you might meet along the way.

A version of this article appeared in the Waukesha Freeman, the Oconomowoc Enterprise, the Daily Jefferson County Union, and the Watertown Times. We will be sharing those pieces here on our website a few weeks after each piece has been printed.