Libraries are known for housing secrets of times long past. Less known is the fact that they might very well house your own secrets, too.
The Cloverdale Library has been home to western Canada’s largest collection of Canadian family history archives since the branch opened in 1987. Thirty years later, the nature of the collection might have changed – the librarians note that digitization and online searches are now the far more popular go-to than the microfilm readers – but the substance of the search is the same. People come to the library looking to answer a question or solve a mystery, and there they find the resources to do so.
“People come in with assumptions. They’ve heard things from their family that are almost always inaccurate. It’s our job to help them let go of what they think might be the past and warm them up to the alternatives,” said Laurie Cook, Branch Manager. “People find out things that are often shocking. Missing siblings, second wives, a surprising death record, all kinds of information.”
Jamie Brown, Info Services Technician, tells the story of a patron who came in to look for an uncle’s death record. The patron had been told his uncle died of a case of alcohol poisoning, but something didn’t sit right with him about it, so he came in to check the record.
“He found the death certificate and it was suicide. He sat there for quite awhile,” said Brown. “I didn’t hear the reel going, I didn’t hear paper shuffling, so I went over to ask if he was okay. He said, ‘I just can’t believe it. All my life this is what I was told, and it wasn’t true.’”
“It wasn’t the way he wanted to be right,” said Brown. “But he found out the truth.”
“The discoveries can be really emotional,” said Cooke. “Over the years, we’ve sat beside people making huge discoveries that change their whole impression of their identity, their heritage or their family.”
“The revelations are often very personal and very emotional,” she added.
The patrons at the micro-film reader aren’t always searching for their own personal history. With medical information all the way back to the 1800s and census records back to 1666, the library also sees private detectives and police officers come in, trying to track down missing persons or missing heirs and their unsettled estates.
Online and text resources
“Ten years ago we would have burst out laughing if someone had suggested doing their family history research through google,” said Cooke. “But these days, you could hit on something.”
The library doesn’t recommend relying on online information, however.
“People don’t understand that there’s really a minimal amount of stuff online,” said Cooke. “People tend to rely on what’s available through an online search and then skip the rest of the research.”
The Cloverdale Library offers access to online resources, but it gets to claim its title as western Canada’s largest family history archives because of its physical records.
Brown said the books the library has on local history are “undervalued” and often offer unexpected details and clues. “You never know what you might find in them,” said Brown.
Start your own search
“People don’t always take their family history seriously,” said Cooke. “They think it’s just their family, so it can’t be hard. But it’s historical research, which can take education to undertake and time to put into practice.”
The Cloverdale Library does not provide research services, but their staff helps facilitate people looking to do their own research into family history.
“First we ask you questions on what you would like to focus on, where you would like to start,” said Brown. “I like to ask why the patron is here. What spiked their curiosity?”
After a patron knows what question they would like to answer, library staff can guide them towards more than 5,000 microfilms, more than 3,200 books and historical maps, Canadian census records from 1666 to 1921, wills and divorces, First Nations statistics, parish records and more. Or, if you’d like to start your search online, they can show you a station where you can access, for free, websites such as Ancestry, FindMyPast World and Heritage Quest.
Cloverdale’s family history staff also offer orientations and workshops for beginners and experienced family historians. Their next series of beginner’s workshops, led by family historian Brenda L. Smith, begins on Jan. 14. Find out more by asking in person at the Cloverdale Library, call 604-598-7327 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.