Brenda Smith has taught research and writing courses in family history at Cloverdale Library for more than 15 years.

Brenda Smith has taught research and writing courses in family history at Cloverdale Library for more than 15 years.

Uncovering your family’s past and your own story

Search. Listen. But above all, question. A profile of Brenda Smith, Cloverdale Library’s family historian.

The lesson of the day is organization, but as any family historian knows, there’s always more to the story than what’s on the surface.

Brenda L. Smith, family history consultant, developed Cloverdale Library’s two workshop series on family history research and writing. When The Reporter visited her class, she stood at the front of the room and told her students that they must be organized, and they must record how they organize.

Smith explained that family archives are impacted just by your touch, by the process of you learning your own history, and the story changes with you as you add new information.

No longer are her students simply children or grandchildren, parents or grandparents, suspended in the midst of a grand, living family tree. They are undergoing the process of becoming editors, archivists and researchers.

They’re on their way to becoming family historians.

Family historian, family storyteller

Smith’s own story of how she became a family historian starts with telling the stories of others.

“I grew up in a community where almost everybody had come from somewhere else in the last 20 years,” said Smith. “They were all immigrants in some way.”

The Peace River country where she spent her childhood was “essentially an adult world,” she said.

“I heard stories,” she said. “I was 10 years old before we had television. There would be storytelling around the supper table, the card table, out in the (farm) fields, at the country dances. Everywhere, there were stories.”

“It was my job to entertain my brother and sister on those long winter nights in the Peace River country,” she said. “I would get out the (family) photographs and I would tell them stories about the people in the pictures. My mom would help me by telling me about the stories and people I didn’t know. And so I became a storyteller, too.”

Her childhood, and her connection to her family and neighbours, contributed to what she does today. She says she believes that, in a way, it’s that connection to the past and to community – whether a person has one or would like one – that leads people to start looking into their family’s history.

“I had a really strong sense of community. I knew who I was,” she said. “I think that’s why most people do family history. To know their place and their node on the web.”

She began teaching research and writing courses at Cloverdale Library because she was tired of going to short, standalone lectures. She worked out the idea for a course with the head of the library’s genealogy department.

“We broke some moulds,” she said. “The class is 15 hours, split up in five classes that run every two weeks. It lets people integrate family history into their lives.”

That was more than 15 years ago.

Today, the content of the course continues to evolve and adapt to the needs of attendees.

“The bones of the course are stable,” she says. “But every learner comes with a certain skill set and life experience. They have their own particular take on how the world works and what they need in terms of a learning experience. So we all adjust to each other.”

Smith said that, at the heart of it, family researchers are looking to find connections to their past.

In Smith’s classroom, they learn how to make those connections.

How to begin your own search

What’s Smith’s advice for digging in to your own past?

“The first step is to look at your own history and your own documents,” said Smith. “Forget about grandma, forget about the famous person you think is in your family. Focus on the here and now.”

She encourages people to look at the records they already have: birth records, marriage certificates, former addresses, and the names and stories of immediate family. She advises people to get to know the stories from the storytellers while they still can, but not to trust everything they hear as fact.

“It’s difficult to get people to step back far enough to be able to challenge their beliefs,” she said. “The process is often about encouraging people to depart from and question family scripts.”

“If your starting position is that grandma would never tell a lie, how many doors have you slammed?” she said.

Resources at Cloverdale Library

Smith’s spring sessions come to a close on March 18. But for those keen on discovering more about their family’s history, the Cloverdale Library is home to western Canada’s largest collection of Canadian family history archives.

Although the Cloverdale Library does not provide research services, library staff can guide patrons 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.

Find out more by asking in person at the Cloverdale Library, call 604-598-7327 or email familyhistory@surrey.ca.