At the Library

The library for the Hugh S. Watson Jr. Genealogical Society of Tidewater (aka the Tidewater Genealogical Society) is housed on the ground floor of the 1886 courthouse for Warwick County, Virginia (which became the city of Newport News in 1952).

Several years ago, I saw an ad on a Facebook page about a local genealogy society that was sponsoring a bus trip from Newport News, Virginia, to Washington, DC.  The bus planned three stops in DC – the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) Library in Constitution Hall, the National Archives, and the Library of Congress.  I had only been doing genealogy research for about five years at that point and had just discovered several “patriot” ancestors – those identified and proved through the DAR.  The trip was sponsored by the Tidewater Genealogical Society (TGS), which I knew nothing about at that point.  The society is based in the building you see above, about 30 minutes from my home in Williamsburg.

So I registered for this trip.  On the appointed day, I boarded the bus at a local shopping center and rode the 3+ hours to Washington.  At this point, I didn’t know anyone from the society, although I met some folks on the bus.  After a fruitful day at the DAR library, the bus brought us back home (we stopped for dinner at a Golden Corral in Fredericksburg, VA).

I thought it would be polite to join the society, so I did.  It costs $30 a year (more if you want a hard copy of the quarterly publication).  I went to a few meetings and began to volunteer at the society’s library.

The society was formed in 1969 and moved its library into this facility a few years later.  Here’s the society’s website if you want to check it out.

The library is staffed by volunteers and is open three days a week:  Tuesdays and Thursdays from 10-3 and Saturdays from 10-4.  I volunteer at the library two Saturdays a month, usually for the entire day (although volunteers sometimes cover only one part of the day).  The library’s collection holds 2,500 books and a large number of journals.  The collection is focused on Virginia, but it has books and journals from other states as well.

The library also houses the Alvin Reynolds Papers, a manuscript collection donated by Mr. Reynolds, a resident of Isle of Wight County (across the James River from Newport News).  This collection is indexed and is available for research; the items in it are being scanned and transcribed by volunteers as time is available.

My role in this society has grown over the past five years.  I now serve on the Board and am the editor of their Quarterly journal.  I have also given several presentations at our general meetings. I enjoy working at this library and helping patrons who come in to explore elements of their family history. 

My decision to volunteer is not entirely altruistic, however.  We have all seen questions (on social media and other places) from people who want to know what to do with the family history materials they have inherited from their parents, or who want to know what to do with their own research if they don’t think their heirs will preserve it.  A common suggestion is to donate it to a local genealogical society – but I’m here to tell you that no one wants your stuff unless they think it will be useful (and usable) for patrons.  No library has the space for random boxes of unorganized papers or unlabeled photographs. 

I’ve been in the library when people have brought by boxes of stuff – usually from a deceased spouse or parent.  The person with the boxes is often desperate to get rid of the material but doesn’t feel right about just tossing it.  When this happens, we generally accept the boxes but tell the person we can’t guarantee that we’ll keep the material.  We ask the donor if he wants it back if we can’t use it.  The donor always says no, that he doesn’t want it back.  To be honest, the most common fate of these materials is that after we glean usable office supplies from the boxes (binders, file folders, storage boxes), save books that we want for our library, and offer the rest of the books on our “for sale” shelf, we toss everything else.  Brutal, I know.  But it’s the reality. Genealogy libraries are not long-term storage facilities.

I figure if I’m on the Board of the genealogy society, edit the journal, and volunteer at the library, they are more likely to take my stuff when I’m gone.  Not guaranteed, but more likely.

Author: iseekdeadpeopleblog

I am a retired high school history and government teacher. I've been doing genealogy research since I retired in 2012. I define what I do as "constructing a plausible narrative about the past." I don't claim to know everything about the ancestors whose stories I tell, but I try to imagine myself in their lives. I sometimes call it "creative non-fiction." I try to differentiate between what I know for sure and what I "think" I know.

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