Who you are and where you came from: The Library of Virginia knows!

If you’ve got roots in Virginia, you can find them with some help by the good folks at the LOV. They can also help you with a lot more than that.

It’s more than just a pretty building on Broad Street–it’s the official library for all state archives!

If you’re picturing a cache of old deeds and books of marriage certificates…well, you’re not entirely wrong. Those things do exist.

But here are some other examples of archival Virginia documents:

“That [statute] is probably in the vault,” says Ginny Dunn, who manages the library’s Archive Services department. It’s totally not a big thing to wonder whether or not they’ve got the actual piece of paper that a famous document is written upon in ink. From a real hand. A Thomas Jefferson hand.

To Ginny and her colleague Adrienne Robertson, who coordinates their education services, the exciting stuff is what the everyday people did, though. The family Bible, a letter, a newspaper, a diary–those are going to be the ways we figure out what life was like, how history happened, and who we are.

That’s the biggest draw, by far, for members of the public: The Library of Virginia is basically THE genealogical resource for families with roots in the commonwealth.

This is not Ancestry.com. This is actual published and unpublished primary sources that have become a tangible paper trail that, with the right guidance, will lead you to your family heritage.

Here’s how it works

Because the trail is made of such delicate paper, there are all sorts of things you have to do in order to keep history from crumbling betwixt your fingers. Nobody wants that, least of all your deceased great-great-great-aunt, whose marriage certificate you just destroyed and who knows exactly where you live and what sorts of bumps and thumps will terrify you in the night.

The Library of Virginia hosts some introductory classes on finding your family history and you should really take this class if you’re interested in the subject of you. Otherwise, you’ll quickly get tangled up in the world of common name variants, name changes, local records, and vital statistics.

In our Google-ized world, we’re used to instant gratification. We all know this. You’re probably tapping your feet by now and wondering when I’m going to wrap it up, because your phone’s been fielding five different buzzes indicating different things and you’ve already gotten distracted twice because you remembered you wanted to look up on WebMD why your eye keeps twitching and also just how long it’ll take you to drive out to Short Pump tonight to replace your Macbook charger.

Well, slow down, soldier. Some things take time, and if you rush a genealogical research, you get nowhere. “People don’t realize how much work there is to it,” says Ginny. “They think they can come in and jump on the internet and print out something. And it’s not like that at all.”

“It’s much more of an investment,” says Adrienne. She means time, not money. The workshop itself is $25 ($20 if you’re a Semper Virginia Society member), but services at the LOV once you’re up and going are free. It’s a public library, our state taxes pay for it, let’s put it though its paces.

They’ve had people in tears at the reference desk, unable to contain the emotional experience of discovering information about the people whose genes you share, and who meant something to someone who meant something to someone who meant something to you. “Sometimes people spend years looking for a name or a marriage date,” she says. She tells a story of doing a particularly satisfying detective job that led her to the archives of Baltimore newspapers and calculated estimates of dates based on an individual’s children, eventually finding the information she needed.

What they’ve got

“A lot of people think everyone here is a librarian,” says Adrienne, who is not. “We have an education department, a conservation lab, a person who works on restoring collections in there, people going out and finding new stuff to add to the collections…I think people see the library as one monolithic thing with one thing going on inside.”

It’s half library, and half museum. The Library of Virginia have documents and artifacts that are restored and preserved as painstakingly as any museum worth its salt, but they index it like a library. So along with their regular exhibits (the current one deals with the journey of Black Americans from slavery to citizen, and what we learned from Reconstruction), you can also go up to a helpful employee (they are all helpful) and ask to see something else. You can look through a catalog. You can do research. And it’s all there on Broad Street.

Because Richmond was a gross home base for the slave trade, we’ve got a whole lot of records that are the only link many Black Americans have to their ancestors. For that reason, the Library of Virginia is a big destination for Black genealogy groups in other states.

Or, think about traditions like shape note singing, a tradition that in Virginia is specific to the Shenandoah Valley. The Library of Virginia’s got some of the original annotation, so musical groups have come to research it.

The only records that aren’t available to the public are state records that are protected by law, like criminal records, but there are plenty that you might think would be protected but are readily available, like vital statistics and birth records (although those have a 100-year privacy law that limits them to immediate family).

Virginia governors, interestingly enough, have to send over all their emails after they leave office in one big ZIP file. Starting from Governor Tim Kaine, the Library welcomes you to sort through them all if that’s your bag. It’s…kinda weird that it’s your bag though.

The life of today’s archivist

Things have changed immensely in the last 20 years–the advent of digital communication makes it both easier and harder for them to do their jobs. “Digital records are a whole unique animal,” Adrienne says. “With a piece of paper you can keep it dry and de-acidified and out of the light, but digital stuff will only last as far as the next software update, so there’s this huge quantity of data, but it’s very fragile.”

As someone who just destroyed a laptop by spilling water over it–and as someone who’s been known to do that kind of thing given even the slightest opportunity–I kind of get it. I’ve got a notebook in which my kindergarten teacher and I wrote back and forth, a photo album from high school, but I’ve destroyed so much data in my life.

On the other hand…all of a governor’s emails in one file! That’s a lot of history preserved at once. And probably also a lot of weird, irrelevant minutia, but that’s the idea behind a lot of these physical documents, too. Monticello’s birth and death records have been just as pored over and discussed by many people as has the Declaration of Independence.

You can access a lot of the Library’s catalog online, and the rest of it by just stopping by the reference desk. It all belongs to you, in a sense, as much as it does to the rest of us.

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The Library of Virginia is located at 800 E. Broad Street and has a very convenient parking deck underneath it (free to Library visitors with validation).

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Susan Howson

Susan Howson is managing editor for this very website. She writes THE BEST bios.

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