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A deeper look at contextual sources

Video in which staff from the Mitchell Library, Glasgow explain how library archive sources can add context to your family history research
Newspapers can offer a unique insight into the life, the period, and culture in which your ancestor lived. And there’s nothing like a photograph, as we’ve already seen, in being able to give a picture of what was happening at that time. This particular newspaper is The Bulletin and Scots Pictorial from November 1939, and you’ll see that it will reflect wartime experiences. So again, it gives you an idea of what life might have been like for your ancestor living in Glasgow at the time when Black-Out was and seeing photographs. Life goes on– marriages, weddings, all of these family history related activities still taking place throughout war time, obviously.
If your ancestor did something noteworthy or newsworthy, they were far more likely to be included in a newspaper. Most people may never appear in a newspaper, but something that did also happen regularly was births, deaths, and marriages. Families would place paid advertisements in there– births, deaths, marriages, obviously the most usual ones. Also graduations, anniversaries, special occasions, things of that nature. Sometimes it will tell you who’s placed the advert. Who it is about. What it’s for. And these can be very useful clues for the family historian. Here we can see in the Daily Record for March 1934 - births, marriages and deaths.
It also gives acknowledgements adverts, articles wanted. And I think the newspaper, again, helps to give an indication to help you think yourself into the life and the period of the times. For example, did people see these adverts? Were the Anchor Line or Anchor Donaldson going to Canada? Did they think about emigration? Did they think about people who might have been in Canada? Articles wanted. Money adverts– so obviously, this was just before war time. This was 1934, at the time of the depression. Looking at the advertisements here, was your anc– might your ancestor have been looking at these adverts, might they have been going into that shop? What might they have done?
It’s to give an idea of thinking yourself into the life of your ancestor. It also gives an idea of entertainment. Might they perhaps have gone to the Theatre Royal at this time? Might they have gone to this boxing match at Glasgow Kelvin Hall? Did they know these people that were mentioned here? All of these things help to provide a picture of the time. If your ancestor did something noteworthy or newsworthy, as I’ve mentioned, they’re far more likely to be reported in the newspaper– accidents, incidents of some kind that was in the public interest. They’re also more likely to have been in the national press, as well as the local press or the community press.
But you needn’t have been somebody who had massive international achievement to be in the newspapers. There’s a small picture here, for example. This is Elizabeth Smith. Elizabeth Smith of Stonehouse who completed 10 years perfect school attendance and 15 years of perfect Sunday School attendance, and she has her picture in the newspaper at the time. So you needn’t be somebody famous. You needn’t be known criminal, a financier, anything like that, to actually have have a little place in– but you know particularly– in your local newspaper.
Something to bear in mind at the time as well– is – if you’re using newspapers to add a bit of context, a bit of flavour at the time, it’s also to bear in mind that what was– newspapers helped to reflect what was happening in the times. But they also help to determine the mood of the time by what was selected for reporting and debate, what was not selected for, publication and how that might have– if the newspaper reflected a particular standpoint, for example political, religious, ethnic, or community for example. There’s an example with us here.
Here we have, again just at the start of war, giving– There’s an article here, about “Ten just men may be clue to anti-Semitic outrage”. And it tells you a little bit about the– maybe the kind of paranoia, the fear of the time– of living in Glasgow at that point. “Ten just men investigating the profiteering racket… persons who smashed and defaced numerous shop windows with swastikas at the weekend”. That happened to shop owners, mostly Jews in Glasgow at that time. As the war progressed, there may have been less examples of that type of incident taking place, because they may have wished to clamp down on that type of information going out.
And certainly, in wartime, we had a look at the Evening Times Roll of Honour earlier on. A lot of the news, which was bad news coming from overseas, simply wasn’t reported in the local papers. One of the other newspapers that we have, which is Forward, which was a socialist and radical newspaper at the time, included coverage of some of the rent strike rallies. These were not reported in the national press or in the other Glasgow major local press at the time, because it didn’t suit the political tenor of the times.
Books can offer additional contextual information both in the term of additional research, research that someone else already done that you might be able to use, additional background information that give different perspectives, different explanations, different references that you might find useful in your family history research. Books that are specifically for family history often fall into several categories. For example, how-to books, for example, and getting started in research techniques, books that reflect particular occupations or ways of life– for example, railway ancestors, criminal ancestors –we’ve already seen some interesting photographs of criminals– different ethnic or community groups within Glasgow and the reasons why people might have moved around the world as they have.
Local information, local area histories can also give very useful information and photographs about Glasgow that might or, indeed, other parts of the world that focus you in a place and time where your ancestors might have lived, giving background information as to how places got their name, just help to get that additional flavour and context that enriches the research that you’re actually doing and helps to build up a picture of the lives that your ancestors might have led. So books can help and can lead you to certain points and also help to answer some of the questions that you might have, that you might encounter in your family history research.
Villages of Glasgow, Glasgow’s East End for example, just help to give a bit of information as to how areas have come about and give you an additional picture of the areas in which records have already placed your ancestor. There’s also reference type material. Directories, for example, street directories and trade directories were developed in many cities across the world as the population centres grew and as businesses grew. These can be very, very useful sources of information. For example, in identifying if your ancestors might have lived at a particular address, where their business address was. You can track changes over time. Here, there are business addresses and there are also home addresses as well.
So depending on the information that you start off with in your family history research, you may find that this is not the vital record. You may not have that information, but this can often pick up either anecdotal or additional information, which can give you new directions to search or can help to clear up a mystery. It’s using the clues to help build that picture, whatever’s going to work best for you at whatever point in your family journey that you’re at. There are other types of directories. For example, the telephone directory, which again, many many different libraries and institutions across the world will also hold, give a flavour of the time.
Obviously, the earlier back you go, the less information you’re going to have. But it also just gives a picture of the time, as well, I think, which is quite evocative of the period. And because there were fewer telephone subscribers, if your ancestor was likely to have had a telephone, they may well be listed here. Other types of directory give information on place names, settlements. This particular one– it would be graduate roles, professional roles of different professional registers, medical registers of different type of profession. This is a register effectively of the ministers throughout Scotland at particular periods of time. Again, it can be very useful if you know that your ancestor was in the Church of Scotland.
For example, giving name, where they’re a minister, who they were the child of, and different dates in their family history. For example, when they married, when they moved, if they had children, that type of information.
–a medical directory as well. So it very much depends on– this type of reference material really depends on the life your ancestor lived. But it can give you different clues and starting points to add into that.

Patricia Grant, Principal Librarian: Special Collections at the Mitchell Library in Glasgow, Scotland shows us some examples of newspapers, how-to books for genealogists, books on history and a range of different types of directories: trade, street, telephone, occupational and educational from their collection.

The emphasis is on how these sources can give additional information which may be anecdotal but will give clues to what your ancestors were doing and how they lived their lives. They may even clear up family mysteries!

The resources in the ‘See Also’ section below can be consulted for more information or useful links to sources on the topic.

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Genealogy: Researching Your Family Tree

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