Hidden gems in library's Heritage collection unveiled

Jane Witherspoon


Jane Witherspoon

DIGGING deep for your ancestral ‘roots’? Perhaps you’re perplexed and puzzled by past events in the local area?

Ballymena Guardian reporter Jane Witherspoon decided to call into the ‘Heritage Day’ at Ballymena’s Central Library to find out exactly what help and resources are available at the premises on Pat’s Brae.

In a town centre environment dominated by hustle, bustle and near constant background noise simply enjoying the peace and quiet of a library can be  a beautiful thing.

Libraries provide a place of reflection and tranquillity, no more so than the local Studies department of Ballymena Library.

I took a trip down to the library last week to check out its special Cultural Heritage Open Day. I already knew that the library held old copies of newspapers from previous research but I was unaware of the sheer volume of information available, and the fact that the library holds documents dating back to the early 1700's.

The open day allowed members of the public to come in, ask questions, get to know the department and find out how to use the resources to discover their family history and also the story of Ballymena‘ was like years ago’s growth as a town.

The Heritage Collection will mean different things to different people. Some will have a purpose for their search, such as finding a long lost relative or tracing a map of their home area from years gone by. Others will simply visit and get lost in the vast records, pictures and resources on offer.

As a bit of a history buff, I was transported back to my university and school days as Daniel Brown, the senior library assistant for the Heritage Department spoke of some of the hidden treasures within the library.

He said past records of the old workhouse are available, giving an extraordinary insight into who was actually in the dreaded facility down through the years, and also into the meetings held by some of the officers.

"We have artefacts dating back hundreds of years. Some are very valuable to us today, such as a complete map of the original Adair estate from 1747 as much can be learned from this. We also have lots of interesting memorabilia including war rationing books and images of the Queen's visit to Ballymena after her coronation."

Daniel, who has a personal interest in history, really enjoys showing people around the department, whether they be locals or from further afield.

He told me: "We've had many tourists come in, especially Americans who are keen to learn more about their ancestry and research old family names. It's interesting looking back and helping people discover where they come from!"

You can also trace old church history through births, deaths and marriages, communion and membership rolls and even church offerings.

It was down this path that I met Mary Carson and Anne McCaughey as they browsed through the 'pew rental' records of Buckna Presbyterian Church dating back to 1810.

Both ladies are members of the Broughshane History Society and were looking through the old records searching for various recognisable names, however their individual interest in local and family history was not hard to see.

Mary spoke about tracing her family tree and how her curiosity was fuelled by seeing two old pictures of her grandparents at her aunt’s house.

She followed rthe trail to a local heritage collection where she was able to find out through old newspapers that her grandfather’s death had made front page news many years before.

Her search also revealed that a family member she always believed to be her uncle actually turned out to be her cousin!

"Researching and delving into the past is so interesting in my opinion, and can also be rewarding," Mary told me. "I have found out that I'm related to, so many people I didn't know about."

Anne agreed, and was full of praise for the resources available in the library. She recalled happy times of listening to older family members talk about the past but said it is often not like that today.

"Today the younger generation don't seem to be as interested. They are busy working on phones or listening to their earphones that they don't seem to care what's going on around them or what has went before, so they are going to have to depend on information and places like this library to trace their past."

As I left them to their church history search, my eyes were drawn to the vast arrays of cases containing maps along a wall.

Here there are ordnance survey maps from the 1830s right up to the 1970s. There are also Griffith valuation maps for Co. Antrim and Co. Londonderry as well as 19th century town plans and local government maps - it really is a local history lover's dream!

There are far too many resources to list, but some that need a mention include the vast photograph collection from around Co. Antrim as well as multiple information packs on local schools, people and places all arranged by location and subject.

Two of the special collections housed in Ballymena library is the Langford Lodge Collection and the 1851 census for parishes in Co. Antrim.

The Collection Officer for the library is Maria Diamond, who is always on hand to direct the public to what they are looking for.

She was keen to point out the many online resources made available by the library, so as your search doesn't have to end when you go home!

"Family history and researching your ancestry has really taken off in the last few years," Maria told me.

"Therefore we have listed many online resources that can help people trace their history in their own time, or when the library may be closed."

Maria enjoys her job, and said she has noticed an increase in the number of people using the department.

"We are generally a busy department, and we try to always be on hand to help guide people to their desired field of study.

“We also enjoy welcoming groups and school classes to the Heritage Collection and tailor the activities to their age or field of study. We have lots of resources for children, and a wealth of information on the local area and how it was affected during major events in history, such as the two world wars or the famine. Teachers or groups just need to get in touch to arrange a visit."

I was thoroughly impressed by my visit to the local studies department.

Yes, I knew alot of information was available, however I was overwhelmed by the sheer volume of resources, how far back it dated and the way in which it was displayed.

No matter what period you are interested in, or what local area there is sure to be some information that will aid your study.

My visit to the Cultural heritage open day may have been for business, but my next visit to discover Ballymena of old will more than likely be for pleasure!

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