Arts & Humanities, Research

Do genealogy research through University Libraries

Librarian Sarah Carrier has created an online guide giving access to internal digitized records as well as ancestry websites.

Two photos of families from possibly the 1920s, one showing an all-Black family at a wedding and the other showing an all-white family on the front porch of a house. Both photos are from University Libraries Southern Historical Collection and from the North Carolina Collection.
Genealogy resources from University Libraries include photos like these. Left, from the Wylie Family Papers #05082-z, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library; right, from the Bayard Morgan Wootten Photographic Collection #P0011, North Carolina Collection. (UNC Creative)

Genealogy sleuths can find research resources, ranging from tools for beginners to websites specializing in Black genealogy, Scottish genealogy and access to the online company Ancestry at an online guide to genealogy created by a Carolina librarian. The guide will also point you to the library’s own digitized records.

To use some of the resources, you will need a University-issued Onyen account. Getting Started is the first of the guide’s four sections, along with African American Genealogy, County and Public Records and Newspapers.

Sarah Carrier, North Carolina research and instruction librarian in Carolina’s Wilson Special Collections Library, created the guide. She said that a useful first step from the Getting Started page is to search the library catalog by subject or the phrase “North Carolina — Genealogy.”

Sarah Carrier.

Sarah Carrier

Carrier, who has built more than two dozen such sites, supports people who teach and conduct research about the history, people and culture of North Carolina. “Much of that is, at its core, genealogy because it’s local history, family history,” she said. “People are interested in the towns and counties where they and their families are from, the histories of those places. We also have international interest, national interest.”

Genealogists also search for what Carrier calls “hyperlocal histories,” such as information about a factory, school or store in a town that may be connected to family. Those local histories particularly interest scholars who are homing in on a specific subject on which no books have been published.

While scholars ask Carrier questions, regular folks contact her as well. “I work with so many people from the general public,” she said. “They have a lot of interest in the UNC-Chapel Hill community, about the history of the institution, Chapel Hill and Orange County. I see a lot of interest in the history of the people, the families, the neighborhoods.”

Finding stories

Genealogy can bring a family’s stories to light or fill in gaps. In addition to the online guide’s off-campus resources, library visitors can also search the Wilson Special Collections Library because it has documents and records not found anywhere else — personal papers, family letters, diaries. “That’s really where you find the stories,” she said.

For those who catch the genealogy bug, she recommends off-campus resources such as county Registers of Deeds. There you can access public records — sometimes called vital records — concerning births, deaths, wedding, wills, deeds, property and other subjects.

Joyous moments

Carrier has helped make some joyous moments happen, especially by pointing Black Americans to the Wilson Special Collections Library. “We have one of the preeminent collections on the American South,” she said. “There’s a lot of material about slavery and lots of records about enslaved people. Black Americans who have enslaved ancestors will seek these kinds of records.”

The business and financial papers of enslavers sometimes contain the names of enslaved people. “The records document the selling of people, and many times are sparse lists with numbers,” Carrier said. “When names appear in such records, they’re usually only first names. To find a name is not only a revelation; it’s also a huge accomplishment. For many people, finding that name in all of these records, even just one time, is an affirmation of this human’s life and experience.

“My work in the archives is not just someone asking a question, then I deliver the answer. It’s a relationship. It’s a collaboration. I feel a great sense of accomplishment when we make those connections and use the archive to help people know their family, particularly Black families.”

While Carrier is here to help, the guide is set up for users to access on their own.

“The guide is only going to help people to a certain point,” Carrier said. “That’s why it’s important for people to be in touch with a librarian, with an archivist, with someone who knows the ins and outs of all of the different records, where you can find them, whether they’re digitized or help them find a subject expert.”

A list of births and names of enslaved people from the a.John Edwin Fripp Papers #869, Southern Historical Collection.

This list of births and names is from the John Edwin Fripp Papers #869, Southern Historical Collection. Carrier said that slavery records such as this represent “the records, the content, and what it takes to find names of people. There are bills of sale, but to find detailed lists such as this, especially births with dates, breaks down obstacles for helping someone build a family tree.”

What role do historical archives play in understanding the Black family? For answers, join the Southern Historical Collection at Carolina’s Wilson Special Collections Library Feb. 9 1:30-3 p.m. for a virtual panel discussion, “Finding Your People: Exploring the Past, Present and Future of Documenting Black Families in Special Collections and Archives.