Friday, February 22, 2013

Researching Civilians and the War in Northern Virginia: Local Resources

The amount of Civil War source material available on the Web can seem downright overwhelming.  As a blogger and amateur historian, I have access to information that would have required countless trips to libraries and archives only a handful of years ago.  Google Books and the Internet Archive have reproduced a multitude of regimental histories and period writings, while universities and historical societies have digitized newspaper articles and soldiers' letters.  In a time of such virtual riches, it is perhaps easy to forget that an entire world of primary and secondary sources still awaits the researcher on library shelves and in archival boxes.

I recently began some in-depth research on the impact of the Civil War on civilians in Fairfax County.  Given the relatively obscure nature of the subject matter, the limits of the digital age quickly became apparent to me.  As much as I enjoy the freedom of researching from my living room couch at any hour of the day or night, I realized that a trip to a couple local libraries was in order.  Lucky for me, Northern Virginia is blessed with abundant resources for Civil War researchers.

Mary Riley Styles Public Library in Falls Church, which houses the Local History Room (courtesy of the Falls Church Times).
I started my search at the Local History Room of the Mary Riley Styles Public Library in Falls Church.  This cramped but cozy space in the basement of the library contains a small reference collection on the history of Falls Church.  The Local History Room is only open by appointment, and times slots are limited, so I had to run out one Saturday during my twins' nap time.  I mainly went to get a copy of an article on the Langley Ordinary from an old issue of Echoes of the Past, a publication of the Pioneer Society of America.  The Local History Room is one of the few places around here to have 1970s-era editions of Echoes of the Past.  I also spent some time just browsing through one of the vertical files on the Civil War.  Needless to say, I came across a few interesting items, including an invitation and pass received by John Hay to attend a dance at a Union Army camp in Virginia.  These materials will surely form the basis for further research and related blog posts.

Last week I paid a visit to the impressive Virginia Room at the City of Fairfax Regional Library.  This part of the library, which occupies an entire floor, holds an extensive collection of items related to regional history and genealogy, including books, manuscripts, old photographs, and maps.  According to the Virginia Room's website, "a particular strength is Confederate military history."  Unfortunately, I didn't have a chance this time around to view these materials because my research was directed more to the civilian side of things.

City of Fairfax Regional Library, home of the Virginia Room (courtesy of Costello Construction).
The Virginia Room offers access to the monumental, seven-volume set entitled, Fairfax County in 1860: A Collective Biography by Edith Moore Sprouse.  This work contains profiles of nearly every inhabitant of Fairfax County in 1860 based on Census records, Southern Claims Commission (SCC) files, and other sources.  An accompanying map, which was compiled by Beth Mitchell, shows property ownership in Fairfax during the same time period.  (The map is also available here.)  I wonder how many other counties in the United States have put this much effort into taking a snapshot of their communities right before the war, but I am grateful that Sprouse and Mitchell did so for Fairfax.   The two historians also assembled three volumes of abstracts of SCC claims for Fairfax County.  These summaries are a useful guide to the sometimes cumbersome original files. 

The Virginia Room has a vast collection of local newspapers available on microfilm.  These papers are indispensable for local Civil War research, and I believe that many of them are not yet digitized.  I viewed and copied articles from 1863 editions of the Alexandria Gazette.  The library offers an on-line "Historical Newspaper Index" that I searched before going to the Virginia Room.  This step saved me time, and I was able to retrieve the reel and just copy what I needed.

I also spent an hour or so looking through vertical files on a couple of local historical landmarks.  The files, which are available from a reference librarian, contain journal articles, newspaper clippings, research notes, and other documents.  If there is a historic property in Fairfax, I am sure that the library has compiled a file on it. 

My visit was made all the more pleasant and productive thanks to the helpful, friendly, and knowledgeable staff.  I wrote to the Virginia Room a few days before going there and received a multitude of useful hints and insights.  Once on the ground, a couple of reference librarians helped to point me in the right direction and provided some additional information.

Fairfax County and Falls Church have done a commendable job of preserving the historical record for current and future generations.  I would recommend the Local History and Virginia Rooms for anyone with a research interest in Northern Virginia's Civil War past.  After my recent visits, I know that I won't be able to stay away; the existence of so many resources at my doorstep is just too tempting.


For more information about visiting the Falls Church Local History Room and Fairfax County's Virginia Room, follow the links provided in the text above.

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