How to trace your family tree at the downtown Peoria library
A treasure trove of genealogical and historical resources — along with hands-on guidance on how to access them — was revealed to a small but enthusiastic group of local residents who showed up at the Peoria Public Library last month for a free tour of its genealogy and local history department.
The hour-long tour, after which attendees were allowed to peruse the department’s plethora of documents, maps, directories and historical records, was hosted by Kim Hanks, president of the Peoria County Genealogical Society (PCGS), and Amber Lowery, who manages the library’s genealogy department. Together, the women offered a tutorial for attendees on how and where to access both physical and online records and documents that can provide windows to their genealogical histories. Most of the resources can only be found within the glass-enclosed, humidity-controlled confines of the department, which is located on the library’s lower level.
“Many of these things you cannot take home with you, but they should always be there unless something goes missing. If so, I am not afraid to tattle,” cautioned Lowery at the start of the tour. “I will point my finger at the last person to have it.”
Pre-admonishments aside, Lowery cheerfully led the local residents around the room, pointing out the department’s collection of local census books (which include a rare 1888 city of Peoria poll), mortuary records, maps, Civil War discharge records, high school yearbooks, a ten-cabinet vertical file collection of historical records and other rare resources, including, curiously, a century-old “ladies of the night” directory.
One of the department’s most popular and entertaining resources is the library’s microfilm collection of Peoria newspapers dated from 1837-2018, which is preserved in a row of tall, green metal lockers. Four machines are available for patrons to view the newspaper cache, along with other data preserved to microfilm.
“We’ll be happy to show you how to load the film onto the reel and look at it,” said Lowery.
Library patrons are free to pull certain items from shelves and storage areas within the genealogy/local history department, but are discouraged from attempting to refile them. If someone isn’t sure whether the department can provide what they are seeking, they are encouraged to call in advance.
“You can give us a shout the day or two before your visit if there is going to be something hard to find or rare that you are looking for, and we can try and have it ready for you,” said Lowery.
Hanks gave tips on how to prepare for a visit to the library’s genealogy department, advising attendees to “do their homework” before arriving. “Sometimes you just have to go to the library and do research-- and that’s what we encourage you to do, in addition to looking at our website (peoriacountygenealogy.org),” she said. “Also, the county is where you find birth, death and marriage records, and recently Peoria County has stepped up and now has (them) on their website.”
Lowery added that Ancestry.com has also made Peoria County birth, death and marriage records available on their fee-based service. However, nothing can substitute for an in-person research visit to the library’s genealogy department, according to Carol Spayer, who is currently researching her family’s mid-1800s ties to Kickapoo Township.
“It’s been a couple of years since I’ve visited the library’s genealogy department because of Covid, and I just wanted to refresh my memory of what is accessible through all of the resources and materials here,” said Spayer, who is a PCGS member. “All of my work the last two years has been online through Ancestry.com, but there is so much that I need that is not available through Ancestry. It’s here on these shelves.”
The PCGS maintains files at the library the public can view, including a surname index vertical file that allows patrons to access family records that have been collected by the Society. A membership with the PCGS can allow a deeper dive into access to local historical records, according to Hanks, who recommends the Society’s website as the “first stop” on a search for local genealogical history.
“Go to ‘resources’ on our website, and we have already tagged some places where you can start,” she said. “Also, attend one of our programs and meet some of the people who are already doing research. We have many people attending our monthly Zoom meetings, and you don’t have to be a member to attend. These meetings are always listed on our website.”
Fledgling genealogists may submit questions directly to the PCGS through an “ask us” portal on their website, Hanks added.