Open one of the wide, thin file drawers in the Special Collections room at Alexandria’s Kate Waller Barrett Branch Library and you will see several large sheets of paper printed with genealogies that are as detailed and complex as any Plantagenet king’s.
The family trees do depict royalty, at least as far as the South is concerned. The library is the official depository of the Society of the Lees of Virginia, an organization open to people who can trace their ancestry back to Richard Lee, who came to Virginia in 1639. (He’s known as “the Emigrant.”)
Genealogy is what draws most people to this corner of the Barrett Library, the staff of which has graciously assisted Answer Man in his vital work. George K. Combs, the special collections manager, said budding genealogists often come in and preface research on their ancestors with, “I should have asked my grandfather when he was alive.”
Said George: “We hear that every day. And often it’s, ‘I just retired and my wife wants me out of the house.’ They’ll come in and say, ‘Where do I start?’ ”
They start with George or one of his three staffers.
“I’ve got a shelf or part of a shelf with books for every county and jurisdiction in Virginia,” George said. “That’s history, genealogy, maps.”
The focus is naturally on Alexandria. Vertical files detail famous Alexandria families. There are files on different streets in town, too, with pertinent newspaper articles, board of architectural review reports and, if available, house histories.
“A lot of people when they buy a home in Old Town, they’re buying it for the cachet,” George said. “They want to know who lived here then, what did they do.”
To help find out, the library has city directories, some dating to the 1700s. There are files for cemeteries and churches. Sanborn fire insurance maps detail buildings and what they were made of, whether brick or frame. The Alexandria Gazette newspaper is on microfilm. The collection also includes more than 50,000 images, mostly photographs but also drawings and illustrations.
Alexandria — founded in 1749 — is about as historic as it comes around here. That means many residents know their stuff. Sometimes, however, unsubstantiated legends take on the patina of fact.
Take Alexandria’s cobblestone streets. “The story was it was Hessian prisoners of war during the Revolution who built them,” George said. “However the streets didn’t get cobbled till many years after the war. “If they were Hessian prisoners of war, no one told them that the war was over.”
The Barrett branch library has its own interesting history. Built in 1937 on an old Quaker burial ground, it is descended from a private, subscription-based library founded in 1794 by some of the city’s leading figures. That was called the Alexandria Library Company. Some of its books — purchased on buying trips to England — are still in the collection, though an unknown number disappeared during the Civil War, pilfered by souvenir-hunting Union soldiers.
In 1939, the building was the site of a sit-in by five African American Alexandrians protesting the segregated library. The sit-in was organized by lawyer Samuel Tucker.
“A lot of people tend to think that history stops after George Washington and Robert E. Lee,” George said. “There’s a lot of history that comes after that.”
And George is always on the lookout for it. He’s excited about a new collection of Alexandria billheads — the decorative stationery used by businesses for receipts — and a bunch of AB&W bus schedules from the 1930s.
George joined the library as an intern in 1992, when he was a student at Catholic University. “I realized, gee, I don’t want to leave,” he said. A special collections librarian is, well, special.
“Most librarians, you’re with them five or 10 minutes,” George said. “We spend three, four hours with people.”
Or longer. George said he has one customer — now in his 80s — who’s been chasing down the same ancestor for almost 20 years.
“He’s got her name,” George said. “He’s got her in one place, then in another place.”
Is she the same person, or two different people?
Said George: “After a year of not seeing him, he’ll walk in and say, ‘You found her yet?’”
George added: “You’ve got to enjoy it in order to do it. It’s like putting together jigsaw puzzles.”
Alexandria Library Special Collections — Kate Waller Barrett Branch, 717 Queen St., Alexandria. 703-746-1706. Open Mondays 1 p.m. to 9 p.m.; Tuesdays 2 p.m. to 9 p.m.; Wednesdays 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Fridays 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Saturdays 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Closed Sundays and Thursdays. Free.
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For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.