Rhode Island really is the smallest state in the Union hence the nickname,
“Little Rhody.” Researchers can take advantage of its size by accessing several
different repositories in a single day. If you find yourself undecided about
where to begin your search for family history in The Ocean State then go
directly to the Providence Public Library (PPL). It’s an amazing place to visit
full of unique resources you won’t find elsewhere in the state or anywhere in
The Providence Public Library opened its doors to the public on February 4,
1878. Don’t let the name fool you. This institution is privately operated and
funded. It’s independent of city government and seeks financial support from
many sources. From its humble beginnings in the old Butler Exchange building in
what is now known as Kennedy Plaza, the PPL still occupies a central spot in the
downtown area of Providence with several neighborhood branch libraries.
I spoke with Betty Fitzgerald, a PPL Reference Librarian who also oversees
the Rhode Island Collection about what researchers can find in this library.
Rhode Island Index
Anyone who loves old style card catalogs will fall in love at first sight
with the wall size Rhode Island index. PPL officially funded a special position
in 1963 to index newspapers and books on Rhode Island topics. A quick glance at
one of the index drawers will convince you of the importance of this resource.
You can find references to articles in the Providence newspapers, historical
books, maps and photographs all arranged topically. I’ve used it to find
photographers, learn more about the history of certain streets and to follow the
development of the revitalization of downtown Providence known as the Capital
Center project. Indexing of these materials stopped in 2004.
Rhode Island Collection
This is a researchers dream come true. While a good portion of the picture
collection (25,000 images) is accessible online http://www.provlib.org/ri_image/providence_library/index.html
the Rhode Island index and the PPL online catalog provide users with call
numbers for other materials in the collection. There are a few rules regarding
usage. You can only see three items at a time and you must leave identification
at the Reference desk. Within this vast collection of state related material
are three commonly used resources: City
DirectoriesThe Library has Providence City Directories from 1824
to the present. Twentieth century volumes are in print, the rest are on
microfilm. There are a few directories for other cities as well. Patrons request
films at the Reference desk.
Daughters of the American Revolution Grave Registration
BookIf you can’t get to Washington, D. C. to use this resource,
it’s available at PPL. It contains the names of every veteran from the
Revolutionary War to Vietnam arranged by town.
Rhode Island MapsTopographical maps, ward
boundary maps, state maps and published state atlases are all available. PPL
also has a complete set of Sanborn Atlases, but patrons must use the online
Need to look at a state document, don’t worry. PPL has been collecting state
documents since the Acts and Resolves of 1842. Use the online catalog to find
what you need.
NewspapersWhile the Rhode Island Historical
Society http://www.rihs.org/ is the state
repository for newspapers published in the state, PPL has the Providence Journal
and Bulletin on microfilm back to the first issue in 1829 as well as some other
papers. Patrons need identification to use the microfilm department.
In addition to an extensive general reference department and material
directly related to Rhode Island, the Special Collections department has some
specialized collections. Access is possible only when the Special Collections
Librarian is available during limited hours. Call or email the library in
advance of a visit. A full list of the these resources is available on the PPL
Special Card FilesAsk at the Reference desk about
card indexes relating to Rhode Island artists and photographers. There are also
files of clippings, promotional pieces, exhibit announcements and reviews,
bibliographic references to Rhode Island artists and photographers from Gilbert
Stuart to the present.
George W. Potter and Alfred M. Williams Memorial Collection on
Irish CultureIt’s non-RI related, but a wonderful resource for anyone
interested in Irish, Scottish and Celtic culture. It’s the collection of two
former editors at the Providence Journal who according to Fitzgerald, “loved
everything Irish.” You’ll find books, pamphlets and broadsides. A published
catalog exists, The Irish Literary Renaissance in Providence (PPL,
1996).C. Fiske Harris Collection on the Civil War and
SlaveryAcquired in 1884, it’s the largest collection in the library
with 10,000 books and pamphlets and more than 100 scrapbooks of newspaper
clippings from the Civil War period. It includes letters written by Rhode
Updike Pamphlet Collection and Updike/Arnold Autograph
CollectionOriginally comprised of primarily 17th and 18th century
pamphlets and books from Boston printer Daniel Berkeley Updike’s family home in
Cocumscussoc, near Wickford., another collector, Frederick Arnold donated
letters and manuscripts relating to Rhode Island history.
Nicholson Whaling CollectionThe PPL website
describes this material as follows: “Mr. Paul C. Nicholson, the son of the
founder of the world-renowned Nicholson File Company, formed an outstanding
collection of 750 manuscript logbooks describing 1,000 whaling voyages, as well
as several thousand printed books on whaling.” It includes material on whalers
from New Bedford, Fall River and Nantucket, Massachusetts. The original whaling
logs are closed to the public, but available on microfilm in the Library. If
you’re curious about how Nicholson built this internationally known collection
read a selection from Stuart C. Sherman’s book about the collection, The Voice of the Whale Man.
While all these materials are available to users in the library, if you live
out of town the staff accepts short requests for research through the “Ask the
Librarian” option on the Providence Public Library http://www.provlib.org/ website menu.
According to Fitzgerald over fifty-two percent of the questions received are
Rhode Island related.
Rhode Island is rich in resources for individuals with roots in the state’s
history regardless of when your family arrived. After contacting this major
repository you’ll be able to branch out to more specific facilities and local
history collections in other public and private libraries in cities and towns
around the state.
Maureen Taylor is The Photo Detective. She was recently profiled in the
Wall Street Journal. She’s the author of several books on family history and