Research Library In Wichita Provides A Valuable Gateway To The Past

Jul 20, 2018

The Midwest Historical & Genealogical Society Research Library is located inside a 100-year-old white house near 12th and Main. It has more than 21,000 volumes of books, records, documents and photos. KMUW’s Carla Eckels spoke with society president Rex Riley and librarian Julia Langel about what the library has to offer — and what it’s looking for.

Interview Highlights

Midwest Historical and Genealogical Society president Rex Riley holds up a photo during a monthly Photo Mystery program.
Credit Carla Eckels / KMUW

On mementos:

Julia Langel: One of the things I like to say is there’s a very fine line between clutter and local history. So when you’re cleaning out your cabinets and you're finding those school directories from 1973 and the church directories or that church history that your aunt gave you from that church that you've never been to out in western Kansas, we love those things, and we receive a lot of those. We focus primarily on Sedgwick County and Kansas and we like the old and obscure things that can help people find their families and put them in a place and a time and start to build a picture of how they lived, who their neighbors were, what they were doing, what their lives were like.

Rex Riley: Often people don’t realize that something that they see as maybe clutter and junk may have either historical or genealogical value. Things like school directories, most people go, "Oh, who would want that?" But school directories turn out to be extremely helpful.

"We like the old and obscure things that can help people find their families and put them in a place and a time to start to build a picture of how they lived," says librarian Julia Langel.
Credit Carla Eckels / KMUW

Cookbooks and legal records:

JL: One thing that I kind of like is those community cookbooks where a club or a school or a church had everybody contribute a recipe and they put the name of the person who contributed it. That can be really nice because, in official records, women tended to take second place. They are not represented well in property records and legal records and newspapers, but if you are trying to find out more about your great-grandmother, it can be really exciting to find her favorite cake recipe in one of those books.

On the library's photo archive:

RR: We also have, as part of our website, a [collection] of photos of people. They can go to our website and say, "That’s my great-aunt Alice."

JL: These photographs are things we have digitized. They are available on our website. You could search for Cherryvale, Kansas, and see the photos that have been taken from Cherryvale and see if you know any of those people.

Credit Carla Eckels / KMUW

Discovering families and roots:

RR: We’ve had people find their lost parents, their lost siblings, things like that, but most of the time, they’ve learned to do it on their own. It's as if we gave them a little push and showed them how to do a few things and then they are off and running, and that’s extremely gratifying to me.

JL: I love it when we are able to help someone, especially young people, connect with their family, their distant family in the past, and all of a sudden, they find something that makes that random name from 1930 into a real person who had a real barbershop, at a real address, on a real street — there’s something in their eyes when that connection happens and I think it’s really important to connect with our past and I love being part of helping them.

Carla Eckels is director of cultural diversity and the host of Soulsations. Follow her on Twitter @Eckels. To contact KMUW News or to send in a news tip, reach us at news@kmuw.org.