Ancestry.co.uk is even more than a huge repository of historical records and lively community – it’s also a library. Freely available to subscribers are dozens of reference books, which can be very useful in the course of your research.
To get a sense of what’s on the virtual bookshelves, visit the Card Catalogue. This enables you to browse all of the site’s collections, and narrow down the list of them by criteria such as type, location and date. Click the Dictionaries, Encyclopedias & Reference filter at the left to see a list of just the reference books available. Most of these were taken from printed books, then digitised and made searchable by Ancestry. Use the United Kingdom or Ireland filters, also at the left, to narrow things down further.
Two types of book here will be immediately of interest to all researchers: surname dictionaries and gazetteers. For example, there’s an English and Welsh Surname Dictionary (originally dating from 1901). Click on its title in the Card Catalogue and you can then search just this book. To the right of the search field are browsing tools, which can be useful when you’re looking for names with variant spellings. As an example, the name Packenham and its variants Packham and Packingham are easily found, and we learn that this comes from a parish in Suffolk, near Bury St Edmunds. Next you might want to try searching across the whole reference library for that village. Enter Packenham either as a last name or as a keyword (a better idea when it’s a place name as well as a surname) and four relevant reference works come up. One is a book called Genealogical Gleanings In England. The reference in question is to a transcription of a will for a man named Stephen Woodgate, who died in Suffolk in 1625. He owned land in Packenham, which he bequeathed to his wife.
Want to know more about the Bury St Edmunds area in general? Try Cassell’s Gazetteer of Great Britain and Ireland, also in the Ancestry.co.uk reference collection. Try entering Bury St Edmunds in the keyword field of that book’s search facility, and hundreds of references come up.
There’s plenty more in the reference library to explore – there are biographical dictionaries, books about heraldry and numerous index books with name lists. Two examples are the index of wills in the Probate Registry at Canterbury and a directory of Scottish settlers in North America. Think of it as the online equivalent of browsing through a local library’s historical reference section – there’s bound to be something interesting to find, which may well illuminate your research.