RELIC: Small Center, Big Resource

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By Cindy Brookshire

Watching celebrities find their roots on TV shows like “Who Do You Think You Are?” may leave the impression that genealogy is a quick online search or DNA test result away.

Prince William Living RELIC_4Not so, according to Tish Como and Beverly Veness, who have been helping visitors gather keys to their past at The Ruth E. Lloyd Information Center (RELIC) at Bull Run Regional Library since it opened 20 years ago. RELIC Virginiana Librarian Don Wilson has been a Sherpa to the past even longer – 35 years – since the days of RELIC’s predecessor, the Virginiana Room at Central Library.

The center is named for Lloyd, a Prince William civic leader who successfully led the push for the first public library demonstration project funded by the Virginia General Assembly in 1952, which eventually became the current 10-location Prince William Public Library System. RELIC’s mission is to preserve Prince William’s heritage, provide access to Virginia historical information, and assist family historians – whatever their family origins.

A Genealogist’s Best Friend

Wilson helps visitors like Melissa Harshman, a 44-year-old data analyst from Bristow who is researching her husband Brad’s lineage. So far, she has pieced together that one of his ancestors fought with the Stonewall Brigade, survived the Civil War and lived to be almost 100 years old.

“You cannot work a true genealogy of your family without boots on the ground, going to courthouses, looking up records and doing it right,” said Harshman, who has also spent time in upstate New York with her aunt, Dee Dee Neely of Stafford, researching their lineage as well. Harshman traced her father’s side back to a passenger on the Mayflower, and her tenth greatgrandfather on her mother’s side was the first mayor of Albany,

N.Y. This past summer, the town historian at the Seventh Day Baptist Church in DeRuyter, N.Y. let Harshman and Neely into the 1835 structure, now closed to the public, so they could stand where their ancestors once worshipped.

“I’m still blown away by the whole experience, to know that they were there, even though their burial markers have long since disappeared,” said Harshman. “You come to RELIC and you pull down some of these books about these families, and if you truly have a love of history, their lives become real to you. They’re not just names and dates. Each  successive generation has led to you. And so [in]understanding them, in some ways you can understand yourself.”

“People think with, you click the little leaf and you’re done,” Harshman added. “Well, places like RELIC are absolutely critical. You’re going to find stories you  couldn’t otherwise find, cemetery transcriptions and indexes of births that may only be here. When you take into account that probably only five to seven percent of the available records in the country are digitized, you’re not going to find everything online.”

Keeper of Prince William History

In Fiscal Year 2013 alone, RELIC staff members have responded to 15,794 “Ask RELIC” requests for information, in person and online. This doesn’t count the hits on RELIC pages on the county government’s website, There visitors can help themselves to a vast array of resources, including a growing digital library of historic and vital records, photos, images and maps. A nine-minute introductory YouTube video explains it all.

“We’re very grateful for our volunteers,” said Wilson, pointing out Bill Balderson and Margaret Benning, who have worked years to transcribe numerous documents and compile indices of vital records that are now available to the public online. Meanwhile, when gravesites were discovered at the construction site of what will be Prince William County’s 12th public high school, volunteer Charlotte Cain’s work with DeedMapper software helped determine boundaries of the early property in question, located near the intersection of Route 234 and Hoadly Road. “We wouldn’t be able to do nearly what we’ve been able to do without them,” Wilson added.

RELIC seeks to preserve any material dealing with the history of Prince William County. Examples include scrapbooks from the Woman’s Club of Manassas and the Farm Bureau Women’s Committee, as well as all the papers of the former Prince William Symphony Orchestra.

Additionally, Veness is working with a volunteer to transcribe county tax lists from the 1780s. RELIC is also digitizing all local newspapers, with the intention of being able to search them with one search. Due to the popular requests for local public school yearbooks, all 250 in the collection will soon be scanned, allowing more public access.

“If anyone is willing to donate yearbooks that fill the gaps in our collection, we would welcome them,” Wilson invited.

Year-Round Learning Opportunities

RELIC offers year-round learning opportunities that are free to the public, and anyone may sign up for eNotifications of the monthly programs. On Sept. 30 at 7 p.m., Como will teach “Genealogy 201: Beyond the Basics.” On Oct. 28, noted author and UVA history professor Andrew Jackson O’Shaughnessy discusses his book, “The Men Who Lost America: British Leadership, the American Revolution and the Fate of the Empire.”

All RELIC programs are held at Bull Run Regional Library, including the 10th Annual RELIC AFTER DARK, a fundraiser featuring a buffet dinner, this year featuring a lecture by acclaimed genealogist John Philip Colletta, Ph.D., whose topic will be “Is Any Body There? Tracking Ancestral Remains.” Registration opened Aug. 1; call 703-792-4540 to see if space is still available.

RELIC may be small, but it has a big heart for history and families. Don Wilson’s best preservation advice: “Record your memories. Interview your living relatives. Label your photographs. Share what you know now with your relatives, and with the library.”

RELIC is open Monday through Thursday from 10:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m., Friday and Saturday, 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. and Sunday, 12:00 noon to 5:00 p.m. Contact RELIC at 703-792- 4540 or to learn more.

Freelance writer and Manassas resident Cindy Brookshire is a frequent contributor to Prince William Living. She can be reached at

Which Comes First, Research or DNA Tests?

Should you have your DNA tested when looking into your
family history?

“There are all kinds of DNA testing,” explained RELIC’s Virginiana Librarian Don Wilson, ticking off the three basic: Y-DNA (men only), Mitochondrial DNA (maternal line origin) and Autosomal DNA (broad genetic heritage and ethnic groups) testing.

“You still have to research the documents first,” he advised. “The companies usually ask you for a family tree chart up front. Otherwise, there’s nothing with which to compare the results.”

Bristow resident and amateur genealogist Melissa Harshman agreed. She shared that she had both her father’s Y-DNA and her Mitochondrial DNA tested after years of research. Her father’s results showed a mismatch to the expected surname that occurred 10 to 14 generations ago. Her maternal great-grandmother, whose death certificate indicated she was born in Scotland, showed matches to Jewish ancestry, leading Harshman to turn toward the ties to Poland that kept surfacing in her research.

“[DNA testing] can be another tool to narrow your search focus, but I think people expect too much from it,” stated Harshman. “They expect immediate answers and that’s not how it works. If you’re super lucky, you’ll get an exact match. But your match is based on the number of people who have been tested. And because it is expensive, not many people can afford to get tested.”


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