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How Genealogy Works

Researching Genealogies in a Library

©QQ Li Navigating a library to research a genealogy can be trickier than you think, and it's best to have a plan worked out before you leave the house.

While the Internet may supply a lot of information about your family, especially if you are fortunate enough to locate a detailed compiled family history, it's also important to visit the libraries and repositories that house records not found on the Internet.

To prepare for a visit, check out the library's Web site first. Many libraries have computerized their card catalogs and put them online. This means people are able to search them from home, with their files handy, and map out a plan without having to tote their files all over the place.


The Web site may provide more than just the library's catalog. It will likely list the hours of operation, address, and phone number. Some sites now include driving directions, at least from major highways. All of this is important when deciding when to go and how long to stay. Rules or guidelines and maps of the facility may also be found on the repository's site.

Creating a research log before going to the library is an invaluable time-saver. With it, you can head into the building with a complete list of the resources you plan to check. And by filling out your research log with call numbers and other details ahead of time, you can immediately begin your research when you get to the library. Remember to fill in your log as you complete your research, making notes about both positive and negative results.

Most libraries or archives, especially those of genealogical interest, have special holdings of one-of-a-kind manuscripts or resources that are old and deteriorating. As a result, they have to institute certain rules to protect their collections.

For instance, some repositories restrict what visitors can bring into the research room. Some allow the use of notebook computers; some don't. Some allow pens and notebooks; others don't. This is important to know before you get there, because you'll want to be well equipped. If computers are permitted, arm yourself ahead of time by uploading your genealogy database, the program that runs it, and your research logs.

What Kind of Library?

Before becoming interested in family history, you may not have thought very much about different libraries. You may have visited your local public library to complete a school project or to check out a book to read, but you may not know what else is available. Genealogists use different types of libraries for various purposes.

If you have been searching the NUCMC catalog, you may now have a list of specialty libraries to visit or obtain records from. Specialty libraries include any library devoted to a region, an occupation, a religion, and more. Some specialty libraries are devoted to genealogy, such as the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah, and the New England Historic Genealogical Society in Boston, Massachusetts.

Libraries differ in how they allow access to their resources. Some, in an effort to better control and protect their unique collections, rely on a "closed stack" approach. This means that you must fill out a request form in order to use a book in the collection. Checking the online library catalog is all the more important in these instances, since it usually takes some time for the technicians or pages to pull the volumes you request. Other libraries keep their books on open shelves, where researchers may peruse the different volumes available.

It's also a good idea to ask about photocopying when you visit a library or other specialty repository for the first time. Some libraries will let you make your own photocopies, while others make them for you. This is often determined by the library's responsibility for the records in their possession. Some have collections for which they must monitor all photocopying. Other collections are stamped with a warning so that you cannot reproduce it yourself -- perhaps because of a copyright issue or an agreement with the original donator of the records.

Public Libraries. Many large public libraries house genealogy departments. Usually these departments are comprised of some basic genealogy resources, with much of the collection devoted to records and books about the local area or area residents. But just because your ancestors did not live in a certain locale, don't presume that the local library won't be of use to you. For instance, the Orlando Public Library offers a large collection of records devoted to New England, which may seem strange until you consider the fact that many "snowbirds" -- those who travel south from the northern states -- spend their winters in the Central Florida area.

Small community public libraries may not have a section devoted to genealogy. That doesn't mean they won't be useful, however. At a small library, try asking the librarian what information they have about the history of the community, including their newspaper archives. There's plenty of genealogical information to be found in even the smallest of libraries.

State Libraries. State libraries are usually directed to the preservation of records applying to the state in question. Using the library's online catalog gives you insight into the holdings of the state library. You may discover that it houses a large collection of state newspapers or a manuscript collection of papers for industrial titans for that state.

University Libraries. University libraries do not usually have a genealogy department, but they have a history department and much more. These libraries can be extremely useful for looking at county histories and manuscript collections, as well as other unique historical, rather than genealogical, records and collections. These records may provide a wealth of information about your family.

Yearbooks, alumni books, and newsletters are also stored in university libraries. You might find your ancestor in a yearbook, helping you estimate a date of birth. Alumni newsletters often list former students who have died, giving you valuable information including maiden and married names for women. If the deceased was active within the alumni association, you may discover that the newsletter contains more information about him or her than an obituary.

Specialty Libraries. Specialty libraries offer their own benefits. You have already been introduced to the Family History Library, which is devoted to genealogy for the world. Another library of note is the Newberry Library in Chicago, Illinois. Though not a genealogy library, it has a comprehensive collection of local and family history. Its collection contains records from the United States and Canada, though its most extensive information concerns the Midwest. There is also a sizable British Isles collection.

Use a Library to Research a Genealogy

Though you may go to a library with a specific purpose in mind, don't forget to take a little time to see what else is available. Just as different libraries offer varying resources, other departments may provide additional and equally useful books or records. Consider a local public library in a community to which you've traced your ancestors. You may find city directories or other volumes that provide insight into their lives.

City directories may not only reveal your ancestor's name in the alphabetical listing of the inhabitants of a city, but may also include a "reverse index" that lists by house number those who lived on a given street. This provides a look at the names of neighbors -- names you may recognize within the family you are researching. City directories also provide information about churches, organizations, and associations. Your ancestor may have attended one of those churches or been a member of one or more of the groups. If nothing else, you are being exposed to additional avenues of research.

City directories are usually published the year after the actual information was collected. This means your ancestor, who gave information in 1919, may have moved by the time the directory appeared in 1920. The ability to identify when your ancestor arrived in and left a city is a bonus to your research and may help you fill in the years between census records.

Biographies or histories of the growth of a state, county, town, or region may not be found in the genealogy department, but rather in the history or social history section of a library. Newspapers and other periodicals published long ago, because they are stored on microfilm, may be found in the library's audio-visual department. If you fail to investigate beyond the usual avenues, you may not learn as much as you could have from your visit.

The information you find at the library might lead you to research your ancestors' deaths further. Find out how cemetery records and death certificates can help on the next page.

To learn more about building a genealogy, see Genealogy Websites.