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Why Every Genealogists Needs a Librarian

Librarians are essential to the work of genealogists. Librarians can help you do better searches, find unknown collections, and access materials for you that can help you knock down those brickwalls.


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I'm often surprised when genealogists tell me that they don't know what interlibrary loan is or they rarely visit their local library. I think, unfortunately, as genealogists we too often tend to think that libraries are just for other people, like children. But that thinking could not be further from the truth. Libraries and librarians can provide new ideas, search techniques and help us break down brickwalls in ways that we would have never guessed. Librarians are essential to the genealogy task, and to prove it I have included just some of what I have learned from librarians.

Interlibrary Loan

Interlibrary loan is such an important tool for the genealogist. Through interlibrary loan a whole world of resources open up to you that you would otherwise not have access to. Simply put, interlibrary loan allows you to borrow a book from a library that you do not have a card for. You request the book from your local library's reference librarian and then they put in a request, and within a short amount of time it is sent to your library and you are able to check out the book from your local library. Interlibrary loan is not just for books, you can also, in some cases, borrow microfilmed records and journal articles.

Whenever you start a new research project I recommend that you search through your local library's catalog: the library that serves the area where your ancestor lived and also the local university/college libraries. You can do this by Googling the library's name and the word "library." You can also search a large number of libraries by using WorldCat.

WorldCat is a union catalog with over 1.5 billion items held by the world's libraries. Though this article is not focusing solely on WorldCat, I would suggest that you check out the catalog's What is WorldCat page.

Subject Headings

Sometimes library catalog searches don't go as well as we had planned. You may search on a keyword and be baffled not to find a single source on that keyword. Maybe even you have found books on that topic, to only later go back to the card catalog and not find any trace of that book.

The Library of Congress Subject Headings is a way that researchers can find materials on a subject easily. Think of it as a thesaurus for books. It provides you keywords to use when searching for your topic. Typically, when you search a library website or WorldCat, you search results will include subject headings that have to do with your keyword. On WorldCat it is located to the right of the individual result page and says, "More Like This" and then "Subjects." Click on these links or type in these subject headings to find even more books on your topic.

A librarian can assist you with structuring your search so that you find the resources you need and don't miss resources that a typical search would overlook.

They Can Find Anything

I would say that I am pretty good at research. I would venture to say that I am a really good researcher. However, librarians are taught different ways to search for items and they are aware of collections, databases, and websites that you might not be aware of.

When we search for our ancestors we tend to just search genealogy related websites that we are aware of, commercial sites, free genealogy sites, etc. But there may be other types of materials and websites that can be useful in our search. Sometimes, because we are so accustomed to looking at the same sites over and over again, we may miss out on those that can help us. A good case in point is some social history research I am doing on the food our ancestors ate. I was able to find some books and website that I thought looked promising, but my friend, who is studying to become a librarian, was able to find for me social networks, dissertations, and academic sources that, frankly, would have not been part of my search results. It was interesting as we both worked on this search, she on her computer and I on mine, that we were both able to find completely unique sources, but they were all very important. We are often more effective when we collaborate than when we just tackle something completely on our own.

Haven't stepped foot in a library for a while? Ask the reference librarian for a tour. Ask what resources would be of use to you in your research. Inquire about the service and benefits of being a library card holder. One of the great new features of libraries today versus 10-20 years ago is that for many libraries having a library cards allows you to access a variety on online sources, normally paid sites, for free. These sites can include Ancestry Library Edition, Heritage Quest, and others.

Librarians know their collection as well as other library collections so they are the ones to ask when you are stuck or need to know what resources exist. They know about resources that the general public are not knowledgeable about. That's what they went to school for, to learn how to find information and where to find it. Genealogy blogger Amy Coffin summed it up best when she wrote to me, "You don't know what you don't know, but librarians do."

You Can Ask Librarians Questions

One of my favorite features on many library websites is an interactive feature typically labeled Ask A Librarian. This feature usually allows you to chat live online with a librarian. I have used this to ask a research question, research advice, and even about a specific resource. Don't forget that you can ask librarians from public libraries and university libraries questions via the library website, even if you just e-mail them. This can help you in your research and is often a fast way to get a question answered. I've even used this feature to request a quick lookup in a book. Obviously, the librarian isn't going to do your research for you, but quick requests and questions are what they are there for.

Don't forget to ask librarians, not just about resources and what's available, ask about what your next steps should be. Whether you are successful with the information the librarian finds or not, asking what your next steps should be will provide you with additional information about where you should be researching.

And There's More . . .

T hese are just a few of the ideas about why you need a librarian when you research your family tree. Start today by contacting your local library and finding out how they can assist you in breaking down your ancestral brickwalls.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2010.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

*Effective May 2010, GenWeekly articles that are more than five years old no longer require a subscription for full access.

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