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Say what? Ask-a-Librarian Services

There are useful ways of contacting libraries, archives and societies for family information using the ask a librarian service.


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Say what?

Ask a Librarian services.

Well, isn't that what they are there for?

To an extent, yes. These days, almost every library has a web site, even if it is small. As part of their plan of service to all kinds of patrons, libraries will generally have a (hopefully) clearly marked place on their front web page, with the name or label of "Ask a Librarian".

What this allows you to do genealogically and historically is to send a question right to the library for answer by their staff. Of course, sending something to a very large city library is different that than sending to a one-room, rural, one part-time staffer library, and speed and quality of service might come in to play.

So why is this important and how can you make this service work for your research? To start with, e-mail makes time and distance pretty much irrelevant. And you can ask question and expect a polite answer back.

How it generally works is that a form is provided, or a specific e-mail address at the library is designated to receive such questions. Do be advised that with many libraries being forced to let staff go because of financial problems, instant turn-around is not a thing that you can expect any more. So, if you submit a question late in the day on a Friday afternoon before a holiday weekend, it probably will be read first thing Monday (or Tuesday if it's a Monday holiday) and answered with in a few days after that. Staff aren't lazy - there just aren't enough of them.

Experience shows that it's not usual practice to reply that "We have gotten your message." Staff will read it, and decide who is best qualified to answer it. Then that staff member does the research and gets back to the e-mail writer.

But, as always, there are some general caveats. When you write, KISS. Keep it simple, Sammy. Staff does not need to know that whole family history. And please, do proofread your e-mails. People who type in all caps or who write run-on sentences make it harder for staff members to determine exactly what e-mail writer seeks.

Notice that phrase, "exactly what the e-mail writer seeks"? Let me expand a bit on how to craft a good question.

First, ask for something simple, e.g., "Do you have or know where I can get marriage certificate for your town for the 1830s?" This allows the staffer to see if such records even exist at all, if the library or society has access to them, or can tell you where they might be found. Marriage certificates are a good example because they may or may not exist; there are numerous places for marriages to be found, and all kinds of strange laws dealing with access.

Case in point: A few years ago I came upon a list of marriages in a garbage can (I kid you not). The end result of this was that it was identified as the handwritten in pencil marriage book for an early circuit-riding preacher in the area. Now, they have been extracted and published, but at the time they were found the book was this close to being discarded completely. And from that time period in the area, there are virtually no church records for the rural areas, and it was 30 to 40 years before the state or even the township had records. Some questions like, "Where are the marriage records?" can balloon into a long-winded reply.

Another question is the one, "Can you send me the births, marriages and deaths for my family and their certificates." Well, no. Again, what any individual library or society might do, especially for free, is up to them. But again, as a rule, there isn't the time to do detailed research for someone. And almost never (not never, but almost never) does anyone outside the official vital records registry bureaucracy have a copy of the actual certificates that they can provide to you.

Then there are other reasons to keep it simple.

Things may not be online yet because of copyright or legal holdback. A gentleman recently came in who knew that he had been born, and lived with this birth mother until she was imprisoned several times for vagrancy in a city hundreds or miles away (she eventually would up dying locally, and young to boot). He had limited his search on Ancestry to some specific names. But looking under the original Polish name found the woman he was looking for in the 1930 census. Another web site ( had several entries for her, but in another city (where she had served prison time). And, of course, her births and marriage were and are covered by state privacy laws, so they would not be online, though probably are to be found in actual records repositories.

Records can be available in person but not online because they are not yet been digitized and put on the Internet. Or, a library or society may hold various research items in person, but cannot make them available on the computer because they are not owned by the organization with the Internet presence.

So, to get back on track, you can write and ask for a specific item. Do not ask for everything that you have on such and such a family. First, it's very unlikely that the staff has the time (even if they do have the interest), and also copying fees used to be minimal but have gone up dramatically in recent years. I know of one library (not in my state) that charges $75 for any obituary. Another one in a different state charge fifteen cents for that obituary. My library charges $10 each. Considering the price of gasoline and parking, that might be a bargain.

You can also ask about open hours and let them know when you can be there, so that time is not wasted getting items for you. They may be held at a work desk for you.

Or, you can use the "Ask a Librarian" feature to ask for a copy of an obituary, a picture, etc. Our library used to have an online way of placing orders, and right now the only way that such orders can be placed is through the Ask a Librarian" feature of the web site. That's another cue – that sometimes a service might be offered and for various reasons the original index or order page has been taken off-line.

Finally. there is a bit of good advice given on the RootsWeb web pages on how to set up and ask a good question. To paraphrase it, choose a subject line that is descriptive such as "needs death certificates, church records, info as to naturalization, about the Irish community in (your town of interest)." Also, include the full names that you are looking for (John Harold Smith, wife May Edna Johnson Smith). And add dates if you know them. Many libraries, archives, and historical societies have numerous indexes that cover a certain run of years, and you want to make it easy for the person reading the e-mail to help you. Subjects that say only "Need Help" or that only state a location or surname (for instance, using only the subject "Smith" when posting to the Smith board) should be avoided.

Include relevant details if possible. (Owned the ice cream store on Water St. in the 1920s). If you wish, you can include surname spelling variations for the surnames mentioned in your message, but be advised that it could muddy the waters if you put too many. Try the services – you might be pleasantly surprised.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2011.

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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