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Bookin' It To the Library

The Internet is a wonderful source for research, but remember to check with your human Google - genealogy reference librarians.


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The Internet has become a great source of information, especially since users are able to reduce the difficulty of getting information from far away, and are also able to get e-mail over long distances and through time zones. But don't do all your research via the computer. There is a strong case to be made for utilizing your local libraries.

We deal here with public libraries, but there are also college and historical societies with great collections. Books which are printed by traditional publishers have a tendency to be well-documented and edited. Donated books from researchers may not be held to the same strict standards, but if someone takes the time and money to print and distribute a hard copy rather than a web page, it generally imputes serious research. And libraries have books that can be 200 years old, contemporary to the people and places you are searching.

As to the kinds of research that you might do in your own public library or one in a place of interest to you, key questions posed to library staff could very much assist in your research.

When asking for help, it's okay to say that you are researching a particular family from such and such a town. The staff may know of a book or manuscript that could help. But don't go on with family trivia--it may be interesting, but it may also confuse the issue when someone is not familiar with your situation and is trying to sort out your question. Ask clear definite questions, and if more information is needed, ask for it after you find or search for the first part. And always be polite. I have had patrons demand items that don't exist, using a loud voice, and then berate staff members. Such behavior does not encourage extra help. Enough said.

You may wish to start by finding out what kinds of genealogical resources the library has, what periods they cover, and in what formats. Comprehensive guides to the library's holdings are often available.

To make the best use of resources available, there are questions you might ask the librarian, as well as questions to ask yourself, to make sure you are covering your bases.

Newspapers. Does the library have a newspaper index? Of what papers? For what years? Can I copy that index if I find a lot of references to the people or places I am searching? Is there more than one newspaper for this area, even though only one paper is indexed (which would allow for different points of view as well as differing contents of articles)? Is there a city paper and papers for suburban towns? Are those papers indexed? Can I get out-of-town papers through inter library loan?

Surnames. Does the library have a card file of names? What does it cover? How is it arranged? By name? Occupation? Location? Does it include women and children? Does it refer to books? Articles? Newspapers? Scrapbooks? Can I make copies of the file or the items to which it refers?

Clipping File. Does the library have a newspaper clipping file? What years? Which papers? How is it organized? Can I copy them? Have the clips been made into scrapbooks? Are they on film?

Photographs. Does the library have any picture files? How are they arranged? Can I make or buy copies? How can they be searched?

Vital Records and Indexes. Does the library have copies of the state or local vital records and/or indexes to them? What are the rules about using them?

Military Personnel. Does the library have records on military personnel? Are there special card files or books that were produced to remember these people? (Many such records have pictures, service records, letters from surviving comrades, if the person died in the war.)

Social Records. Are there pamphlet files that have company newsletters, theater playbills (was Grandpa an actor?), church handouts, and other sources of information? Are there yearbooks from schools and colleges in the collection?

Searchable Databases. Are searchable databases available within the library? What are the costs and rules for using them?

You may be able to ask for sources such as these over an ask-a-librarian page that the library has up on the web. Detailed data may not be available, but perhaps you can download or print a guide to the collection to assist you when you actually come in. You can sometimes get better printouts from using microfilm of censuses rather than trying to print from the computer screens at libraries. Oftentimes they are secured against misuse, and that can make it difficult to get a printout easily. But consider asking the staff about other sorts of materials that may not be on the web or even a local web site sponsored by the organization. The records you seek may not be there available because of copyright issues, as indexes are okay to create, but to show the underlying text may not be permissible, and if it is, there may be cost considerations.

Also realize that librarians are not genealogists, though they may be very interested in the subject. If they took 4 hours for your request, they would have to do this for everyone. You can see that they have to pretty much stick with reference and referral instead of detailed research. And they are typically happy to copy items if they are permitted to. Librarians, however, cannot certify that a document is true, nor state their conclusions as a hired genealogist might. But they are your allies in finding information and often have wonderful suggestions. If you have a good visit, write a follow-up letter to the director. You might also consider sending a letter to a local politician, if it is your local library, as they read and note their constituent's concerns.

Finally, if you are very energetic, consider a library volunteer project. I am familiar with one where a person has taken over 20,000 entries for the city directories and indexed them. They show death dates before state vital records start, and show marriages of women, and persons who "removed" from the area and where they went! This is a phenomenally useful project.

Sample Library Websites:

Halton Hills (Canada) -
Indian River (FL) -
Great Bend (KS) -
Rochester (NY) images -
Ogden (NY) -

Library Directories:

If you are looking for a library in a specific location, the following directories my be useful:

LibWeb Directory of USA Public Libraries -
LibDex Worldwide Index to Library Catalogs -

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2004.

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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