Getting The Most From Libraries (Part 1)

by Bob Brooke

Libraries have long been invaluable resource centers for genealogists. But they represent only one step in the total research process. While courthouses, archives, and record centers are the first and final sources for evidence, the library should be used to help interpret data and reorient research.

Locating a generation geographically and learning its vital statistics aren't enough. Generations must be reconstructed in their own period of history, clothed in the mental and physical garments they wore, and reconstituted as part of their environment. Good genealogy locates births, marriages and deaths, then adds biographical details. For this kind of thorough research, libraries are excellent.

Libraries are most useful at the beginning of research and then much later when exploration of other sources unearthed additional clues. A researcher should determine what sort of data he or she needs to complete a family history.

Among the sources that are good to consult in libraries are maps, atlases, military records, professional and trade histories, and published lodge, club, and college records and lists. There are also abstracts and many types of indexes, including printed genealogies and manuscript genealogies, as well as histories of countries, states, counties, towns, churches, institutions, and groups. The diligent researcher will also find city directories and microfilmed census records and newspapers.

Libraries, depending on their age, size, and financial status, have anticipated the needs of historians and genealogists. Learning about their holdings through catalogs and digging into what they store form a large part of the pleasure of pursuing a family history. Choosing the library that best suits particular research needs is better than going to just any library.

As well as genealogical sections in local libraries, there are increasing numbers of libraries that are devoted entirely to genealogy. The status of genealogy is no longer that of a lesser servant to history. Genealogy and history are now recognized as inseparable. The historian deals with masses of people and massive events, while the genealogist is specific about a person in the mass affected by the massive events.

Genealogical collections are found in local libraries, county and state libraries, and special genealogical libraries. Their holdings differ widely, depending on the policies and objectives of the individual library and the funds available to purchase, maintain, and administer genealogical materials.

In some the genealogical sources are found in the history area; in others in the socioeconomic division. Today, many libraries have set up a special genealogy section. Often, the collections of local historical and genealogical societies with no buildings of their own are deposited with the local or state library or in a college library. On the first visit to any library, the researcher should speak to the reference librarian about the way the library is arranged and about its catalogs.

One mistake amateur genealogists make when speaking to a reference librarian for the first time is telling him or her why they're seeking the information. While most will be polite and listen, others can be quite curt. The reference librarian's job is to see that researchers are provided with books or other research material or to help you find what isn t plainly in view on the open shelves. Today, that job is even more complex as many libraries have been renovated to include multimedia access to a world of electronic information.

Preparation is the key to good research. Often first-time genealogical researchers go into a library with only a tiny bit of information, not knowing where to go next. Reference librarians are busy people and often help patrons more than anyone else in the library. The more prepared a researcher is, the better quality of help he or she can expect from the reference librarian.

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