Helpful Hints for Library Research



You are a genealogist. You should always approach a library with a professional attitude and a concrete objective for your research. Make a list of people, places, or things you want to work on before you leave home. Be specific. Work on items from your list, one at a time. This will save valuable time in the long run.

Be sure you have all the supplies you need before you leave home. Put together a research notebook to carry with you. For this you will need a 3-ring binder and some dividers. Some things you should keep in your notebook at all times:

  1. Names and places - Include a list of all the names you are researching and all the places where they lived.
  2. Libraries - Include a list of names, addresses, phone numbers and hours of all the libraries and archives in your area that have genealogy materials.
  3. Census - Include a copy of all the census and soundex forms, 1790 through 1920. If you have at least one of each with you, you can make more photocopies at the library, if need be. This section should also have instructions for using the soundex and all of your names already pre-coded. Why keep doing it over and over again?
  4. Miscellaneous helpful hints for research - This section might contain such things as a bibliography list of some basic genealogy books, information on call numbers for genealogy materials, a list of common abbreviations, and anything else you think you might use at the library.
  5. Work in progress list and a things to do list.
  6. A supply of blank paper and any other blank forms you think you might need.
  7. Dream up any other categories you like!

Be sure to keep updating all of these sections so you will always be ready to pick up and go to the library. It would also be helpful to include one of those little plastic pouches in your notebook. Put a supply of pencils, pens, bookmarks, paper clips, magnifying glass, etc. in it. You don't want to run around the house to find these things every time you go - or arrive at the library without them!

When you approach a librarian for help, be sure to ask only one specific question at a time. Know what you need and then ask. Get an answer to the first question before you ask another. And don't expect the librarian to do your work for you. Most genealogy collections are for reference only. Don't expect to be able to check materials out. Instead, be sure you have enough change for the photocopy machine.

Keep an on-going log of all the books and films you have already researched. Always carry a copy with you. Make a note of what you found or a note that you found nothing. That way you won't waste precious time looking for the same information in the same book or film all over again. (I wish I had done this in the beginning!) You would, of course, go back to the same book if you needed to look for different information.

You go to different libraries for different things. You need to know what materials are available at each place in your area (or out of area if you are taking a trip). Before you start going to libraries and archives, you need to do a little research on the libraries and achieves themselves. For example: In my area, if I wanted to do research in the census, I would choose to go to the National Archives Regional Center because I know they have all of the census there. If I wanted to do research in history books, the Los Angeles Public Library is the best place. I would not go to the National Archives for this because I know they don't have any history books. On the other hand, if I wanted to look for filmed vital records, I would try the LDS Family History Center. Know what each facility has so you can go to a place where you are likely to accomplish your goals.

Carry family group sheets and/or ancestor charts for the lines you will be working on with you. But NEVER bring the master copy. Leave that at home. NEVER bring any of your documents with you. Extract the information and leave the documents at home. Don't bring anything of value or anything you wouldn't want to lose into a public facility. Ladies: don't bring a purse. Use a hip pack or put your keys and change in your pocket and lock your purse in the trunk of your car. I volunteer in the genealogy section at a local library. One day, while I was on duty, a woman walked away from her purse for about 30 seconds - and it was gone! You don't want to be worried about losing your purse while you are trying to do research.


* Card Catalogue
This is not necessarily on cards these days. I have recently found cards at one library, microfiche at another, and a computer catalogue at a third. If you need help with the computer system, ask.

* Census Records
Many libraries will have some or all (1790-1820) of the census on film. Others will have census indexes in books - usually 1790-1870. Some will even have census indexes on CD.

* City, County, and State Histories
These are filed under the state and are nearly always in the open stacks. Each state has its own call number. Look under the state, then the region, then the counties, cities, and towns.

* Family Histories
In some libraries these are in the open stacks; in others they are in the closed stacks and you have to ask for them, usually on a special form. Some are hardbound; some are paperback; some are typed manuscripts in folders.

* Geography Books and Maps
Don't forget to check the geography section of the public library. All kinds of interesting things can be found there. Many genealogy collections will have a map file.

* How to Do Research Books
These are usually found in the open stacks. Some libraries even allow them to circulate.

* Periodicals
Some of these are publications from different societies; some are publications pertaining to specific surnames; some are about genealogy in general. Some libraries will hold these indefinitely; some will only have current issues. Some libraries will have them out; some will have them in closed stacks and you will have to make a request. Sometimes the older ones are bound.

* Religious History
Sometimes these books are found in the history or genealogy department of a library. Sometimes you will need to go to the religion section of the public library to find them.

* Vital Records
Many vital records, especially in New England, have been transcribed and can be found in books. These are usually found in the among the city and county history books. Many vital records have been filmed and will be found in the microfilm collection at libraries where films are available.

* Wills and Probates
There are many abstracted probate records that can be found in books. These are usually found in with the city and county histories. Many probate records have been filmed also.

One last thing: Don't forget the check out the university libraries in your area. They will tell you that they don't have a genealogy section - and it's true. But there is a wealth of information the history and geography sections. My alma mater, for example, has all of the Plymouth Colony vital records in their history department -- and these books can be checked out! Many universities have large map collections and all kinds of interesting special collections.

Prepare yourself and then have fun at the library!

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