Genealogy 101: Family History Research at the Library

Introduction: In this article – part of an ongoing “Introduction to Genealogy” series – Gena Philibert-Ortega gives tips for doing family history research at the library. Gena is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.

Been to the library lately for your family history research? Are you a frequent visitor to your local library, or has it been a few years? Maybe you are planning a vacation around researching at a large city or university library. If it has been a while since your last visit to a library, I want to encourage you to take some time now to prepare for your next trip.

Photo: Carnegie Library, San Antonio, Texas, c. 1900-1924
Photo: Carnegie Library, San Antonio, Texas, c. 1900-1924. Credit: The University of Houston Digital Library; Wikimedia Commons.

What Library Will You Go To?

Remember that there is more to library research than your local public library. When you think of what libraries might have what you need for your genealogy, think in terms of the public or academic library that serves your ancestor’s hometown, as well as state and national libraries, genealogy libraries, and private libraries.

Genealogy libraries include:

Of course, you should also visit your own local libraries to access books, interlibrary loan, and online databases.

First Up: The Card Catalog

As you plan your trip, take a look at the library’s online card catalog. What resources does the library have that could benefit your research? We often think of a library in terms of what can be checked out, but as a researcher you need to consider what reference items are available. In some cases, the books found in the genealogy collection of the library may be for reference use only and cannot be loaned out.

Special Collections

What collections, besides the books found in the stacks, does that library have? Do they have a local history collection? Rare books? Maybe they specialize in a specific historical era. For example, the AK Smiley Public Library in Redlands, California, which houses the Lincoln Shrine, has a large collection of Abraham Lincoln and Civil War resources. Does the library you are going to have a local history collection or any special collections?

What’s Online?

It may seem weird to travel somewhere just to see what they have online, but in the case of a larger library, you may find that they subscribe to specific subscription websites that you otherwise would not have access to. Think beyond genealogy; these websites might include newspapers, periodicals, and history books.

If You’re Traveling, Make a Call First

Going to your local library and learning they don’t have what you need, or they are closed, wouldn’t be a big problem – but travel several hours by car or plane only to find the same thing would be frustrating to say the least. Do yourself a favor and call or email prior to your visit. Make sure that the library will be open and that any special collection you are interested in is available for research.

In some cases, a special collection may only be available with several days’ notice or by appointment. On one research trip to access a special collection at a state university, I was surprised to learn I needed two forms of ID and that my high school-aged son couldn’t research with me because he was not yet 18 years old. These are important facts I would have known if I’d been more diligent about reading the library’s website when I prepared for my visit.

Where Are You Going?

Libraries are an important resource for genealogists, so it’s important to make sure that you exhaust their resources when you research your ancestor’s life. But first, make a plan before your visit so that you can make the most of your time and limit disappointments.

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One thought on “Genealogy 101: Family History Research at the Library

  1. Thank you to all the volunteers and. the hard work by all. For helping a “Lost Boy” find a path home.

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