Effective Use of Libraries and Archives

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This article originally appeared in Printed Sources: A Guide to Published Genealogical Records, edited by Kory L. Meyerink.


In addition to learning about printed sources, including how to find and evaluate them, it is important to know how to use libraries. Libraries are the best places to find printed sources, and a researcher who does not understand a library’s collection or services will not find the information sought as easily as possible. Researchers need to be aware of a library’s general services, its catalog, any inventories, guides, or handbooks, and interlibrary loan service.

Finding Genealogical Repositories

There are almost as many sources to help locate libraries and archives as there are types of repositories. Several directories are available that list specific types of libraries or organizations, generally geographically. These directories can direct researchers to libraries in nearby towns and cities. In addition, repositories in the areas where an ancestor lived often have collections of value. Many researchers plan all or part of a family or personal vacation to visit the areas and repositories where ancestors lived. Always begin with the local public library. It can assist in locating these and other archives and libraries and may have a surprisingly useful collection itself.

The genealogical collections and services of more than 1,500 public, university, and private libraries, state archives, historical societies, and other libraries are described in P. William Filby’s Directory of American Libraries with Genealogy or Local History Collections (Wilmington, Del.: Scholarly Resources, 1988). Through a survey, Filby queried each library about its major reference books and collections, thus learning the nature and scope of the genealogical collections of most major libraries in America. Thus, this directory can help determine if a specific library has a significant genealogical collection. Additional indexes in Filby’s directory pinpoint libraries that have major collections of out-of-state material. The information given for each library includes the hours of operation and the genealogical expertise of its staff, in addition to the address and telephone number. Once the user understands how to use the information from the survey, it is a valuable tool for finding repositories of printed sources.

Another useful source designed for the genealogist is Bentley’s The Genealogist’s Address Book. It lists most societies, libraries, archives, and periodicals that genealogists might be interested in. Its library entries are not as detailed as those in Filby’s directory and many of the addresses are out of date, but it is an inexpensive reference that most genealogists can afford to have in their personal collections.

The following directories should be available at local libraries. The most comprehensive source for libraries is the annual American Library Directory, compiled by the R. R. Bowker Company. This directory lists more than thirty-five thousand public, academic, government, and special libraries in the United States and Canada. Within each state or province, cities are listed alphabetically; each library is listed under the city where it is located. Information given includes the name, address, telephone number, and a brief description of the library, such as the size of its collection, any special collections it has, and its publications and other interests. A directory of many archives and manuscript collections is the National Historical Publications and Records Commission’s Directory of Archives and Manuscript Repositories in the United States, 2nd ed. (1988). In addition to giving a brief description of approximately 4,500 archives, it notes the major manuscript collections of many of the archives.

Addresses of local historical societies are listed in Betty P. Smith’s Directory, Historical Societies and Agencies in the United States and Canada, 13th ed. (1986). Arranged by state and thereunder by city, this gives the name, address, telephone number, staff size, and collection information for more than six thousand local historical societies, including every state and most county historical societies. Libraries run by each society and periodicals published by them are also given. Another directory of societies of particular interest to genealogists is Mary K. Meyer’s biannual Meyer’s Directory of Genealogical Societies in the U.S.A and Canada, 11th ed. (Mt. Airy, Md., 1996). This edition lists approximately 1,600 societies. Within each state, societies are listed by their names rather than by location. (Many societies did not return the registration information and are listed with only their addresses, but complete information is provided for four hundred societies.) In addition to their names and addresses there is information on the societies’ memberships, publications, projects, and library facilities (if any).

Library Services

Libraries exist to serve their patrons. Usually, they are supported by tax dollars and therefore have to give equal treatment to the entire public. Every library, however, has rules regarding the treatment of its materials and can deny service to persons who do not treat the materials with care. Do not deface, tear, cut, write on, or in any other way damage library materials. Above all, never remove materials from a library in violation of any library policy. It is a sad fact that some patrons damage or steal library books. Unfortunately, many librarians believe (perhaps not without cause) that genealogists are more guilty of such sins than many other patrons. After all, genealogists often refer to books as having my ancestors in them. For some, it is a small step from this thought to the belief that they have some right to a book because nobody else is interested in my family or I’m the only one who has all the correct information or it’s out of print and the library has a microfilm copy of it anyway.”

Some of the best research libraries are not public libraries; they do not have to allow the public to use their collections. The fact that they do allow public use should be met with gratitude. After all, such libraries are rendering all genealogists a great service. If a library one uses regularly is operated by a private society or foundation, it may be beneficial, in more than one sense, to join the society. Often, membership allows access to the collection at reduced rates (such as the DAR or National Genealogical Society libraries). Further, membership in a library’s governing society provides more operating funds for the library and may allow members some voice in library matters. Many public libraries have a Friends of the Library society that can provide tremendous support politically and socially, as well as economically. Participation is a great way to give something back for all that we receive from libraries and archives.

Libraries offer many services to their patrons, which may include copying facilities, computer terminals, classes on research sources and methodology, reference consultation, brief correspondence replies, lists of professional researchers, and library publications. Most libraries have brief guides to their services that are available on request. A researcher who is planning to visit a library that she is not familiar with should contact its staff in advance to learn about the library’s services and hours. It is frustrating to travel to a distant library only to learn that it is closed for a state holiday, remodeling, or some other reason. In addition, the researcher might learn when the library is less crowded (for instance, in the evenings or in the winter months when fewer persons travel) or if there is special information he should take to make his research most efficient.

In addition to rules about the treatment of their collections, libraries have other rules that make research more pleasant for all. The following rules apply to virtually all libraries:

  • Do not smoke in any library, even in the restroom.
  • Food is generally restricted in libraries. It may be allowed in a snack room, but do not take it into the research areas.
  • Do not hog materials, such as books, microfilm, or microfilm readers.
  • Allow others to use photocopy machines.
  • Protect personal belongings. Libraries cannot be responsible for lost or stolen materials, and we know how precious our genealogical findings are.
  • Maintain a quiet research atmosphere for all. Do not allow young children to distract others with their noise or activity.
  • Limit talking in research areas.

In addition, many research libraries:

  • Limit the amount of material that can be copied at one time or in one day.
  • Offer locker rentals.
  • Limit how long one person can use a microfilm reader or computer. (One might need to request the use of such resources in advance.)
  • Allow only paper and pencils (no pens, briefcases, and so forth) in research areas.
  • Have age restrictions for children.

Finally, be ready to leave when closing time approaches. Respect these and all other rules; observing them helps to protect the valuable records that are our collective heritage, and may change the attitudes of some librarians (a minority) who hold a certain disdain for genealogists.

Library Catalogs

The key to any library is its catalog, so it is essential to understand how catalogs work. In most libraries, every book or other item (microfilm, manuscript, periodical, etc.) in the collection is listed in the catalog. It may be a card catalog, a computer catalog, or some other variety. Materials are almost always arranged in the catalog by the author; usually the titles and subjects of the books are also listed. Some genealogical library catalogs also list materials according to the geographic emphasis of their contents (a type of subject listing). Most library catalogs are surprisingly similar in structure and usage. Do not hesitate to use libraries’ catalogs; researchers cannot be successful without them. Also, never hesitate to ask librarians for assistance. Librarians realize that catalogs can be overwhelming to many users and are trained to assist them. In addition, many libraries have printed instructions to aid patrons in using their catalogs.

While a library’s catalog usually includes all the items in the library’s collection, it will not list or index every name in each publication. Most books are listed only by author, title, and two or three subjects. Family histories (genealogies) are listed under the surname of the main family discussed in the book and possibly two or three other major surnames in the book. Only in very rare cases are genealogies listed under more than six surnames, yet these books may include hundreds of surnames and thousands of persons. Other tools are available to help find information in these books; they are described in chapter 16, “Family Histories and Genealogies.”

Most libraries use the Dewey Decimal Classification System or the Library of Congress (LC) Classification System to assign the call numbers and hence shelf placement for their books. Learn how these systems work; a brief overview is in chapter 1, “General Reference.” If dealing with a library that uses a different system, be sure to ask the librarian for an explanation. Some libraries, such as the Family History Library, have modified one of the major systems to better fit their collections. Subject headings used in catalogs generally come from one of two similar systems: most libraries use either the Library of Congress Subject Headings or Sears Subject Headings to determine if a book is listed under "Automobiles" or "Cars." Fortunately, most catalogs have "see" and "see also" cross-references which direct the user to the proper (see) heading or alternate/related (see also) headings.

Some major libraries have published the genealogical and/or local history portions of their catalogs. Such publications allow much greater access to the material in the library and also act as excellent genealogical bibliographies. These are discussed in greater detail in chapter 1, “General Reference,” and chapter 16, “Family Histories and Genealogies.” Of course, as soon as a catalog is published it is slightly out of date because the library continues to receive new books. However, such catalogs (sometimes called shelf lists”) are a great help because they allow researchers to determine which libraries have certain books.

Some of the major organizations which have published catalogs of parts of their genealogy and local history collections include the New York Public Library, American Antiquarian Society, New England Historic Genealogical Society, DAR Library, Newberry Library, Library of Congress, Sutro Library, Swarthmore College Friends Historical Library, and Long Island Historical Society (see appendix B for addresses). A local library may have some of these published catalogs. The Family History Library publishes its entire catalog on microfiche each year, thus avoiding the datedness associated with printed catalogs. The Family History Library Catalog can be purchased in whole or in part by individuals and institutions. It is also available in CD-ROM format as part of the FamilySearch system at 2,500 family history centers and at many other genealogical libraries.

Inventories, Guides, Handbooks

A library’s catalog may be the key to its collection, but other tools are available to help the user learn about specific parts of a library and its holdings. Most archives have inventories, guides, handbooks, or periodicals that describe their records and how to use them. If possible, study these guides before visiting an archive in order to make the most effective use of the time available. Many of these are available at public or academic libraries or through interlibrary loan. These sources differ from catalogs in that they do not list every item in a collection; rather, they describe entire groups of materials within a library’s collections.

There are similarities between inventories, guides, and handbooks, so many authors use the terms interchangeably. However, there are subtle differences. Inventories (or calendars) typically list or briefly describe all or most of the individual items in a specific collection, such as Papers of the Draper Collection of Manuscripts. Guides generally attempt to give an overview of all the holdings, or a substantial portion (such as all the manuscripts), in a particular institution. They may act as inventories but usually also provide some general information about the materials and how to access them. A handbook is a kind of how-to book that focuses on a specific institution. It may include instruction on the library’s cataloging system, other services, and the general scope of the library’s holdings.

A helpful guide to the major repositories in the Washington, D.C., area is Christina K. Schaefer’s The Center: A Guide to Genealogical Research in the National Capital Area (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1996). It describes the records and services of the National Archives, Library of Congress, DAR Library, the Bureau of Land Management, the Library of the National Genealogical Society, and the three LDS family history centers in the area. A similar guide describing the genealogical collections of more than one hundred New York City-area repositories is Estelle M. Guzik, ed., Genealogical Resources in the New York Metropolitan Area (New York: Jewish Genealogical Society, 1989). It describes the records and services of the New York Public Library, the New York Genealogical and Biographical Society, several archives and university libraries in the New York City area, New York City record offices and archives, county offices of ten local counties, major state offices for New York and New Jersey, and approximately a dozen Jewish archives and libraries.

Guides to several other research libraries have also been published. The following is a list of guides or handbooks for other major repositories.

  • Cavanaugh, Karen B. A Genealogist’s Guide to the Ft. Wayne, Indiana, Public Library. 4th ed. Fort Wayne, Ind.: Watermill Publications, 1988.
  • Cerny, Johni, and Wendy Elliott. The Library: A Guide to the LDS Family History Library. Salt Lake City: Ancestry, 1988.
  • Guide to Genealogical Research in the National Archives. Rev. ed. Washington, D.C.: National Archives Trust Fund Board, 1985.
  • Oldenburg, Joseph F. Genealogical Guide to the Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library. Salt Lake City: Ancestry, 1989.
  • Parker, J. Carlyle. Going to Salt Lake City to do Family History Research. 2nd ed. Turlock, Calif.: Marietta Publishing Co., 1993.
  • Sinko, Peggy Tuck. Guide to Local and Family History at the Newberry Library. Salt Lake City: Ancestry, 1987.
  • Szucs, Loretto Dennis, and Sandra Hargreaves Luebking. The Archives: A Guide to the National Archives Field Branches. Salt Lake City: Ancestry, 1988.

Interlibrary Loan

Many books that a genealogist will find useful can be obtained via interlibrary loan. This service is one of the most important and overlooked services provided by most public and academic libraries. It allows a local library to borrow a book that is not in its collection from another library. Because many libraries do not have large genealogical collections, interlibrary loan can be a good means for researchers to gain access to materials not in a local collection. Generally, the local librarian will need a complete bibliographic citation (author, title, publisher, and city and date of publication) for each item requested. (Bibliographies are the tools that provide this information.) A local library will generally try to obtain a copy of almost any reference asked for. However, many are hard to locate, so if a library that has the record sought is known, include that information in the request.

Family histories can be difficult to obtain through interlibrary loan because the American Library Association’s policy suggests that such books not be available for interlibrary loan. This policy is justified on the grounds that family histories form a special collection in many libraries and because patrons travel great distances to use such collections; many libraries do not want these books to be out of their collections when a patron arrives in person. However, some libraries do not follow this policy and will lend their family genealogies via interlibrary loan.

Notable libraries which do lend their genealogies include the Sutro Branch of the California State Library in San Francisco (generally only within California), the Mid-Continent Public Library, which houses the American Family Records Association (AFRA) Collection of genealogical and local history books, and the Alexander Mitchell Public Library, which houses the AFRA Collection of genealogical and local history periodicals, tapes, and films. A catalog of the AFRA Genealogical Circulating Collection is available for a small fee from AFRA.

Although many libraries restrict interlibrary loan usage of family histories, many do not restrict local histories or other genealogical books, such as transcripts of records. In addition, many microfilmed records are available through interlibrary loan. Newspapers are perhaps the most noteworthy. Many early newspapers have been microfilmed. Often they are housed at a state library or a public library in the town where the newspaper was published. Interlibrary loan makes it possible for researchers to search for an ancestor’s obituary themselves, instead of asking a person in the ancestor’s town to look for them. (When one searches for it herself, there is no question of how well the search was done.) Census microfilm is often available through interlibrary loan as well, and other research sources are also accessible in this way. For example, very few people realize that the vast collection of early Virginia records on microfilm at the Virginia State Library is available to local researchers at their public libraries.

Printed Sources: A Guide to Published Genealogical Records


Publication Information:

Introduction - By Kory L. Meyerink

Origin of InformationCategories of Research Sources and ToolsEvaluation of Printed SourcesDocumentation and CopyrightLearning What Printed Sources ExistPublishers and DistributorsRepositories of Printed SourcesEffective Use of Libraries and Archives

Chapter 1: General Reference - Martha L. Henderson

Unique Resources in Public LibrariesDewey Decimal Classification SystemReference SourcesEncyclopediasGeneral History SourcesSocial History SourcesAlmanacs, Chronologies, and Statistical SourcesUsing DirectoriesLocal DirectoriesPrinted Professional DirectoriesInstitutional DirectoriesDirectories of Groups and AssociationsSource GuidesGeneral Language DictionariesHistorical and Etymological DictionariesSlang DictionariesSubject DictionariesSurname DictionariesGovernment DocumentsUsing BibliographiesElectronic SourcesReferences for Printed Sources: Chapter 1

Chapter 2: Instructional Materials - Sandra Hargreaves Luebking

Introduction to Instructional MattersHow-To Guides and Manuals for AdultsHow-to Guides and Manuals for Young PeopleGenealogy Technologies and Refinement of SkillsCourses and Programs of StudyPeriodical ArticlesIdentifying and Obtaining Instructional MaterialsEvaluating Instructional MaterialsSelecting Textbooks for Classroom UseThe Future of Instructional MaterialsReferences for Printed Sources: Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Introduction to Geographic ToolsIntroduction to Maps and GazettersMapping of a New NationRoutes to the WestCanals and WaterwaysRailroadsPolitical MapsNineteenth-Century MapsUSGS Topographic MapsOrdering Topographic Map Names and NumbersOrdering Topographic MapsDigital Topographic MapsOut-of-Print Topographic MapsFact Sheets and General Interest PublicationsOther Types of USGS MapsNineteenth-Century National GazetteersTwentieth-Century National GazetteersPostal Guides and Shipping GuidesMaps, Gazetteers, and the ComputerFinding Geographic ToolsUsing Geographic ToolsReferences for Printed Sources: Chapter 3

Chapter 4

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Chapter 5

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Chapter 6

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Chapter 7

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Chapter 8

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Chapter 9

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Chapter 10

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Chapter 11

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Chapter 12

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Chapter 13

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Chapter 14

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Chapter 15

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Chapter 16

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Chapter 17

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Chapter 18

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Chapter 19

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Chapter 20

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