Repositories of Printed Sources

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


A tremendous advantage of printed sources is that, because they exist in printed form, they are available in many places. While genealogical books do not make the New York Times bestseller list (Alex Haley’s Roots was a novel mostly fiction and not a true genealogical book; see Elizabeth Shown Mills and Gary B. Mills’s “The Genealogist’s Assessment of Alex Haley’s Roots,” NGS Quarterly 72 [March 1984]: 3539), and they are not printed in the hundreds of thousands, they are generally easier to find than are original sources (even on microfilm). The number of copies of a genealogical work that a publisher prints will vary greatly depending on the scope and coverage of the book and the perceived demand for the information. If the first printing sells out quickly, the publisher will order additional printings. First printings of genealogical books generally run between five hundred and three thousand copies, although individuals publishing their own books may print only two hundred to three hundred copies. Sales of a genealogical best seller seldom total more than twenty thousand to thirty thousand copies. However, consider a smaller book of only regional interest that may sell only five hundred copies. Perhaps half will be sold to private individuals and half to various repositories (libraries, archives, and others). Most of those 250 copies in repositories will probably be in a ten-state area, with an average of twenty-five copies per state. The researcher’s task is to learn which library has a copy of the desired book.

A genealogical repository is simply a place in which genealogical sources are kept and used. There are many different repositories for printed sources; it is essential to understand and use each type of repository. They include public libraries, archives, special and private libraries, academic libraries, societies, rental libraries, law libraries, and LDS family history centers. ( Finding Genealogical Repositories, below, discusses how to find out about these libraries and their collections.) While many libraries fit into two or more of these categories, they are generally created to fill certain needs, and the purpose, or mission, of each determines what kind of library it is. Within each category is a wide variety of libraries. Each category contains major research libraries, as well as minor ones of regional value to the genealogist. Virtually every state has at least one library that is a major repository for printed genealogical sources if not for the entire United States then at least for that state and likely the surrounding region.

Public Libraries

For most researchers, the closest library is the local public library, an often-overlooked place for genealogical research. Public libraries are supported by local tax dollars; one may serve a city, or county, or several cities and counties. Their collections reflects the needs and requests of local populations (and the budgets they get from governing agencies). Almost all public libraries have some of the major reference books discussed throughout Printed Sources, especially directories, bibliographies, and indexes. Public libraries are also the most involved in interlibrary loan programs and are the most likely sources to obtain obscure books on loan from other libraries.

In addition, most public libraries collect extensive information about their communities. Many have local history collections that include books found in few other places. Public libraries may also be closely tied to local historical and/or genealogical societies and may even house the collections of those societies. Some of the largest and most important genealogical research libraries are public libraries that have developed major genealogical collections. These include the New York Public Library, the Allen County (Indiana) Public Library, the Odom Library (Moultrie, Georgia), and the public libraries in Detroit, Dallas, Los Angeles, and Independence, Missouri.

Special and Private Libraries

Special libraries exist to serve specific clienteles. Their collections are very narrow in scope but deep in coverage within that scope. Usually they are affiliated with private institutions or companies. (Most major companies have small special libraries that focus on topics of interest to the company, such as chemical sources or financial information.)

Private libraries are much like special libraries; in fact, most special libraries are privately owned, and most private libraries usually function as special libraries by focusing their collections on a few topics.

Several excellent special and private libraries exist to serve genealogists and historical researchers. Some of the major special libraries of interest to genealogists include that of the American Antiquarian Society in Massachusetts, the Newberry Library in Chicago, and the Family History Library in Salt Lake City.


Societies are organizations of people who have similar interests. They exist to serve numerous purposes, including social, educational, research, fraternal, and financial. Genealogists are most often involved with historical and/or genealogical societies. Many societies sponsor libraries to serve their members, and in a very real sense these are special or private libraries because they belong to the organization. At the same time, most such organizations are public societies with national or state charters, and many of them receive some form of public funding through state or local budgets or national grants. In this sense their libraries can be considered public libraries, except that their collections are focused on specific items. Many local societies work jointly with local public libraries to reduce duplication of services and titles and so do not have separate libraries. Others cooperate with local public libraries but keep separate collections that are housed in the same buildings as the public libraries. In such cases the special collection only includes specialized sources in the field of the society’s interest, while the general sources, such as directories and bibliographies, are part of the public library collection.

Three types of societies sponsor libraries having genealogical and historical emphases: historical, genealogical, and hereditary. Most states have both state historical societies and state genealogical societies. In some states the two are combined, but most often the state historical society is the larger organization; it usually houses the library and may receive some funding from the state. These libraries, sometimes combined with state libraries and/or archives, are major research centers in each state.

In addition, most of the more than three thousand counties in the United States and Canada, and most of the major cities, have county historical and/or genealogical societies. They, too, often sponsor libraries, although they are more likely to be associated with local public libraries; their collections help to make local public libraries important centers for genealogical research. The major societies with genealogical interests are listed in List of Genealogical Societies. Some of the societies that sponsor major libraries include the New England Historic Genealogical Society in Boston, the National Genealogical Society, the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) in Washington, D.C., the Case Western Reserve Historical Society in Cleveland, Ohio, the state historical societies of Minnesota, Montana, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, and the Sons of the American Revolution in Louisville.

State Libraries

Virtually every state sponsors a state library. These are wholly funded by the states and are in that sense public libraries. The scope and nature of these libraries varies greatly from one state to another, depending to a large extent on other resources in the state, such as the state archive and/or historical society. A state archive or historical society may operate the library or assume the major functions of a library, such as the housing and maintenance of a major book collection. However, where the state library actually functions as a library, it is a major resource for genealogists. Typically the library will seek to collect virtually anything published by or about the state, making it a good place to find obscure local histories and published copies of local records. Thus, such a library’s catalog will be a virtually exhaustive bibliography of sources for the state. State libraries have also often sponsored the creation of major indexes and other research tools. In addition, many state libraries, such as the Connecticut State Library, have collected the published family histories of families who lived in that state. Several state libraries have genealogy sections with well-trained librarians. Examples include the New York and New Jersey state libraries, as well as the Sutro branch of the California State Library in San Francisco. The Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., is a kind of state (Federal) library; it houses one of the largest genealogical collections in the world.

Academic Libraries

Academic libraries are affiliated with colleges and universities and are perhaps the most underutilized repositories for genealogical research. While they exist to serve the college and university population and generally do not collect purely genealogical information, many of the sources discussed in Printed Sources can be found in academic libraries. Because the mission of an academic library is to support the curriculum of a college or university, it will obtain publications in the fields where the college or university offers degrees; history is almost always one of those areas.

Generally, academic libraries have few local histories for places outside their geographic areas. However, sources for their states, areas, or regions are often well represented in their collections. In addition, they have many of the finding aids that genealogists are interested in, such as bibliographies, indexes, periodical abstracting services, directories, and encyclopedias. In fact, their collections usually have greater reference value than local public libraries, especially if the academic library is in a relatively small college town. Some of the academic libraries with especially helpful collections for genealogists include the Lee Library at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, the Eugene Barker Texas History Center at the University of Texas at Austin, and Columbia University in New York.

The Federal government designates libraries (usually academic libraries) in each state to receive copies of published Federal records. These libraries are known as Federal Depository Libraries or Government Document Libraries. In most states there are several such libraries in private as well as public universities. Most of them are selective depositories and only receive certain documents. In each state one or two libraries are designated as regional depositories; they receive a much more extensive collection of government documents. Government publications include a wide variety of information, such as pension lists, private land claims, veterans burial lists, and individuals’ petitions to Congress. The government documents librarian at a local university library can help researchers learn more about its important collections. However, because these libraries do not routinely support genealogical research, they may provide only limited assistance in using their large collections.

Also not to be overlooked at academic libraries are the law libraries that support the curriculums of university law schools. These libraries house significant sources that the average family historian typically overlooks. Not only do they have printed court reports for their states and regions, but they may have national reports as well. In addition, they have copies of the state laws that affected our ancestors, as well as private relief laws passed by the states on behalf of individuals.

Rental Libraries

The growing number of rental libraries that serve genealogists represent another kind of private library. They have developed in response to the fact that many genealogists do their research at home and are not able to travel to major repositories. Rental libraries are also a response to the fact that, as important as local public, academic, and state libraries are, they lack many sources of interest to genealogists, and they seldom have sources for places outside their geographic areas. Rental libraries are run by individuals for profit (though the profit may amount to little). These individuals collect genealogical books (including local histories) and lend them via mail for a fee. Generally they publish catalogs or lists of available books which include bibliographic descriptions of the books, a brief annotation for each, and the rental fees. In many cases the fee also serves as a security deposit for the book. Thus, a rental library might charge twenty dollars for a county history, refunding 75 percent of the fee after the book is returned in good condition. The actual rental fee would be five dollars, which would go toward overhead, new additions to the collection, and a small profit.

These libraries provide a great service to genealogists by providing hard-to-find books at reasonable prices. However, the books they offer may be available elsewhere at lower cost, such as a nearby library, through interlibrary loan, or at a family history center (see below). One of the preeminent rental libraries is the Hoenstine Library (Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania). Its catalog, with more than 2,700 sources for Pennsylvania research, includes an index to the surnames in most of the books. Other rental libraries are run by the National Genealogical Society, New England Historic Genealogical Society, American Genealogical Lending Library, and the Genealogical Center Library in Atlanta. These and many others advertise regularly in Everton’s Genealogical Helper (published by The Everton Publishers, P.O. Box 368, Logan, Utah 84323).

Family History Centers

The more than 2,500 LDS family history centers throughout the world are unique repositories of genealogical sources. Microfilm and microfiche copies of the records held by the Family History Library can be borrowed through family history centers for a small handling fee, allowing LDS church members and the public to use the resources of the Family History Library without having to travel to Salt Lake City.

Family history centers have been established in almost every LDS stake (a group of six to twelve wards, or congregations) throughout the United States and in dozens of foreign countries. Generally in or near large population centers, they are branches of the Family History Library in Salt Lake City and are therefore like special or private libraries, but they also operate somewhat like rental libraries (although they are not for profit). Areas of greater LDS population, such as the western United States, have more family history centers.

Each is equipped with microfilm and microfiche reading machines, a copy of the Family History Library Catalog, and other major indexes, such as the International Genealogy Index, Accelerated Indexing System’s census indexes, and the Periodical Source Index (PERSI). Through these centers patrons can use the library’s resources and request copies of sources not immediately available. In addition, each center has a small collection of reference books. Many printed sources are under copyright; in most such cases, the Family History Library cannot microfilm them. However, because of the size of the collection and the fact that many of the most difficult-to-find printed sources are older books in the public domain, such as county histories, most books that the researcher is seeking will be available on microfilm or microfiche.

Proselyting is not allowed in family history centers; approximately half of those who use them are not members of the LDS church. A list of family history centers can be obtained from the Family History Library, 35 North West Temple, Salt Lake City, Utah, 84150. Some of the older, larger family history centers have collected several thousand books and hundreds of rolls of microfilm. Some of these regional libraries are found in or near the cities of San Diego, Los Angeles, Oakland, and Sacramento, California; Phoenix, Arizona; Provo and Logan, Utah; Las Vegas, Nevada; Calgary (Alberta), Canada; and Pocatello and Rexburg, Idaho.


Most genealogists think of archives as repositories of original (or microfilmed) records; this is true, but many archives also have reasonably good collections of printed sources. Many printed sources are necessary for the efficient use of original records census indexes, for example. Archives generally have such secondary and tertiary information as is needed for using their collections. In the United States, archives are generally found at the national or state level. County courthouses are types of local archives, but their collections of printed sources are usually very limited.

The Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., can be considered an archive and library. One of its functions is to collect copies of most books published in America and others that deal with the United States. It also serves as the research library for the U.S. Congress and the Federal government, which necessitates a large collection of books and other printed sources. The United States National Archives, in Washington, D.C., has some printed sources of interest. In addition, consider the thirteen regional archives of the National Archives. They are located in or near Anchorage, Alaska; Atlanta, Georgia; Boston; Chicago; Denver; Fort Worth, Texas; Kansas City, Missouri; Los Angeles; New York; Philadelphia; Pittsfield, Massachusetts; San Francisco; and Seattle.

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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