A Growing Source for Free Genealogy: Digital Public Library of America

What’s better than a website that gives access to more than 11 million digitized items? A website that does it for free. That’s just what the Digital Public Library of America does. DPLA is constantly growing and fast becoming a "must visit" website for free genealogy resources.

What Is the Digital Public Library of America?

Digital Public Library of America - DPLA

DPLA is a project involving more than 1,600 libraries, archives, and museums across the U.S. They range from the big ones, like the Smithsonian and the New York Public Library, all the way to the little ones, like the Starke County (Indiana) Historical society. Together, these libraries have contributed more than 11 million digitized items, such as photographs, newspapers, posters, and diaries.

Did I mention it's free?

DPLA doesn't have just an index of the items. It has links to where you can find the items online. If you find it on DPLA, there will be a link to the image. Just look for the "View Object" link and it will take you right to it.

Finding Hidden Gems

One of the neat things about DPLA is that you can find items in places that you wouldn't think to look. Would you think to look in the Tennessee State Library & Archives for a letter from someone in the 7th Ohio Cavalry? It wouldn't be my first place to look, that's for sure. But a simple search on DPLA turned up this gem.  

It also turns up items that you likely won't find in a regular Google search.

What to Look for

Look for things that you would look for in any library. Don't limit yourself to just searching for your ancestor's name. Think about:

  • Where your ancestor lived​
  • Events in his/her life
  • Organizations (fraternal, military, etc.)
  • Occupations
  • Religion

You never know what you'll find!

Here's a short video to introduce you to using DPLA:

DPLA is a site that you'll want to add to your list of "regular" websites for your genealogy. Give it a try and let me know what you discover!

Want more free genealogy resources? Download my guide "10 Essential Free Genealogy Resources":

digital-public-library-of-america

Library Websites for Genealogy: More Than Just the Catalog

library booksWhen was the last time you visited a public library for your genealogy research?

Think about your answer. Did you think of a time when you walked through their doors? That’s good, but if you think about libraries only as a brick-and-mortar resource for your genealogy, you’re missing a lot. There is a lot more to public library websites than just an online catalog.

Great Things in Small Packages

It’s easy to get excited about websites with billions of records. The more records, the more likely you’ll find something, right?

Honestly, I don’t care how big the database is as long as it has something I need. That’s the cool thing about public library databases. They tend to be focused on a particular area or subject. They might not have the breadth of the big websites, but they take a deeper dive. They uncover resources that are too small or too esoteric to end up on a large commercial site.

Not Just the Big Libraries

When you think about public libraries with great genealogy collections, you probably think about The Genealogy Center at the Allen County Public Library in Fort Wayne, Indiana and the Clayton Library Center in Houston, Texas. They have two of the largest genealogy collections in the U.S. If any library is going to have online databases, it would be them… and they do.

But they aren’t the only public libraries with cool things for us to explore online. Libraries of all sizes are giving us easier access to the materials in their collections. Consider these:

None of those are what you would call huge libraries, but they have great resources that we can use from wherever we connect to the Internet.

Finding the Library and the Genealogy It Has Online

Your favorite search engine can find public libraries quite handily. The challenge is that you might not find all of the ones in the area. In my county, there are 8 different public library systems — and not all of them have the name of their town in it. 

When I want to explore public libraries for an area where my ancestors lived, I look at the website of the county genealogical society and the county’s GenWeb page. They usually have links to the libraries in their county.

Once you find a library you’re interested in, you might need to be creative in looking for its online genealogy resources. Look not only for links to “Genealogy” and “Local History,” but also things like “Resources,” “Research,” “Community,” “Digital Library,” or “Digital Memory.”

Visit Virtually

Going to a library’s website before a visit is an important step in having a successful research trip. But we should also explore these sites even when we aren’t planning on walking through their (physical) doors. We should incorporate public library websites into all of our genealogy research.

What cool things have you found on public library websites?

Library websites for genealogy

We Don’t Need to Make It Last Forever

Last night, I had the opportunity to participate in the first #libchat, a Twitter chat for people in the library field. There were several intriguing questions, including this one:

How can libraries store and preserve digital works over the long term?

Blefurgy summed it up best: “No simple way for this yet; best option is to keep multiple copies and actively mange content to make sure it remains accessible”

Digital preservation is not a simple, one-shot deal. The “benign neglect” strategy that tends to work well for paper-based materials is simply not an option for digital resources. Digital preservation is a continuing process of refreshing media, converting formats, migrating files — all while trying to keep the file and its metadata intact.

Digital resources present a host of preservation challenges. You need to be concerned about the media. Is it stable? Is the media itself still accessible? (Do you still have an 8-track player for those tapes you still have in the back of the closet?) On top of that, you need to be concerned about the accessibility of the data. Is it in a format that can still be read? This includes not only the file format itself, but also the version. (How many versions back can the current software read?)

This continual process of preservation isn’t something we’re accustomed to. We’re used to stabilizing the paper, putting it someplace safe, and calling it a day (or century). So it is very tempting to look at higher-maintenance digital resources with a bit of distain. “We have scrolls that are over 2,000 years old. No digital file is going to do that.” Take that line of thought a step further and you can end up wanting to convert digital materials to paper.

A digital-to-analog conversion is a far-from-perfect solution. First, not all digital materials are suitable or even usable in hard-copy. Obviously, sound files can’t be converted to paper, but even something that is strictly data isn’t always suitable for analog. Relational databases, for example, would be difficult or impossible to make usable in paper form. Second, a conversion to paper results in the loss of embedded metadata. Even if you extract it, the effort to somehow connect it to the data would be incredibly labor intensive. Third is the issue of space. Do you really want to print out and store several thousand photos or a dataset with a few million records?

With paper not being a viable solution, we’re back to the lamentation that no digital file lasts as long as paper. “There’s no file that will last forever.” That’s true (at least to the extent of our development of digital resources.) But that doesn’t matter.

The files we have now don’t need to last forever. We just need to preserve them for the next generation, so they, in turn can preserve them for the generation after that.

It’s akin to the solution of how to eat an elephant. (Answer: One bite at a time). If we keep fretting about a lack of a forever-lasting file format, we can end up dismissing or discounting the things we can do.

We don’t need to have the magic file format that will keep that file complete and accessible from now until the end of time. We need to take responsibility for our files for our lifetime and keep them in good condition so that the next generation can continue their preservation for the generation that follows. By seeing the longevity of digital resources as being a process, we can concentrate our efforts on being responsible stewards.