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.

Proposed Funding Slash for Ohio’s Public Libraries

In a situation that is, sadly, not unique to Ohio, the proposed state budget contains a slash to funding for public libraries. On page B-8 of “The Jobs Budget: Transforming Ohio for Growth” Book One: The Budget Book is this proposal for funding to the Public Library Fund:

“The Executive Budget proposes a change in how funds are directed to the Public Library Fund. By statute, the Public Library Fund (PLF) is currently supposed to receive 2.22 percent of GRF tax revenues beginning in fiscal year 2012. Temporary law has restricted the PLF to receiving 1.97 percent in fiscal years 2010 and 2011. The Executive Budget proposes a change to the distribution of these funds whereby starting in August 2011, the PLF will receive 95.0 percent of the fiscal year 2011 deposits. This proposal would result in an additional $68.5 million and $95.0 million deposited into the GRF in fiscal years 2012 and 2013, respectively.”

That a 5% cut on top of the cut public libraries have already taken.

Note how the last sentence is phrased: “This proposal would result in an additional $68.5 million and $95.0 million deposited into the GRF (General Revenue Fund) in fiscal years 2012 and 2013, respectively.” That $163.5 million that is not going to Ohio’s public libraries.

Note: the budget book linked to above is a 15 Mb PDF.

More hours at the Ohio Historical Society

The Ohio Historical Society has just announced that the Historical Center and the Archives/Library will be open more hours! Beginning July 1, the hours will be:

  • Thursdays 10am – 7pm
  • Fridays and Saturdays 10am – 5pm

This is fantastic news, as the Historical Center and the Archives/Library are currently open only Thursday from 9am-9pm. It’s not the hours that they were open before the legislature slashed their budget, but it is certainly an improvement.

The full press release can be found at http://www.ohiohistory.org/about/pr/060310a.html

Melvil Dewey and the Winter Olympics

I have always enjoyed the Winter Olympics. I enjoy the grace of figure skating, the thrill of the Alpine events, and the absolute insanity of bobsledding and luge. As a library student, it was a pleasant surprise to find a strong connection between the Winter Olympics and Melvil Dewey, developer of the Dewey Decimal System.

Dewey founded a camp in New York for librarians, scholars, and social workers. The club? The Lake Placid Club. Dewey’s son Godfrey took charge of expanding the sporting venues. By the time of the selection of the site of the 1932 Winter Olympics, no other place could compare. Since that time, Lake Placid has been a world-class center for winter athletes. Lake Placid was also the site of the 1980 Winter Olympics and the “Miracle on Ice.”

Dewey was not without criticism for his handling of the Lake Placid Club. Although originally founded as a resort for those of more modest means, it was not an egalitarian club. The club excluded anyone to whom any member had an objection. This resulted in the exclusion of Jews and other minorities. In 1905, Dewey was forced to resign his post as New York state librarian at least in part because of the club’s exclusionary practices.

Dewey died in December 1931, just weeks before the Winter Olympics in Lake Placid.

Sources:

  1. “Melvil Dewey” on American National Biography Online.
  2. Small Town, Big Dreams: Lake Placid’s Olympic Story.”