3 Things to Ask a Genealogy Librarian

genealogy librarian

You’ve read the books. You’ve searched in the databases. But did you know that one of the best resources in a genealogy library is often the librarian? Get more out of your visits to the library by asking these three things.

1. "Can you help me?"​

I’ve noticed that there seems to be a hesitation about asking a librarian anything. The reasons people give are often, “She looks busy” or “He’ll think this is a stupid question.” Here’s the scoop: The librarian wants to help you. Yes, she has some work with her while she’s at the reference desk. But when she is at the desk, her main responsibility is to help you. As for the “stupid questions,” I think most librarians would agree with me that the only truly stupid question is the one that isn’t asked.

2. "Do you have any collections that aren't in the catalog?"​

Just because the library has it, doesn’t mean that it’s in the catalog. Things like obituary files, newspaper clipping collections, vertical files, and rare books may not be included. Be sure to ask the librarian about these hidden gems.

3. "Are there other places that could have the resources I'm looking for?"​

This is an especially useful question when you have a very specific research focus. The librarian might be able to point you to those “off the beaten path” places — the tiny historical society, the obscure museum, the church archive — that could have just what it is you’re looking for.

Next time you’re at the library, go beyond the books and the databases. Avail yourself of one of the best resources there: the knowledge of the librarian. As Neil Gaiman once said, “Google can bring you back 100,000 answers. A librarian can bring you back the right one.”​

Get more out of your trips to the library by asking the librarian these three questions.

Why, yes, I am a librarian, thank you

For someone who has been trained in organization and classification, I am sometimes frustrated by labels. I see it in the genealogical world and in the library world. We are sometimes quick to label people or — what really frustrates me — reserve labels because a person doesn’t quite fit the mold we have constructed in our minds.

When I was first hired at Archives.com as Genealogical Content Manager, a few of my friends and acquaintances said, “Huh? I thought you were going to be a librarian.” Apparently, to them “librarian” is a title reserved for those who work behind a desk at a library.

They apparently haven’t been to a library or a library website lately.

When I worked at Archives.com and later at Ancestry.com, on any given day I could have been evaluating a new potential collection, working with the engineers to prepare a new collection for publication, writing collection descriptions, or writing educational content for the site. Hmm, that sounds remarkably like selection and acquisition, organization, metadata creation, and instruction.

I had to have an understanding of the users, what they are looking for, and how they expect to interact with the materials. In my freelance work, I have to have those same skills. I need to figure out what it is that someone is trying to find, which isn’t always as straightforward as it might sound. (People don’t always ask the question they want answered.) I need to be able to find meaningful sources for people and explain how (and why) to use them.

In short, I’m doing things that I was trained to do in grad school.

The Mummy (1999). I knew someday I’d be able to work this movie into a blog post.

I do not work in a traditional library setting, but for those who say, “Huh? I thought you were going to be a librarian,” I relay one of my favorite scenes from The Mummy. Evelyn (Rachel Weisz) is talking with Rick (Brendan Fraser) and trying to tell him a little bit about herself, which is not an explorer, a treasure-seeker, or a gun-fighter:

Evelyn: …but I am proud of what I am.

Rick: And what is that?

Evelyn: I <pause> am a librarian.

 

(This post was updated after my attendance at the 2015 American Library Association annual conference.)