A search box is a search box, right? Actually, not so much. Not all searches act the same way. Understanding the differences in them can help you find more ancestors as well as discover more resources to use in your genealogy research. Let's take a look.
Remember the scene at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark when they’re storing the Ark of the Covenant? The camera pulls back and there is an endless array of shelving, boxes, and books… and you get the sense that they’ll never find the Ark again. In truth, libraries and archives have catalogs so things can be found. Knowing how to dig into an online catalog is one of the best skills you can have as a genealogist. Here’s how you can use them to find genealogy resources, including ones that like to hide. Continue Reading
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.”
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:
- The Evansville Vanderburgh (Indiana) Public Library has the “Browning Genealogy Database,” an index of more than 537,000 obituary and news items dating from the 1800s to the present.
- The Sandusky (Michigan) District Library has a large genealogy section, including cemetery readings, church books, yearbooks and more on its site. (I wish I had ancestors in Sanilac County!)
- The Calcasieu Parish (Louisiana) District Library has an obituary index, a large scrapbook index, and a digitized copy of the 1895-1896 city directory for the area. That city directory is important not only because of the loss of the 1890 census, but also because of a courthouse fire the town suffered in 1910.
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.”
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?