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.

1 Reason You’re Not Seeing the Red Flags in Your Genealogy

Red. It’s the color of warning, of stopping, of taking action. Stop lights and stop signs. Lights on firetrucks and police cars. They’re all signs that we need to stop and look around. There are even red flags in genealogy. If we pay attention, they point out our mistakes in genealogy before things get too messy. So why don’t we see them more often? (And how can we get better at it?)

Take a look at this obituary for Mrs. Kate Danison from the Kansas Agitator, 16 January 1903.

Mrs. Kate Danison obituary, (Garrett, KS) Kansas Agitator, 16 January 1903, p. 5. Image from Chronicling America, Library of Congress.

Did you spot the red flag?

Let's look at what the obituary tells us:

  • Mrs. Kate Danison was born in Perry County, Ohio 23 April 1838
  • She died 13 January 1903 at the home of her sister, Mrs. C.H. Lowry
  • She moved with her parents to Illinois in 1884
  • She married Isaac Danison in 1859
  • She spent the greater part of her life in Illinois
  • She moved to live with her sister "about two years ago" [circa 1901]

The key is the sentence:

"She moved with her parents to Illinois in 1884, where she was united in marriage with Isaac Danison in 1859."

Something is amiss. It isn't typical to move with your parents from Ohio to Illinois in 1884, but have gotten married in Illinois in 1859. 

Yes, it is possible for Kate to have gone from Ohio to Illinois and married Isaac Danison there in 1859, then moved back to Ohio, then returned to Illinois with her parents in 1884... but that doesn't seem likely. 

See what I mean about a red flag? it's telling us that we need to stop and look around. 

We need to find other records to get this sorted out. Is the year she moved to Illinois wrong? Did she actually move to Illinois with her husband and not her parents? We can make some guesses, but until we do some more research, we won't know.

Why Do We Miss the Red Flags?

It is completely natural  to want to get to the facts and add them to what we know about that ancestor. (That's what we do!) We miss the red flags in genealogy when we don't look at the "facts" in relation to each other.

In isolation, any of the bullet points I listed from Kate Danison's obituary are plausible. It's when we put them together that we see that something isn't quite right. 

Don't look at "facts" in isolation. Compare them to each other. Consider if it's plausible for all of them to be true. If not, do like they do in football when the red flag is thrown -- stop what you're doing, go to the replay booth, and have another look.

Why we don't see the red flags in our genealogy