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

Are You Part of the Solution?

The Internet is both a boon and a bane to genealogical research. While it is easier to communicate and discover than ever before, it is also easier for lousy research to spread. It seems like bad genealogy goes around further and faster than Charlie Sheen’s tweets.

Keyboard Macro

Keyboard Macro by Chris Kempson, on Flickr.

Do genealogy long enough and you will find some, shall we say, “less than stellar” family trees online. Some are blatantly and obviously wrong. It’s easy to ignore a tree that has a woman born in 1700 giving birth in 1810. What is harder to ignore is something that looks plausible — especially if it’s something we’ve been looking for some length of time. Get desperate enough and one can completely overlook the lack of sources on the tree that was just found. Or, what sometimes happens, someone will add a “theory” to a tree, then someone else reads it and — voilà — it morphs into “fact.”


There are those, such as one of Dick Eastman’s readers, who believe that information on the Internet should “never be trusted.” I have had associates tell me that they won’t post any of their research online “because there is so much junk out there.”

Yes, there is a lot of junk out there. But as the axiom goes, if you’re not part of the solution then you’re part of the problem.

More and more people are coming to genealogy via the Internet and do virtually (no pun intended) all of their research online. Of course they’re going to find a lot of junk if nobody bothers to post the “good stuff.”

In the days of the Internet before blogs and social media, there were two choices for correcting bad information: contacting the person who posted it (with the hope that they would change it) or have your own online tree or website and post your research. That second option used to be kind of difficult, especially if you were technologically challenged.

Now with blogs, Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, and the like, there is no technological reason why you can’t post your own data. If you can type, you post something online in some form or another. Consider these possibilities:

  • Have a blog
  • Contribute to a wiki family tree, such as WeRelate
  • Contribute to a research wiki, such as the FamilySearch wiki
  • Post old family photos on Flickr
  • Donate your family tree (either in hard copy or GEDCOM — or both!) to a library and/or genealogical society
  • Contribute an article for a genealogical society’s blog or newsletter

Lorine McGinnis Schulze has a great blog post about some erroneous POST family information that’s been floating around cyberspace. She goes point by point what is wrong with what has been taken as “fact.” She then posted her own research — with sources — so that people can see what really is known about the family. What a great example of getting the “good stuff” out there.

It’s easy to discount everything online as junk. But before you throw in the towel, ask yourself this: “Am I part of the solution?”