Library Research for Genealogists

At some point in our research, we have to go to a library to find more information. If you have had experiences as have I, a trip to the library can be better than going to an amusement park. I have found this to be especially true when I do not have a specific goal in mind. I just begin to browse the shelves and files to see what I can find. I am always researching so many things at once, I usually find something of value. I call this ‘trolling’ where you drop a line and just let it float or ride behind you in the boat. You get what you get.

I will admit that this is not the most productive trip in the world, and I don’t recommend it for every trip to the library. If you go to the library on a regular basis, this might work for an occasional trip. To find the most information, you need go with a specific in mind and especially if you are going to a new library or one that you do not regularly visit. Here are a few tips to get you started in your preparation.

First, before you leave home investigate the hours they are open, the collections, any restrictions and copying details. You will need to know about the location, parking and cost and local places to stay if you are planning a multi-day trip. Frequently, a simply telephone call will clear up these kinds of details if the library’s website does not contain any of the above information. Not too long ago I didn’t follow my own advice and found the library closed after a 3 hour journey.

Second, you want to make sure that you have listed all of the sources and places you have already looked. This will save a great deal of time when you get there. Time saved here will pay off greatly when you arrive at the library. Make sure you include information on collateral families, your list of goals and an up-to-date chart. Please don’t bring all of your files on all of your family, instead only outlines to be used as a guide. You may want to bring your research files on a zip drive or save to Google docs so that they can be accessed in the library, if you don’t have a laptop.

Third, once in the library you need to understand the library’s filing system. Make sure that you copy down all of the numbers needed to locate the material on the shelves or to request them brought to you. If you have done your homework before and have perused the various collections in their holdings you know where you want to search. When you go to the staff, try to be fairly specific with your questions. The question, “Where is all of the information on the Smiths held?” will not get you too far. It would be better if you ask, “Is there a file on Alexander Smith of this county?” and this might get you a better answer.

Recently, I was at our local library talking with the local head of the department when a lady rushed in and asked, “Quick which book has all of my family in it?”. Before either of us could answer, she continued, “My son is driving around the block and I have to have this work finished in four minutes.” She was not ready for the answer to the original question and went away mad that we were not the least bit helpful.

Fourth, make sure that you have all the supplies that you will need while there. Things like plenty of paper, pencils (some libraries don’t allow pens), highlighters, magnifying glass (for those difficult to read passages), and change for the copy machines. Keep in mind that the librarians may not be able to make change.

Fifth, after spending a few hours in the library, take a break away from the library. Go to a local coffee shop or place you can sit down and review what you have found so far. Review your goals for the trip that brought you here in the first place. Ask yourself if you are making headway with the research or just spinning your wheels. If the latter is the case, you might want to back up and approach the task from a different perspective. You might tackle some of the collateral families which might help you get back on track.

When you go back into the library, you have refreshed your thinking and cleared your head so that the remaining time can be spent in a more fruitful search. At the end of the day, you might discover that hiring a professional researcher will be more beneficial than your time being spent there. If you feel that progress might be made with a little more time, you may have to consider another day.

Like I said in the beginning, a trip to the library is like going to an amusement park, there are moments of fun and excitement as well as times when you wish you could just get out of there. The trip can be great or disappointing, but your advance preparation can make it as beneficial as possible.

Happy Hunting!

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