Using libraries is an important part of genealogical research. While they were the primary tool of genealogists in the past, we can get much of our research done on computers today. The availability of so many genealogical records online means we don’t have to make those trips to the local genealogy library to look at census indexes and microfilms anymore. Many of the books we used to find information on our ancestors are no longer just on library shelves, but online in virtual libraries we can access from home, or anywhere. Technology has made doing genealogical research much more convenient.
However, it hasn’t eliminated the need for libraries entirely. Not everything is online. At some point in your genealogical research, you are going to have to go to a library. The question is, what type of library will you use? There are several different types of genealogy libraries, each with a unique purpose and function. You may find you only need one type of genealogy library, you might need a few of them, or, your research may take you to all of them.
These are the different types of genealogy libraries that exist, and the types of information you will find in them.
1. The Basic Public Library with a Genealogy Department
This is the most common type of genealogy library. It is fairly standard for large public libraries to have genealogy departments. Even smaller public libraries may have genealogy departments if they are located in an area of particular historical interest.
Take the Orlando public library, for example. It has the best-known genealogy department in any public library in Florida. People come from all over the state, sometimes on organized genealogy or lineage society bus trips, just to use the facilities there. The library is a standard one, with books that can be checked out by patrons with library cards.
However, located on the library’s fourth floor is a genealogy wonderland. You can’t check out the books there, but you can sit there all day and browse through them. There are genealogy books of worldwide, national, regional, and local interest, an entire collection of Daughters of the American Revolution lineage books, family files donated by patrons, and collections of genealogy periodicals. There are also records on microfilm and microfiche, such as census records, tax records, and more.
On the other hand, you have the Salem public library in Salem, Massachusetts. It is a tiny library, because Salem is a pretty small town. But, Salem is a historically important town, and a lot of people in the United States have ancestry that goes back to there. So, tucked away in a little corner of the second floor is a pretty rich and detailed genealogy department. It doesn’t even take up the whole floor, and there are only a few tables and chairs there, but it has genealogy books on Salem and New England in general that you do not want to miss if you have ancestry in the area.
2. Historical Society Libraries
Most historical societies have their own collection of books for visitors to peruse. Like public libraries with genealogy departments, you can’t check out these books, but you can look at them on site as much as you like. The books in the libraries of historical societies are usually of regional or local interest, and some of them can’t be found anywhere else, especially if they were specialty publications for the society by local authors. You may also find old editions of local newspapers in these places, many of which may not be online yet. These libraries are excellent and valuable resources for local and regional research.
3. Lineage and Genealogical Society Libraries
While the smaller societies may have a few books available to members who visit the headquarters of the society, you are most likely to find real libraries with the larger, more nationally known groups. The New England Historic and Genealogical Society has a large, well-known genealogy library in Boston, while Daughters of the American Revolution has one in Washington, D.C. You will mostly find books dealing with the society’s area of research interest in their libraries, but there are often other types of genealogy books, as well. If you are near a large genealogy or lineage society library, it would serve your research well to take a look. Even if the society doesn’t specialize in your area of research interest, you might still find something of value to your family history work there.
4. University Libraries
Nearly any university library will have a section of books on history. These history books frequently have genealogically useful information in them. The bigger the university, the greater variety of history books you will find there. Some of them are even rare, and not located anywhere else. You will find books of regional interest there, but also more general history books for all kinds of times and places. It is always worthwhile to check out any university library in your area, or in an area you may be traveling to in order to do “field” genealogy. You never know what you’ll find there that is simply fascinating, and a unique piece of information for your family history you wouldn’t have discovered anywhere else. Don’t miss those hidden gems by ignoring university libraries.
5. Museum Libraries
While not every museum has a library, the ones that do are must-visit ones for your genealogy research. The library collections at museums are usually closely related to their physical collections. If you are visiting a museum in your area of genealogical interest and it has a library it makes available to patrons (side note… some museum libraries are open to all patrons, while others only allow museum members to browse the collections), it is important for you to have a look at it and see what it has that may further your family history. There’s a high chance of you finding something useful there. If you’re not a member of the museum and want to look at a restricted collection, it’s usually a simple matter to get a membership card, and typically either doesn’t cost much, or is free (like the research library at the Alabama Department of Archives and History… it is a museum of Alabama history, but with an excellent genealogical research library attached to it that members can use, and membership is free).
Will Moneymaker founded Ancestral Findings back in 1995. He has been involved in genealogy research for over 20 years. The thrill of the hunt, the adventure, and the excitement begin when he started investigating the meaning of his surname. Why I Love Genealogy (And You Should, Too!)