Preparing for Your Trip to the Genealogy Library or Archive

It may surprise you to learn that libraries still exist!  Even archives and special libraries with old paper books, microfilm, and dusty records.  I have worked at one at the beginning of my librarian career, and then returned to it this year.  My department serves over hundred people each month in person, over the phone, or through e-mailed research requests.  Throughout the day, I meet experienced historians and novice genealogists just starting their journey. 

Using my experience, I have created a quick guide to get you started in visiting archives and libraries for your research. 

Think of all the amazing resources waiting at the library?

Why use the library or archive?

“Why do you need to go to the library?  Isn’t everything online?”  These are common questions I get when people find out what I do for a living.  Now, millions of records have been uploaded and made available through online services.  Digitizing collections is actually a slow and tedious process.  Most libraries and archives do not have the staff or funding to make this happen swiftly. 

Tips to Maximize your Time at the Library.

This results in a treasure troth of resources hiding in a back archive room.  Also, many online records charge fees to access them.  Many libraries have these records available for free!  (Remember, libraries are a great way to save money!)  My library has a subscription to Ancestry and all the microfilm for our local newspaper all the way back to 1888.  So now my question for you is, “What are you waiting for?”

Before becoming a special collection librarian, I was an intensive researcher for over three years in school.  I visited small and large collection from Lake Charles, Louisiana to Edinburgh, Scotland.  Here are some things to do before leaving home! If you do not have a plan you could find yourself leaving with more questions than answers. 

Some things like this are hiding in back rooms of collections waiting to be digitized.

Call Ahead!

Libraries and archives sometimes keep strange hours or limited staff.  Small collections can be available by appointment only.  You can find the phone numbers for collections online or call the main branch of your library.  Make sure to check hours, days, and rules.  Take some time to ask the librarian or archivist some of the questions at the bottom of this post. 

Check the Card Catalog

Many department will link into a card catalog or index search of their records.  Check for family books, named collections, microfilm, and even photographs.  Make a list of resources that can be useful to your research. Some you can even create a digital list before arriving at the location. 

Library Tip
Tip: Make a list!

Make a List of Questions, Facts, and Goals

This is the most important tip by far!  Do not go to a library and ask for anything on the Smith family!  It will become overwhelming quickly.  It is best to pick a few small goals.  Example:  What date was my grandmother born?  What was her parent’s names?  Take a few moments to print and fill out a family fact sheet.  Free ones can be accessed here.  The librarian will ask for years, dates, places, and family names.  Knowing what you have is a great way to find what you need. 

Questions for the Librarian Archivist

  • Do you have finding aides or indexes?
  • What geographical areas does your collection cover?
  • Can I make my own copies? 
  • How much are copies?  What form of payments do you take?
  • Do you have any digital subscriptions?  Where can they be accessed?
  • I am looking for ____.  What resource do you suggest?

Believe it or not.  Many librarians are helpful and are experienced researchers themselves.  However, a librarian cannot help you without a clearly defined question or goal. 

Planning for your trip to the Genealogy Library or Archive
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What breakthroughs have you had in your own personal genealogy research at the library? 

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