When you think about places you can search for your family, how often do you remember your local public library, or more importantly, the one near where your ancestor lived?
Public libraries can be one of the most overlooked resources in family history research, and are one of the most valuable. Even the smallest one might hold the largest historical collection in the surrounding area.
Most people visit libraries for their general offerings. Accessibility to books and magazines, rental media, scholarly publications, public computers, holiday events, and children’s activities are just a few of the things that make them such treasured community resources. However, libraries are also well-known for genealogical resources – especially the larger ones.
One of the most famous is the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah, to which we at Legacy Tree Genealogists have daily access. Their collections include 2.5 million microfilms of church and vital records from around the world, to say nothing of their books, maps, and on-staff genealogists. While this repository does have an enormous amount of resources for Utah and the Mountain West, it was designed to be an aggregate point for records from across the globe.
Other national and regional libraries have similarly impressive offerings. The Library of Congress holds more than 50,000 genealogies and 100,000 local histories. It also maintains the online Chronicling America project, which seeks to digitize thousands of newspapers across the United States.
Allen County Public Library in Fort Wayne, Indiana (which we discussed in a recent blog post) has an amazing collection that includes more than 48,000 R.L. Polk Directories for Cities throughout the United States, and a collection of passenger lists and indexes on microfilm covering 163 ports of entry – all in addition to the wonderful and unique records they maintain for Indiana itself.
The St. Louis County Library has in its collections materials specific to the states and foreign countries that fed into the migration into Missouri and the middle part of the country. France and Germany, for example, sent a large number of immigrants through the port of New Orleans – many of which followed the Mississippi River north to St. Louis and its environs. The St. Louis County Library also houses a collection of more than 20,000 volumes that are part of the National Genealogical Society Book Loan.
But what about the small libraries? While it is true that not every public library or system houses a genealogical or local history collection, many are aware of the public interest in those topics and have allotted a portion of their budget accordingly. If in doubt, call them up and ask.
One of my favorites is the Paragould branch of the Greene County [Arkansas] Public Library system. This small library has an entire room devoted to its genealogical collection. Many years ago, my father and I visited to see what we could find on our family. Though he had not walked into a library in at least 40 years, my dad walked in and picked a book off the shelf. Inside was a short biography on my great-grandfather. A visit that might have lasted for an hour turned into an all-day event. He was hooked! And together we made it through every index of every book in that room.
Another one I love is the Everett Public Library in Washington. A slightly larger library than the one in Arkansas, its Northwest Room is larger as well, and it is one of the few public library systems to have two full-time historians on staff. My mother’s side of the family is not a mystery; we know many details about them, including where they’ve lived ever since they arrived in 1903. Even so, it was such a warm feeling actually seeing those relatives in the city directories, or finding a picture from the local Pulp and Paper Mill digital image collection of someone doing the exact job my grandfather was listed doing in the census as a young man. Their microfiche of the local newspapers produced an obituary for my great-grandfather with a cause of death, which was very valuable as he had died in his 40s and the state has somehow misplaced his death certificate. The Everett library also maintains a sizable local history collection including yearbooks from the nearby high school from 1909-2013 that is available digitally online.
The resources available at these small repositories nationwide will vary. In general, however, public libraries will often have newspaper or obituary indexes, or microfilm or fiche that you can scroll through to look for special events in your ancestor’s life. Most will have the city directories or phone books for the local area, and many will have yearbooks for schools in the vicinity. Often there are several books on the history of the town or area, many with biographies in them. Some libraries will have digital images or interviews of local residents. If you can’t find what you’re looking for, be sure to ask the reference staff for help!
Legacy Tree Genealogists has extensive experience tracking down local records for our clients. We’d love to help you find what you need. Contact us today for a free consultation.
Comment below or on the Facebook page about a time a visit to a local library has benefited you in your research!