University Libraries as Genealogy Research Goldmines: Academic Archives for Family History
Who knew that university libraries were such treasures for genealogy research? They are! And there’s probably one near you. Read on to find out how to utilize university libraries for your genealogy research.
“A university is just a group of buildings gathered around a library.”
– Shelby Foote
There are currently 23,624 universities in the world. Assuming each university has at least one library—well, that’s a lot of libraries. Historically, most books were kept at the university—where the library was. Modern university libraries hold much more than books. Your modern local university library can be a veritable treasure trove of traditional genealogical resources, including:
- reference materials and indexes
- census records
- local histories and archives
- newspaper collections
- church records
- military records
Some of these may be digitized materials you can access only at the library. Then, there are the real gems: Rare books and unique artifacts (think non-digitized), historic photograph collections, letters, journals, recorded oral histories, and personal papers of people of the past—the things you’ll want to experience in person. The historic university library was also where the professors were—the scholars who knew what was inside all those books (or even wrote some). The same holds today.
Why a University Library For Genealogy Research?
- University libraries are gathering places for scholars, fostering intellectual exchange and collaboration.
- The university library provides a space for academic discussions, seminars, and workshops (mine offers ongoing genealogy workshops).
- University libraries often take a long-term view of knowledge preservation and dissemination.
- University libraries subscribe to academic journals that publish peer-reviewed articles written by experts in every field.
- Professors rely on the library’s collections to assign readings and conduct research, and the university has an academic reputation to uphold.
- A substantial university library can attract faculty and students, enhancing prestige.
Many university and college community libraries are affiliates of AGES, the Association of Genealogy Educators and Schools. Founded in 2018, AGES was established to promote genealogy and family history learning within higher education institutions. They aim to support and encourage scholarly research in genealogy and family history. Some community colleges, such as Truckee Meadows Community College in Reno, Nevada, now offer Family History Research Rooms for novice or amateur family historians. The Wallace State University library in Hanceville, Alabama, offers non-credit genealogy courses through their Center for Career and Workforce Development’s Continuing Education program. Joanie Barnes, at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, started a group called “Genealogy Over Lunch” with her friend, Tom McFarland. For the past ten years, their group has met on the third Thursday of each month during the semester to discuss everything from DNA testing to specific databases to international research.
When You Can’t Get Yourself To A University Library
Many university library catalogs are now online and offer powerful search engines to help you find what you need. You can typically search by author, title, subject, or keywords. Many have digitized local historical documents, newspapers, and manuscripts that can be accessed online, often for a fee or at a lower cost than obtaining physical copies. Online catalogs provide a convenient way to easily access and verify bibliographic information for the sources you consult.
Ask Your University Librarian For Archival Help
“When the going gets tough, the tough get a librarian.”
– Joan Bauer
Genealogy is history; historical materials take up space and must be organized, cataloged, and safeguarded. This is the work of librarians, and you can likely find a university librarian who is highly subject-specialized and has a vested interest in and personal passion for whatever time and place you are currently researching. If they aren’t experts in identifying ancestors in 17th-century Italian church records, they can probably put their hands on a dissertation about that. The university librarian can help you navigate that library’s collections effectively. Many offer one-on-one research consultations. And, if they don’t have what you need by some chance, they’ll typically have robust interlibrary loan services. This can be especially helpful for accessing rare or out-of-print books and documents.
Try Using a Genealogy Research Guide
University librarians assemble research guides on a variety of subjects for student use. These curated collections are typically organized in a structured and user-friendly format, often available online through the university library’s website. They may include links to books, databases, primary sources, archival collections, and websites that are particularly useful for researching a specific place or time. Research guides may include information on properly citing genealogical sources and documents, essential for maintaining accurate records and citing sources in your research.
Genealogy research guides include tutorials and how-to guides that walk users through various aspects of genealogical research, such as deciphering old handwriting, understanding census records, finding and evaluating sources, Native American or African American research, or using specific genealogy software. They typically include contact information for librarians or university professors who can help. To access a guide for genealogy research in a university library, visit the library’s website and navigate to the “Research Guides” or “Subject Guides” section. From there, look for a guide related to genealogy, family history, or local history. You can see an excellent university library genealogy research guide here and community college library research guides here and here.6
Think Outside the Genealogical Box
University libraries often house resources of particular interest to a geographic area or culture. Immersing yourself in the time and place of your ancestors can provide insights into the cultural context of their lives—if not reveal to you their birth, marriage, and death dates. If you’re facing a genealogical brick wall, maybe you are overlooking essential clues about your ancestors that might be unveiled by a deeper dive into their regional customs, traditions, languages, migration patterns, naming conventions, and social patterns. What kind of local laws affected the family? How did their community respond to war times or national politics? Is there a biographical sketch of a family member in a county’s history? What about the library’s collection of telephone or city directories?
Ever heard of “nuckmuck?” That’s the genealogist nickname for NUCMC, the National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections. Manuscripts are original, often handwritten artifacts such as family bibles, diaries, letters, account books, records of a funeral home, or even a midwife’s ledger. NUCMC, a finding aid sponsored by the Library of Congress, seeks to catalog and show you where you can see it. Many university libraries are qualified NUCMC institutions, meaning they offer free access to them. Best of all, they have librarians who use it to help you find what you need.
Ask About Regional Treasures
University libraries often have special collections. My local university library has a full Civil War uniform in their special collections. Are you researching your New England pilgrim ancestors? The Tracy W. McGregor Library of American History at the University of Virginia (UVA) has one of the earliest accounts of the English settlement at Plymouth, Massachusetts, a primary source detailed narrative of the Pilgrims’ experiences during their first year in the New World. Want to know how your British great-great-grandmother made treacle? PennState University Library has a collection of historical British and Scottish recipe books. Think of anything distinct about your ancestors—and there is probably an extant university library collection applicable to their history—somewhere near you.
Reach Out Before You Go
Before you book a flight to your fantasy university library, you might want to hop online and scope out your local university library’s collections. And, before you head over to the nearest college town, it’s always a good idea to call ahead and ask about the library’s hours of operation and what you need to bring with you. Anyone can visit a library, but to enter a reading room, you might need an appointment and, at the very least, a library card. To get that, you’ll probably need identification and proof of address. A small price to pay in exchange for a dazzling family history discovery or genealogical treasure!
If you’d like to work with our global team of professional genealogists, you can set up a free assessment here to find out if your project qualifies for further investigation.