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Ten Best Local Library Resources

Barbara Krasner-Khait looks at the treasures awaiting genealogists locally.

Whether you live in a small town, a university town, or a city, the library near you offers genealogical resources you can take advantage of. If you’re researching family in the town as well, you’ll be able to access local information that may rarely be found anywhere else.

Reference librarian Bill Brahms of the Franklin Township (New Jersey) Public Library, a genealogist himself, proudly shows off the library’s genealogy holdings.

A survey among a few reference librarians and fellow genealogists reveals the following top 10 resources you’ll find in even the smallest of towns. A word of caution: Several researchers surveyed admitted they don’t use the library for research as much as they used to in pre-Internet days. Look what they could be missing!

The Top Resources
1. City directories: Either in book or microfilm form, city directories can help you find family names and addresses, occupations, household members, and even boarders. These directories can also give you phone numbers and information on when and where a family may have moved from the town.

2. Compiled indices in either microfilm or book form: Daniel Olivier of the Montreal Central Library’s Salle Gagnon (genealogy division) includes marriage indices for the province of Quebec and the St. Alban’s (Vermont) district ship manifest soundex lists among his top ten. If you’re looking for passenger lists, you may find the three-volume Filby’s Passenger and Immigration Lists Index with its annual supplements or the Temple-Balch Center for Immigration Research’s Migrations from the Russian Empire volumes.

3. Newspapers from all over the world on microfilm: Whether accessing the local paper or the New York Times, automatic-winding on most library microfilm readers speeds up the research process for obituaries, birth and wedding announcements, and other significant events, while sparing your thumbs and shoulders.

4. Reference books: There are times when great genealogical reference books are beyond personal means of ownership or have gone out-of-print. Look to your local library for these books, like Ancestry’s The Source or The Library, or the National Archives and Records Administration’s Guide to Genealogical Research in the National Archives. You’ll also find a variety of dictionaries that define given names, surnames and occupations. If you have a well-known relative, you may find entries in any number of Who’s Who, the New York Times Book Review indices, etc. Gale’s Encyclopedia of Associations can give you contact information if a family member belonged to a particular group or society.

5. Maps: Gazeteers will make it easier for you to locate those hard-to-find ancestral towns and put things in geographical perspective. Ward maps make it easier to find those elusive enumeration districts when using non-indexed census records and old maps perhaps adorning the library walls can help you identify streets that no longer exist. Says New Jersey researcher Judy Salomon, “It may not be the Library of Congress, but the local library is still a good starting point.”

6. Census records: Even my hometown library holds local census returns and population statistics. Larger city, county and state libraries will obviously go beyond that. You may also find enumeration district finding aids to help pinpoint that elusive street address in census records for which there are no soundex indices. Or you may find census records indices.

One of the Carnegie free public libraries (left), this library in Kearny, New Jersey has a special room dedicated to the history of the town. The Reference Section (right) can offer you classic guides, compilations, and maps.

7. Local vertical files: Libraries often have files of newspaper clippings, photos and other useful information arranged by subject: commerce and industry, schools, municipal government, significant events in the town’s development, landmark buildings and local service organizations, just to name a few. Says San Francisco-based researcher Judy Baston, “The San Francisco Public Library has neighborhood archives that include photos, interviews, clippings, and local organization records located throughout its neighborhood library branches.”

One of the unique aspects of a local library is its special collection on local history and genealogy. This could be a special shelf in the reference section or a special room filled with volumes on local history, local families, regional sources like state indices to vital records, old newspapers and photo collections, local organization records and more. The collection may also include more general reference volumes like Elizabeth Petty Bentley’s Directory of Family Associations (Genealogical Publishing Company, 3rd edition, 1996) or Marian Hoffman’s three-volume Genealogical and Local History Books in Print (Genealogical Publishing Company, 5th edition, 1996).

8. Interlibrary loans: Through the interlibrary loan system you have access to library holdings well beyond your local area, including special collections. Says Roni Liebowitz of Scarsdale, NY, “I can order books through my library not only from the surrounding libraries, but even the university libraries in New York City. They’ve gotten me books from Yeshiva University and Fordham, which have wonderful selections of old books about the Holocaust and pre-war towns and villages.” One book I asked for, published in 1939 by a distant relative of mine, was located at Old Dominion University’s library and I received it on loan just a couple of weeks after making my request. I have also used this system to order very expensive reference books and compiled genealogies that my town library does not hold.

9. Book sales: Often you can find books that supplement your family research, like histories and directories, at a fraction of their original cost. And many of these are no longer available from the publisher. Says Liebowitz, “The annual book sale always contains wonderful books about history and related topics. I always get a wagon full for pennies.”

10. Internet access: Particularly useful for those who don’t have access to the World Wide Web from home, you’re just clicks away from the enormous database, search engines and directories that the Internet offers genealogists when you use your computer’s Internet hook-up: LDS FamilySearch, Ancestry’s Social Security Death Index, Cyndi’s List and phone directories.

Honorable Mention
High school yearbooks: If photos are scarce in your family album, consider these rich resources. For graduating seniors, you’ll get a descriptive phrase, a photo and a list of extracurricular activities. You might even get some sort of last will and testament or predictions for the future. For the lower grades, you might catch a glimpse of a relative in class or activity group shots.

At the top of the list, even above the resources listed, is the reference librarian. He or she can help you locate materials you need either in your library or throughout the library system.

This article originally appeared in the March/April 2000 issue of Family Chronicle.


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