Genealogy Research in the Library: 5 Steps to Success!

Genealogy Research in the Library: 5 Steps to Success!

Heather Kramer, MLIS, CA


Libraries are great bastions of information and are naturally poised to offer solutions for our genealogical research. Through-out the country there are large and well known genealogy libraries.  There are also mid to small size genealogy collections to be found in public libraries, university libraries, historical societies, and museums.  Each library is unique and each collection different.  Many collections are multimedia including books, databases, microfilm, vertical files, maps, etc.  No single library repository is likely to hold all the answers to our genealogy questions.  How then do genealogists pinpoint which library to visit?  How can genealogists use libraries effectively for their research?  Every genealogist will have different answers to those questions, however, there are some universal guidelines for all of us to use.
The following are 5 simple steps to help you navigate libraries for successful genealogy research:
  1. Focus on a research problem. Most libraries do not have genealogy materials for every region, state, or country making it very difficult to find every answer to a genealogical problem in one setting.  In forming a genealogical problem to research, it is helpful to be specific about individual ancestors, time periods, and places. Defining a problem will aid in two things.  The first is identifying and recording a particular person or family to organize and prepare notes for research.  And secondly, defining a research problem will help librarians determine what materials are available in the library’s holdings to answer your specific questions.
Problems may also be modified due to progression in research and locating new information.  Here are examples of a research problem with additional modifications:
-August Sorgea (1841-1908) of St. Clair County, Illinois.
-August Sorgea or Sorge (1841-1908) of St. Clair County and Macoupin County, Illinois.
-Children of August Sorgea or Sorge (1841-1908) of St. Clair County and Macoupin County, Illinois.
-August Sorgea or Sorge family, Zion Lutheran Church records, Staunton, Macoupin County, Illinois.


  1. Check the website for library services. Each library will have different services to offer to visitors. Most will have an online catalog, interlibrary loan, and reference requests either by phone or email.    Most libraries maintain their catalog online, but some may only have hard copy finding aids.  Many genealogy collections are organized geographically by state or county.  Searching an online catalog and identifying a few items to browse at the beginning of the library visit will provide familiarity with the library’s collection and hone catalog search strategies.  However, not all collections follow such an organization model and utilizing the library catalog will be necessary to discover items ahead of time.  Subject searches are especially helpful when using an online catalog, as the search can be narrowed to a specific topic or place.  Here are a few examples of subject searches:
 -Lunenburg County (Va.)
-Harris County (Tx.)
-Louisiana – genealogy
Sometimes it is not necessary, nor budget friendly, to travel to other libraries for research.  A phone call or email to the librarian for reference assistance or a look up in a book may be all that is required.  A priceless tool for genealogists, interlibrary loan provides borrowing of materials from outside the area through the local library.  Check with a librarian at your local library about interlibrary loan privileges.  Usually all that is needed is to sign up for a library card.


Microsoft Office
Microsoft Office
  1. Contact the library. Librarians wish to support a successful library experience and to avoid unfortunate incidents. Nothing is more frustrating than arriving at a library and it is closed due to budget cuts, the only copier is broken, or the key to the archive vault cannot be found.  Connecting with a librarian ahead of a visit will afford the opportunity to ask how materials are organized, accessibility, library closures, technology capabilities, parking, copying fees, places to eat or stay, security, and wi-fi availability.
Determining details about a research problem will also narrow the selection of which library to visit.  The local library may have plenty of information to solve a family puzzle, especially if your ancestors always lived in the area.  If ancestors traveled quite a bit or migrated from another country, at some point contacting or traveling to another library might be necessary.  Before blazing the highways, consider contacting the library for additional and up to date information regarding policies and procedures.
Sample questions to ask before a library visit may include:
-What hours is the library open?
-Is the library ADA compliant?
-Do I need to register with the library?
-How is the genealogy collection organized?
-What types of materials are in the collection?
-Can I use my scanner/smartphone/camera to take photos of the materials?
-Are there outlets for charging my smartphone/tablet/laptop?
-What equipment is available to make copies?
-Is wi-fi reliable? Is it password protected?
-Are there copy fees?
-Is there parking close by? Is it free parking or metered parking?
-Are there places to eat close to the library? Can I bring my own lunch?
-Is there a secure area for my belongings?
-Will security escort me to my car at night?
-How do I get a library card?


  1. Be prepared. Organizing and preparing research notes before a library visit can afford better use of time. If research logs or other log is to be used, make sure you have plenty printed and/or the correct file is saved. Preparations for a library visit, especially if traveling long distances, can begin the night before.  Filling up the gas tank, printing directions, packing supplies and lunch, and securing the laptop can all be accomplished in advance to give more time researching the next day.
  1. Be friendly.  Upon arrival, be friendly and introduce yourself to library staff.  Librarians will be happy to greet you and answer any questions you may have.  Keep in contact with staff members during your visit as you never know when you will need to tap into their institutional knowledge regarding collections there.  Consider donating money or books to the collection to keep it growing or to help offset operational expenses such as book binding.  Upon returning home if you discover something is missing or a page didn’t copy correctly, contact the librarians and they should be able to help quickly.
The previous steps will provide confidence for a library visit, but a new and unknown place may still present a few tense moments.  A flash drive may fail and in rare cases the power may go out.  Some incidents may be beyond library staff or your own control. Keeping a cool head and pleasant manner is the best option in such circumstances and to leave a good impression.
All clip art and photos are in the public domain with origin noted.



This Post is posted by Heather Kramer

Heather Kramer is the former Genealogy and Local History Librarian for the Montgomery County Texas Memorial Library System. She has also been a Board Member for the Montgomery County Historical Commission and Staff Genealogist for the Daughters of the American Revolution. Heather has studied history, anthropology and secondary education at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville and has her MLIS in Archives from University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

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