Southern California Genealogical Society

Back to Basics - Libraries: Pure Gold!
By Barbara McKinlay

To genealogists, libraries the world over represent the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Large and small, they house special collections and reference materials that help all of us find the elusive information we are seeking. And, more than that, they are manned by librarians who are hooked on helping people find the material they are seeking.

Start with your local library. It houses encyclopedias, atlases and other general reference material. It probably also has city directories, microfilm of local newspapers and probably a collection of local history. Also, it usually has a copy of the “American Library Directory,” which has a listing of libraries across the country showing their names and addresses and any special collections they may have. This directory provides invaluable help to the genealogist trying to locate information in a specific area.

Through your local library, you can also use interlibrary loans. People seem to shy away from using this wonderful resource. It is quite inexpensive, and allows you to use a book that is housed many miles away. Several books I have borrowed have come from libraries in Scotland. I have also gotten books from the Sutro Library in San Francisco (a genealogy library), and other libraries where a specific book has been located. If you have seen a reference to a book and have been unable to find it, don’t hesitate to use this wonderful tool.

University and college libraries also have wonderful sources of help. Most of them welcome the use of their libraries, but will not check out books to you unless you are a student or alumnus. These are especially likely to have excellent reference material. Often “The National Union Catalogue of Manuscripts” is available in a collegiate library. This is a many-volume set that lists manuscripts housed in libraries across the United States. Don’t forget, often a family history is printed only as a manuscript and given to a very limited number of libraries.

And, remember, too, that in the past, most of the colleges and universities were aligned with a church. Often valuable church records and histories can be found in their collections, be they Quaker, Baptist, Congregational, etc.

I have written to many libraries asking for information. Because many of them have a limited staff, it often takes a while before I get an answer. But, with a self-addressed, stamped envelope enclosed, and a clear indication of what I am looking for, I am nearly always rewarded with information that I could not have gotten without going there myself. For instance, knowing that Calvin Thomas Doss had died in 1912, I wrote to the Summers County Library in Hinton, West Virginia, and asked if they could help in locating the exact date. Two copies of newspaper articles arrived in my mailbox indicating that the exact date was Oct. 20, and adding facts that I did not have.

The letter you send makes a great deal of difference in the kind of answer you get. The librarian has to know what you are looking for, he or she needs to have a time frame and needs to know about any information you may already have.

Librarians also need to know that you deeply appreciate their help. Most libraries need money, and if you can send a donation, I am sure it will be appreciated ... along with your big “Thank you!”

A word about the Internet. It also provides excellent information, but it cannot replace the resources of a good library. Used together, genealogical information is at your fingertips.

© Barbara McKinlay, Used with permission.

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