Genealogy: How Libraries Provide Tools, Training, and Support

Genealogy: How Libraries Provide Tools, Training, and Support

Learning about your family tree is a fascinating quest. Whether you want to begin tracing your heritage for the first time or if you want to continue building upon your existing knowledge of your ancestors, the help of your local library is an absolute “must” in the toolbox.

It’s not difficult to see why studying one’s own genealogy is a captivating hobby which only continues to grow in popularity. When you trace your heritage, you feel more connected to the ancestors who came before you. You also experience a deeper sense of the bond which all human beings share in our increasingly anonymous world today. It’s also a ton of fun to find out where your distant relatives lived, how these individuals earned a living, who they lived with, and so many other details about their lives.

sign the pledge to vote for libraries! 

If you have the desire to learn more about your own heritage, your first impulse may be to use a search engine like Google or a site such as While these tools can be helpful, Google searches will not get you very far. Many sites such as charge membership fees to individuals. Your local library, however, can help you kickstart your search for free with several resources and plenty of guidance. And they may even have a subscription for many of the databases ready for you to use.

As a former reference librarian, I’ve helped several individuals and groups learn more about their family histories than they ever expected to uncover. These are my top tips for getting the most out of your local library when you first begin your research:

1. Make an appointment with a librarian.
This piece of advice is, without a doubt, the most important tip to keep in mind before your visit. When you call the library ahead of time and make an appointment, your librarian can plan to devote time to you and your genealogy search. Calling ahead also allows your librarian to prepare by gathering relevant materials to use during your visit and to performing research before the appointment. By booking a public librarian, you’ll get individual guidance from a research professional at absolutely no cost.

2. Record what you know.
In order to save time during your search and to locate the most accurate information, you should take notes on what you know about your family’s history. For example, if you have information about your parents and grandparents, write down the full name, approximate birth date, and approximate date of death (if applicable) for each individual.

Any information that you have about where your family members have lived is important to write down as well. Try to be as specific as you can, but don’t worry if you don’t have the exact names of towns or cities. If your grandfather was from New Bern, North Carolina, but you know that he was stationed somewhere in Virginia while he served in the U.S. Army, include that information in your notes as well.

3. Decide what you want to know.
When you research your genealogy, you are like a miner entering a cave that is rich with gems. You will more than likely discover some unexpected treasures along the way. Even though random information and previously unknown connections are likely to arise during your search, it’s best to start with a plan.

List on paper, or at least decide upon, what you are in search of. It’s very helpful to your librarian if you can list exactly what you want out of your visit.

Even if your specific question isn’t answered, you will doubtlessly encounter new and helpful information along the way. You might even uncover some facts which are even more interesting than the answer to your original question!

4. Do some preliminary research.
If you are able to do so, it’s a great idea to “visit the library” before you actually go. This means going to your local library’s web page and exploring the online resources. Usually, a link to genealogy resources will be right on the library’s homepage. You can also try visiting any links on the library’s page such “Databases,” “Research,” or “Local History.”

What Can I Expect From My Librarian?

Your librarian is your genealogical genie. She will introduce you to several tools which will help you with your genealogy heritage quest. Some of these tools, which we will take a brief look at, will be online resources. Others will be physical materials held by the library.

When you meet with your librarian, she can teach you to search for materials in the library by using the library’s online catalog. She will also show you how to access the library’s collection of online materials. When introducing each of these materials to you, she will show you what they are for, how to use them, and help you to use them in the context of your particular search.

Often, a library’s collection of physical genealogical materials are not able to be checked out of the library. In order to access these materials, you usually do not need to have a library card, but you do need to be in the physical library. With regard to digital materials, these resources can usually be accessed by visitors in the library building, even if they do not have a library card.

Libraries often have open genealogy events and workshops as well. These programs can be awesome, and we’ll get to them later, but booking one-on-one assistance first will help you to get the most information and training out of your experience.

In order to have full access to the library’s online resources at home, you will more than likely need to have a library card. Your librarian will be able to give you a free library card. Most libraries just require that residents bring in a photo ID and proof of residence (such as a bill with your name and address on it) to receive a library card. Be sure to bring those items with you if you do not have a library card; once you’re hooked, you’ll definitely want to continue your search at home!

As I tell friends, family, and strangers alike, libraries are extraordinary places with something for everyone! They truly change lives and I wouldn’t want to imagine a world without them. Exploring your genealogy is a true adventure; when you embark on this mission, you are a detective delving into the unknown factors which made you who you are. When you learn about your ancestors and imagine their lives, you feel like you’re reading a historical fiction novel full of plot twists and new characters.