Your Family History Quest Should Start with the Library!
In an ever-changing world, there’s a special feeling of security that comes from identifying one’s place in history. Many people, in search of a factual self-concept have caught themselves asking the question: “Who were those that came before me?” Certainly, most would agree that it can be challenging, but worthwhile, to discover who your grandparents, great grandparents, and relatives even further back, were. This is especially true if you have an inkling that they were smart and popular people in their time.
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When you are searching for your ancestors, it is imperative to have a resource you trust that has lots of information you can access. Well, in this article, I will be walking you through how to use the library (and other sources) for your genealogy research.
Here are the basic steps to follow to do genealogy research that is sure to satisfy at least some your curiosity about those who came before you:
1. Organize your Information
Before you visit the library, you should try your best to gather as much information about your subjects as possible. This means, talking to family members, and getting copies of documents and other ephemera they may have floating around in their basement or attic.
Interviewing your family members and close family friends is typically of great help since your relatives can often tell you about the cities in which your family lived or about a particular war in which your subject participated or was affected by. These bits and pieces are the jumping off points to begin your journey into the past. It is between these bits of info are the spaces you will seek to fill.
2. Check for Previous Research
Once you’ve gathered some basics, you can do some basic web searches to check out what others have already discovered about your family history. In this way you can get lead on historical documents such as your ancestor’s birth certificates or marriage licenses. If you don’t find one ready-made, now is the ideal time to start jotting down the outline for a family tree. For more information on creating a family tree, see ThoughtCo’s article “5 Ways to Chart & Display Your Family Tree”.
3. Using a Library’s Online Services
Before you ultimately visit the library, you can make use of its online services, usually for free. One of the first online services libraries offered when the world wide web was still in its infancy was access to databases like HeritageQuest. HeritageQuest “…is a comprehensive treasury of American genealogical sources — rich in unique primary sources, local and family histories, convenient research guides, interactive census maps, and more” (source). Using databases like this means that if your family has been in the United States for the last few generations, you can almost certainly find out their essential information (vital dates, where they lived, addresses, relatives). Naturally, if you have trouble searching such a database online, you can always pop into your local library and a librarian will be happy to take you through some sample searches.
4. Finding Other Sources for Genealogy Research
While conducting your research, remember to be creative. This means, if you’ve discovered that your mother’s grandfather was in the military, you can plug this into your web search. In that particular situation, an essential source would be the National Archives (conveniently, they have a page specifically about “Research in Medical Records”). Beyond that, online forums of military enthusiasts will likely enjoy educating you on the provenance of any military paraphernalia your ancestors may have left behind like medals, uniforms, or paperwork. Little information like this will unlock the doors to your genealogy. The military is just an example, but any little bits of information you might have can lend themselves to some creative searching, it’s just the kind of puzzle that gets experts excited!
5. Taking your Genealogy Research Further
Using the resources on the internet, especially online databases that contain information not obtainable through a Google searh can be quite advantageous. Of course, you can also turn to commercial databases that will charge you for the information you seek, this may be useful depending on if their specific area of speciality matches your information need. But if you want to truly dig into family history research, you’ll have to get up and go.
One place to start with are a library’s “Special Collections” or local history resources. Found in most libraries around the country, these sections offer access to rare and unique primary resource materials for the public and researchers from all walks of life. Note, however, that you will likely have to make an appointment to visit these places, so plan ahead.
6. Records to consult at a Library
When you do make it to special collections, or just the library’s regular reading area, some records can come in handy and are worth looking at when conducting your genealogy research.
Here is a partial list of such records:
- State and local census records
- Federal census records
- Biographies and memoirs
- Cemetery records
- Microfilm copies of old newspapers
- Military service records
- Naturalization records
- Passenger lists
- Plot maps
- Printed histories
- Printed genealogies
As you do this research, do make sure to record everything that you find and store it in a safe and organized manner. There are plenty of genealogy research programs out there for a computer, but if you’re old school, simple plastic sheets in binders also work wonders.
Family history, or geneology, research can be loads of educational fun, but it can also be challenging and time-consuming. It’s easy to get sucked into a problem, and let it occupy more time than you intended to spend. If you do get stuck somewhere, by all means try to figure it out, but avoid getting too frustrated. In that situation, it may be wiser to make an appointment and consult with a geneology librarian or a freelance family history specialist. These people often have the type of specialized knowledge that will make you wish you’d talked to them at the beginning of your search. In any case, do have fun with your research, and remember: The search is just as important a part of the journey as the answers you are sure to discover.