Library Research

In simple terms, genealogical information comes in two forms: primary information, found in records created at or near the time an event occurred by someone who had firsthand knowledge of that event, and secondary information, everything else. Although this course emphasizes the use of primary information, most research begins in a library or on the Internet with the "everything else", derivative sources and secondary information.

The Library: A Genealogist's Friend

Genealogical research begins at the library: your own local library. To familiarize yourself with library research, forget your family surname. Genealogical research does not consist of looking for the specific book which contains all that is known about your particular family. A library is the repository of reference works and information which help you locate and understand the primary resources which explain your specific family history. This class is now taught in California. Library assignments use the City of Pleasanton Library. You may also be directed to other area library web sites, in particular the California State Library (Sutro). Your own local libraries should be similar.

The City of Pleasanton Library is catalogued by the Dewey Decimal system. This cataloging system includes ten major divisions, each one subdivided several times. Genealogy and its subdivision appear under the call number 929. However, many important reference sources appear in other divisions. A list of important reference examples arranged by Dewey Decimal catalogue number is appended to aid in your library research. Go to your local library and explore the books in these call numbers. These call numbers actually appear twice in any library: within the REF (Reference) section and within the general section. Look in both areas. In addition, some libraries further isolate local references (See Ref Md 929, for example).

Most local libraries have an area devoted to local history. Here you are likely to find such resources as directories, vertical file material, photographs, newspapers, and high school year books. If these local references are kept in a separate room, hours for use may be limited.

The Sutro Library and most university research libraries are catalogued by the Library of Congress system. Genealogical works are catalogued under the CS call number, but pay equal attention to the works catalogued under F. This call number contains local histories and published abstracts. Don't ignore the other divisions. Many of them are of particular interest to genealogists are italicized. Remember to check both the Reference section of the library and the general section.

To help you explore the holdings of both libraries, try to answer the questions in the library "scavenger hunt". It is easier to persevere in your research if you know an answer can be found. All the answers in this exercise can be found in the Pleasanton Library, so persevere! In solving these problems, you may also discover new resources that will help in your specific research.

For those of you who enjoy researching in cyberspace, there is remote access to the catalogues of both libraries. These catalogues may be reached from each library's home page or through the following links.

To get the most out of computer catalogues, whether online or in house, be very imaginative in your searches. Use as many variations on keywords as you can. For example, a search under heraldry provides one set of references; a search under peerage provides another set. There is overlap, but not identity. When examining a library's holdings for genealogical references, search the following, preferably in this order:

  1. Location: town, county, state, country
  2. Subject (such as Newspapers, Censuses, or Vital Records). Add the words bibliography and abstracts to your search.
  3. Browse by catalog number. This search results in a shelf list. You will feel as if you are browsing a library shelf and will see many resources you may have missed in searches 1. and 2.
  4. Surname Family (i.e. Cooper Family). I put this search last because too many beginning genealogists begin and end their search here. If you search only surnames in your library research, you will miss the most valuable information a library holds.

Reference librarians are very knowledgeable, but they are not genealogists. They may not be familiar with the wide variety of references you will need. If you become very familiar with the holdings of these two libraries, you will be able to go to any library in the world and get the most out of all of them. Reference librarians become understandably irritated with questions such as: "Where would I find information on the Jones family?" but they bend over backwards to help answer specific questions such as: "Does this library have back issues of the Catonsville Times?"

A Very Brief Guide to the Internet: The Cyberspace Library

The largest library in existence cannot be seen or touched. No one knows its exact contents and those contents change daily. Information found there varies in quality from scholarly to pure fiction. It is also ephemeral in nature and may change or disappear without notice. If you find an article that interests you, print it out or copy it to disk. Also remember that anything that appears on the Internet is considered a published document and is protected by copyright laws. Don't violate them. This is a very short list designed to get you started. For additional information, please visit the article "Tackling the Internet" and work on the class exercise.

Please mail comments and suggestions to Susan Johnston at Email me

Valid HTML 4.01 Transitional