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All About Libraries

Types of Libraries

A library is an invaluable tool when you're conducting your genealogical search. There are three types of libraries you should consider exploring:

Public Libraries

In most cases, you'll discover that local public libraries are a good source for historic information about their communities. Often they act as depositories for a variety of local records. Some larger libraries, such as the Library of Congress and the New York Public Library, may also have detailed census records, large collections of government documents, and, in some cases, extensive genealogical collections.

University Libraries

The holdings of major university libraries can also be a valuable resource. In addition to having many of the same offerings as a public library, a university library may also contain archives or special collections which can aid you in your research. However, instead of concentrating on one location, these archives and collections are more likely to come from a variety of geographic areas. Be aware that many campuses have more than one library -- you'll want to make sure you go to the proper site for the type of information you are seeking.

Genealogy Libraries

These libraries, which generally contain large quantities of church and government records and other genealogical data, can be one of the best places for a genealogist to go. Although the largest genealogy library is operated by the Genealogical Society of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City, Utah, numerous smaller libraries are located throughout the U.S. and Canada. You should consult your local or state genealogy society to learn about genealogy-specific resources in your area.

Information Storage

Information in modern libraries is stored in a variety of formats. Here are some tips for conducting your search:


Most libraries use either the Library of Congress Classification System or the Dewey Decimal Classification System to arrange their collections. Both of these systems arrange the books according to the books' call numbers, which in turn are assigned according to the books" subjects. In order to find a specific book, you must obtain the book's call number. The two primary ways are:

Computerized card catalog: Many libraries now have computerized card catalogs. These allow you to quickly look up and print out references for the materials you seek. All of these computer systems allow you to search for books by title, subject, or author (or a combination of the three), and most allow you to enter additional search criteria. If you are uncomfortable using the computerized card catalog, ask a librarian to spend a few minutes showing you how to use it. In the long run, using the computerized system will save time. Please note that many libraries only have their most recent books listed in the computerized system. For older texts, you may still have to use the standard card catalog. Ask a librarian if this is the case in the library that you are using.

Standard card catalog: Standard card catalogs sort the library's books alphabetically by title, subject, and author. There is a card for each citation, and these cards are stored in an array of small drawers. Depending on the library, cards in these three categories may be filed either together or separately. To find the book you are looking for, simply look up the title, subject, or author in the card catalog as you would a name in a phone book. Please note that some libraries with computerized card catalogs do not list their most recent acquisitions in their standard card catalogs. For newer texts, you may still have to use the computerized catalog. Ask a librarian if this is the case in the library that you are using.

Some libraries, especially genealogical libraries, may have an alternative system for organizing their texts. Make sure you understand how the library you are visiting is organized before beginning a search.

Documents, Records, and Archival Material

Libraries employ a wide variety of systems for filing their documents, records, and archival material. To find these items, you will most likely use some combination of computerized and printed catalogs. In addition to the actual hard copies of these documents, you may find them in three other formats:

Microfilm: Many libraries store photographs of important documents and other printed material on reels of microfilm. In general, a successful search in the catalogs will steer you to a specific reel of microfilm. Using a viewer, you can peruse the entire reel, scroll to specific frames, and perhaps photocopy those items which interest you. Installing film in the viewer can be troublesome the first time you try it, so don't hesitate to ask someone for help.

Microfiche: Microfiche is similar to microfilm except that it comes on small rectangular sheets instead of reels, with each sheet containing perhaps 30 photographs. Microfiche is generally easy to use; see the instructions attached to your machine for additional details or consult a librarian.

Online: Many libraries now have computers which store the text and, in some cases, the actual images, of the documents you may be seeking. These systems are generally user-friendly and allow printouts.

Final Note

Given the wide variety of filing systems and resources at each library, we strongly encourage you to cultivate a good relationship with the staff of the libraries you visit and to enlist their help in your search. In addition, make sure you have explored each library's full resources -- many libraries contain a variety of offerings which aren't immediately apparent.

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