Roots: digging for your family tree at the library

library services

When I lived in the Chicago area, the Newberry Library was one of my favorite places. I occasionally had occasion to cross paths with “the cemetery lady,” a researcher who knew more about cemeteries than just about anyone else in the area.

And why shouldn’t she hang around the Newberry? It has one of the best genealogy collections in the country. If you’re serious about tracing your family tree, be prepared to learn a lot about cemeteries. And the best place to start learning about them, or anything about your ancestors, is at the library. Your local library does not have all the resources that the Newberry has, but it probably has access to some of them.

Here are some major categories of research tools you will need to know about:

  • Census records. The US census has been taken every 10 years since 1790. Data on individuals is available for inspection through the 1940 census. States, and before that, British colonies have occasionally conducted their own censuses. Since we are a nation of immigrants, you may need foreign census data. Your local reference librarian should at least be able to find out what exists and how you can get access to it. The Newberry Library has census data for Canada, Ireland, and Great Britain. Other foreign census records may be available in other American libraries.
  • Passenger lists and indexes. Since we are a nation of immigrants, passenger lists may be able to pinpoint when and where one of your ancestors came to the US and where they came from. Even passenger lists for vessels that traveled only between US cities might have some useful details that census data lacks.
  • City directories. Before there were telephone books, there were directories. You can learn your subject’s profession and street address for any given year. By looking at several years, you can determine whether they kept the same profession and address from year to year or changed.
  • Adoption resources. If someone was adopted, it is often difficult to identify the birth parents. State confidentiality laws have deliberately erected barriers. Several resources exist to help adoptees connect with their own birth families. Many of these same resources can help untangle genealogical puzzles.
  • Biographical resources. If an ancestor was well-known, he or she may be the subject of an article in any of a number of biographical dictionaries or listed in one or more of many series of “who’s who” books. There are even resources for determining who is part of various noble and royal lineages.
  • Ethnic guides. From African-American to Swedish, the Newberry Library has 14 guides to finding people of particular ethnic groups. Other such guides probably exist somewhere.
  • Military guides. In addition to general guides on how to locate anyone who has been in the military, numerous guides have been written for people who fought in most of our specific wars. You can expect to find information about military ancestors whether they died in a war or survived it.
  • State and local guides. Besides census records, all kinds of information is available for various states and counties, including birth records, marriage records, death records, cemetery records, etc. Besides such vital statistics, various guides will put you in touch with various histories of states, counties, towns, churches, and various other local organizations.
  • Newspapers and newspaper indexes. Quite a few newspapers have been preserved on microfilm. Plowing through them is a time-consuming and sometimes mind-numbing activity. Fortunately, indexes have been compiled for some of them. The quality and depth of indexing varies, but at least they will probably include the obituaries.

Chances are your library will not have an extensive collection, but it will probably cover your local area thoroughly. It will probably have at least a few of each of these types of resources and more.

An ever increasing amount of raw data–including the publicly available US census records–is being digitized and made available online. If it’s freely available, your reference librarian can help you find it; then you can access it from home. If it’s part of a proprietary database, your library may subscribe.

Your search is bound to turn up resources that your library doesn’t have, either in hardcopy or online. If any of them are in the circulating collection of some other library, don’t forget that you can obtain them through inter-library loan.
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Source: The Newberry: Genealogy Collection Guides and Research Tools

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