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Consult Your Local Library for Genealogical Research

Find out how to perform genealogical research at your local library.

Consult Your Local Library for Genealogical Research

The local library's holdings depend upon the size of the area. Although they may be too small to have books that would directly pertain to genealogy (see Libraries for Genealogical Research), they will no doubt have a number of traditional reference books that will be useful. Check the reference section. Besides the telephone books, look for other types of directories that can be useful to genealogists.

City Directories

Become acquainted with city directories, found in your library's reference section. You will use these extensively, in a variety of ways, as your research techniques develop.

City directories can be highly productive in tracing the earlier generations of your family. Early directories list the residents alphabetically and often included a cross-reference by street address. This provides important details—the neighbors. If the neighbors' families still live there, they may have known your family. If they were close friends, they may even have kept in touch and might provide you with current addresses.

Most cities have changed the format of their directories. They continue to provide a listing by street (called a householder's index), but they have eliminated the alphabetical name listing. Instead, they usually provide a cross-index by telephone number. Although some towns still retain the old-style alphabetical format, in most current editions you lose the ability to search by your family's surname.

Write to the library of the town or city where you believe your family lived. Ask them to search the current issue of the city directory or to photocopy the pages with the surname or street you are seeking. When you're asking for dates in the past, give them no more than one or two years, as most librarians are very busy. Offer to pay the costs, and enclose an SASE.

Genie Jargon

SASE (or S.A.S.E.) is a Self-Addressed Stamped Envelope. Due to the high cost of postage, many organizations (and individuals) will not answer inquiries if one is not provided.

To obtain the addresses of libraries to which you can write, contact the reference librarian at your local library and ask the librarian to check the American Library Directory. Or go to and register for free. That will enable you to search for libraries, though on the free registration you will only be able to see the name and address. (Paid subscribers can access the complete listings of the libraries, which include a listing of the library's holdings.) In using their search feature, if you enter a city on the first line that shows “Library/Institution Name?”, you will get only libraries starting with that name. If instead you choose to enter the city in the “City” field further down the search form, you will get all of the libraries in that city.

Elizabeth Petty Bentley's The Genealogist's Address Book, or Juliana Szucs Smith's The Ancestry Family Historian's Address Book: Revised Second Edition, can assist with addresses, too, although the libraries listed in those sources are mainly those with genealogical holdings. Many small-town local libraries are not included in their books.

Pedigree Pitfalls

Never send a notice for posting on a library bulletin board with writing on both sides; it cannot be properly displayed. Be sure it includes your name and address and, if you have one, your e-mail address. (Your phone number is optional.)

Posting It

In determining ways in which you might find your lost relatives, consider the library bulletin board. The librarian may be willing to post a notice. Mention that your research is for genealogy and enclose a separate notice for posting. Keep it brief, but give enough details to identify the family you are seeking.

Ask the librarian if the library maintains files of letters from people who have written the library for information, often referred to as “vertical files.” A letter from your second cousin, also interested in genealogy, could be in that file waiting for you to find it!

Sign In, Please

Visitor registers are popular in the genealogy section of the library. A bound volume (or loose leaf, or even 3" ¥ 5" cards) is placed prominently for visitors to enter their names, addresses, and the surnames of their interest. The librarian may be willing to search it for the surnames of your interest. In some areas the genealogical society has even indexed such entries.

If you visit any facility with a guest register (courthouse, museum, library, historical attraction), take a few minutes to add your name. Your reward may be a letter or telephone call from a distant relative.

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