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Libraries for Genealogical Research

Learn about the different types of libraries where you might pursue genealogical research.

In this article, you will find:

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Libraries for Genealogical Research

The types of libraries vary considerably. Among those you will use are the following:

  • Public and private libraries
  • Genealogical and historical society libraries
  • Lending libraries
  • University and college libraries
  • Ethnic and religious libraries
  • Lineage society libraries

Public and Private Libraries

Public libraries can be very small on the local level or very large on the state level. Most public libraries have materials that can be loaned out, though that service may be restricted to residents. Usually reference books, which may include genealogical material (or fragile or irreplaceable books), are not allowed out of the library. In private libraries some collections are severely restricted in use. In those, manuscripts can usually only be accessed by certain individuals, though their librarians may assist by mail. However, many private libraries do make their collections personally accessible to the general public.

Genie Jargon

Open stack refers to the use of the books. If the library has open stacks, patrons may freely examine books on the shelves.

Genealogical and Historical Society Libraries

The genealogical or historical society library may be public, or it may be the private collection of a particular group. If it is the latter, restrictions may apply and a small fee charged for its use. In some cases, members have open stack privileges, whereas nonmembers do not. If it is closed stack, the books must be requested and then retrieved by the staff. There can be a delay (usually 15 minutes to an hour) before the book is delivered. Most libraries that are considered closed stack do have some of their more commonly requested books available on shelves.

Lending Libraries

Genealogy libraries usually do not allow patrons to borrow the books, but there are exceptions. California's Sutro Library in San Francisco, for example, will allow some books out on interlibrary loan. Go to and follow links. The large collection at the St. Louis County Library in St. Louis, Missouri, (which now includes most of the volumes from the old National Genealogical Society Library of Arlington, Virginia) will lend many materials. Visit their website at There are others. Ask the reference librarian in your own local library for assistance in ordering from other libraries. Borrowed materials normally must be used in the requesting library.

Though interlibrary loan is an advantage for those who cannot travel, the disadvantage can be that the book you want to view may be out on loan when you arrive. To avoid disappointment, call the library before making a long trip. If you are interested in borrowing books by mail, examine the list of lending libraries in Elizabeth Petty Bentley's The Genealogical Address Book. Sometimes loan privileges are based on membership to a society, while others may loan for a small fee. Some also lend microfilm or microfiche.

Genie Jargon

Interlibrary loan is a procedure in which one library lends a book or microfilm to another library for use by a patron.

Tree Tips

When visiting a university library, inquire about their manuscript catalog. That's the most likely place where the “hidden” treasures will be found. Search it by surnames, by localities, and by subject.

University and College Libraries

Among the least-used libraries in genealogy are those of the universities and colleges, though they hold some of our richest resources. In the Colson Library, University of West Virginia, I located fragments of an original deed that had not been recorded. This indisputably proved the parentage of a Virginian born in the mid-1750s. At the Bancroft Library at the University of California in Berkeley, I was thrilled to hold an account book written in the 1700s giving valuable information on the Thomas Jefferson family.

Almost all universities have websites describing their collections. Within those descriptions you'll find extraordinary websites such as “Making of America” (MOA), a joint effort of the University of Michigan and Cornell University. MOA brings us a digital library of thousands of volumes. Among them are images from the two multi-volume series Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion (1894-1922) and The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies (1880-1901).

Locate them at and click on “browse.” Once there, scroll down to the mentioned series. Enter a name, click, and presto!—view the actual page. This is just the “tip of the iceberg” of exciting finds at university sites. Collections such as these, available with a few strokes of our fingers, awakens us to the power of the Web to truly put “flesh on the bones” of our forebears.

Family History Library

The Family History Library (FHL) is maintained by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon) in Salt Lake City. As a result of their religious convictions, their genealogical collection is immense and worldwide. It is not limited to use by members of the church; the materials are available for research by anyone. Their library catalog and other computer projects make access to many of their records relatively easy. They maintain hundreds of Family History Centers across the country. Anyone can order microfilm for use in these branches.

The Family History Library's FamilySearch is an enormous collection of several genealogical databases. It includes the Family History Department's Ancestral File (data collected from church members and others), their International Genealogical Index (an international personal-name database of birth, christenings, and marriages about persons now deceased), and others. These are updated regularly.

One of the most useful segments of FamilySearch is the Family History Library Catalog with its listings of their extensive microfilm holdings. Most microfilm rolls can be borrowed for a nominal fee through your local Family History Center. You'll find microfilm for deeds, probate records, vital records, civil records, and much more, worldwide.

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