We’re here to make sure you don’t miss out on essential genealogy information. Our five-step guide to using library catalogs will help you home in on the right resources for your family history search.
1. Target catalogs to search.
Sure, it’s large, but the FHL doesn’t have everything you’ll need. Eric Grundset oversees another major collection, the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) Library in Washington, DC. “Don’t be fooled by our name,” he advises. “With ‘American Revolution’ in our name, people think that’s all we have, when we actually have a very broad collection of materials for the past 400 years.” See our list of other major genealogy libraries you’ll want to search.
The Library of Congress’ National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections (NUCMC) has nearly 1.5 million entries for family papers, diaries, business records, and other manuscripts at libraries around the world. A union catalog I created, the Genealogical Library Master Catalog, focuses on genealogy and local history libraries. You can search it through Ancestry.com ($155.40 per year).
These quirks show why it’s helpful to learn a little about your target library. If you can’t find an item in the catalog, don’t assume the library doesn’t have it. “Ask the librarian, who’s most familiar with the catalog’s idiosyncrasies,” Van Skaik urges. If you can’t visit in person, call or use the Ask a Librarian link on its Web site.
3. Understand how catalogs work.
With an advanced search, you can find terms in specific fields, and you might be able to use the Boolean operators AND (find catalog entries containing all search terms) and OR (find entries containing either term), and sometimes AND NOT (ignore entries with this term). Advanced searching is more targeted, but it’s easier to miss something—a subject search, for example, finds results only if your search term matches a word the cataloger entered in the subject field.
You might even save time by using the advanced search to combine multiple searches into one. Instead of doing separate searches of MnLINK for Mankato Minnesota history and Mankato Minnesota genealogy, I searched for the subject heading Mankato Minnesota AND history OR genealogy (in catalogs offering a subject heading search, you can look for any word in a multiword subject). Matches included vital records books and town histories; among them was one called Mankato: Its First Fifty Years with pictures of my relatives Henry and John J. Shaubut.
Your relative doesn’t have to be a household name to be the subject of a biography or unpublished manuscript. According to an old, yellowed letter, my relative Evan Jones was “a missionary to the Indians.” I searched MnLINK for the keywords missionaries indians, in hopes Evan was mentioned in a book on missionaries. To my surprise, I found a 500-page tome called Champions of the Cherokees: Evan and John B. Jones. Had I thought Evan Jones was ever the subject of a biography, I would’ve searched on his name and found the book much faster.
From the March 2009 Family Tree Magazine