Library Launchpad

By Rhonda McClure Premium

In the not-so-distant past, genealogists had to log in long hours at libraries in order to find and retrieve the records they needed. But since some of the biggest and best genealogical libraries have recently put their catalogs online, we can get much of the work done before setting foot in the library. Few of us live near enough to these libraries to visit them often. When we do go, we want to make every moment count.

The biggest and perhaps best-known is the Family History Library (FHL) in Salt Lake City. I admit to having referred to it as Mecca from time to time. While I’ve been able to visit often, each trip leaves me in awe. The amount of records at my fingertips is truly amazing. Visiting requires some planning, though, to maximize my time there. In the past my prep work involved spending days at the local Family History Center. That was the only place I could go to get information about the holdings of the main library so I could plan my research. Using the Family History Library Catalog <>, I can prepare for my Salt Lake City trip at any hour of the day or night. By searching the record databases and library catalog on this site, you can make a quick trip to a Family History Center to order films. Then you won’t need to schedule another visit to the Family History Center until you’re notified that the microfilms have arrived. During that visit, you can spend your time working with the microfilm or microfiche.

The FHL catalog can be accessed through <> by selecting the Library tab and then the Family History Library Catalog link just below the tabs. Once at the catalog page, you’ll have a variety of search choices:

• place search

• surname search

• author search

• call number search

• film/fiche search

Through these searches, you can see all the resources cataloged and housed at the FHL as of the posted catalog entry date. These resources are in a number of different formats, including books, CD-ROMs, microfilm, microfiche and maps. Often you’ll find that a particular book is also available on either film or fiche. You want to look for such entries, as only the microfilm and microfiche can be ordered and sent to your local Family History Center.

One final note about ordering: Not all of the films and fiche are available for use at the local Family History Centers. When entering agreements with certain repositories, it was necessary to agree to restrict some film for use only in the FHL in Salt Lake City. If such a restriction on the film exists, it will be noted in the catalog.

A new library

While the Family History Library is perhaps at the top of each genealogist’s wish list of places to visit, many other libraries have valuable genealogical collections. I would like to say that I plan every trip I make to any library far in advance, but there are times when I just can’t look a gift horse in the mouth. That happened to me a few years ago. My husband had to go to Chicago on business. Since he had family nearby, we thought it would be an excellent opportunity to take the kids on a vacation. Three days into this trip, my husband suggested that his mother and I take a day to go “do genealogy.”

Chicago is home to the Newberry Library. I certainly wasn’t going to say no, but I was kicking myself for not having planned ahead. Fortunately, I had my database on my computer, and even better, I had a portable printer, and the catalog was online <>.

The night before we were to go to the library, 1 spent a few hours running search after search to see what records were available. 1 also used up a bit of paper printing out those that looked the most promising for my research.

When we got to the library, the staff gave us an overview of how the library works. I was pleased to have my printouts when the librarian explained that the library is a closed-stack library. While closed-stack libraries may have some books and resources available for browsing, the majority of the collection must be requested.

To request a book, periodical or other source, you must fill out a call slip. There is usually a drop box where you place the call slips. Pages get the materials from the closed stacks and bring them to your table. As you may have guessed, this takes time.

By printing some of the resources the night before, I was able to fill out my first set of call slips within minutes of arriving at the library. Most libraries with this type of system limit the number of call slips you can submit at once. While the page went off to retrieve my first batch of requests, I spent time working with the reference and high-use resources that were out in the open. Thus, I made every minute of my unplanned visit to a new library count.

Even if you don’t have a portable printer, if you have a computer and an Internet connection you can still prepare on short notice. Simply write down the pertinent information about the sources of interest. Write down six to eight sources to get you started. Be sure to include as much information as possible about each source so that when you get to the library you can remember why the source was of interest to you. Then, while you wait for these sources to be retrieved, you can either work in open stacks or peruse the catalog more fully to see what else may be available. If you’re new to the library, it doesn’t hurt to use this time to read any brochures or other publications that introduce you to the library, its holdings and its rules.


Here are a few tricks to help you determine how complete an online library catalog is:

Finding the catalogs

Finding library catalogs online is a big Catch-22. In order to find the catalogs, you must use the biggest catalog of them all — the Internet. Directories and search engines can help you find the available catalogs. When working with a search engine, take advantage of the Boolean operator AND to string together some words that pertain to the library you want to locate. For instance, you could use the following search string:


You might also take advantage of one of the free-form question search engines, such as Ask Jeeves <>, and pose a question such as


When working in a directory such as Cyndi’s List <>, you can do this in two different ways. First, you can look under the Library category. Cyndi’s List shows in alphabetical order those libraries that are online. Mind you, not all of these will have an online searchable catalog. Some may have information only about their location and hours of operation and tidbits about their holdings. Even if they don’t offer a searchable online catalog, at least you will have a link to check.

The other method, which I find easier and more likely to generate positive results, is to use the appropriate locality category for the library in question. For instance, to find out if the Allen County Public Library has a Web site, I would begin in Cyndi’s List by scrolling through the headings until I got to the United States category. While I could click on this, links to each of the states are in a chart on this front page.

The Allen County Public Library is in Indiana. Clicking on the Indiana link displays a list of links pertinent to Indiana. On this page the sites are further divided by standard headings such as Societies, Archives and Libraries, and so forth. You can either scroll down this page using your scroll bar, or you can click these heading links to go directly to the set of links you want — in this case click Archives and Libraries.

Clicking on the link for the Allen County Public Library will take you to its home page <>. The Allen County Public Library is not just a genealogy library; it is a fully staffed county public library. It does put a certain importance on genealogy on the site, though. Having spoken with Curt Witcher, the manager of the genealogy and history department, a few times, I know he cares that genealogists and family historians are able to find useful information on the Web site. Not all public libraries will include Web pages devoted to genealogy.

One other method for locating libraries is to take advantage of a Web site that does nothing but compile a list of libraries with online catalogs. Such lists omit those libraries that may have a Web presence but have not put their catalogs online (see box on page 36 for suggested sites).

With the Genealogical Library Master Catalog <>, you can simultaneously search 18 major US libraries on CD-ROM. This catalog ($39.50 for the three-CD set or $14.50 per CD) helps you find any publications about your family or their hometown, as well as learn how to access them through interlibrary loans or photocopy requests. The catalog consists of three CD-ROMs, each listing 100,000 genealogy books and manuscripts, including family histories, local histories and genealogical sources.

PC users with Windows 98 or higher and Macs users with a Power PC or newer can run the catalog. You’ll also need Internet Explorer or Netscape Navigator; Net access is recommended, but not required. Order from (877) 234-3001. (For a complete review of the Genealogical Library Master Catalog, see the December 2001 issue of Family Tree Magazine.)


One method for getting access to books not available at your library is through interlibrary loan. For an interlibrary loan your library requests a book, newspaper or other resource from another library, often out of state. That library then sends the requested item to your local library, and you’re allowed to view the item there.

Libraries around the country participate in this program, including the Library of Congress, which Librarian of Congress Herbert Putnam referred to as the “nation’s library of last resort” when he began lending books from the library’s collection in 1902.

Interlibrary loan must be done through your local library. Do not mistake your Family History Center for a library. Family History Centers are branches of the Family History Library, but they cannot do interlibrary loan with other libraries. In a few instances you will find that the local public library is a Family History Center, but this is uncommon.

Find information for the item in question, complete with ISBN and Library of Congress number, to facilitate the search and request of the book. In some instances, the library you are aware of won’t be able to lend the volume, so your librarian needs this information to find it through another repository.

Interlibrary loan is one more way to help you accomplish your research from home, or at least from your hometown. Searching for the desired resources can be done through online library catalogs at any time of the day or night. Armed with printouts from the catalogs, you should find that you can get many of these resources via interlibrary loan.

What can you find?

Once at the library’s Web site, what do you do? The first thing you need to do is determine whether its catalog is available online. Look for a search link on the home page. Fortunately some libraries have begun to include a catalog link or button, so there is no question. Each online catalog you discover will have a slightly different interface. Don’t get discouraged. It will take some time and a little experimenting, but the more you work with the catalogs, the more success you’ll have.

As the interfaces are different, so too is the content of the online catalogs. Remember that computerized catalogs are relatively new. The incomprehensible number of titles housed in a library may not yet have made it to the computer catalog. This may not be mentioned in the details of an online library catalog, so I mention it here to make you aware that the catalog may not be complete.

Even libraries, such as the Family History Library, that have been cataloging their holdings on computer for years do not release their entire catalogs online at once. The FHL brought out its catalog and most of the databases it has available online in stages. Unlike other sites, though, it made a point of mentioning what sections were available with each release.

If the library in question has a genealogy department and its online catalog appears to be complete, you should be able to search for books and other resources found in its holdings. Keep in mind that in order to control the strain on the computers that perform these searches, the library may have separated its catalogs. Some libraries separate out their periodicals. Others may separate out their microfilm holdings.

Avoid searching on the term genealogy. This is not an effective method of searching; it results in too many entries. The same will happen with the online catalog for any library that has a genealogy department. The sheer number of entries tends to overwhelm, and you’ll have defeated your own endeavor with such a search. No one wants to spend hours looking at each entry. Get above about 50 hits, and you’ll find that your enthusiasm begins to wane.

Instead, approach your search of the library catalog just as you would your search on the Internet. Think about what you want to find. What is the locality or the surname in question? You can always combine the term genealogy with those other terms to eliminate non-genealogical entries, but it shouldn’t be your only search term.

Authors, titles, Keywords, oh my!

One benefit of the online library catalogs is that they often have built-in filters that you don’t see in the general search engines of the Internet. A library is made up of published works. Authors wrote the books. Editors compiled the periodicals. Singers sang the songs on the albums and CDs.

If you know the name of the author of a book you’re trying to find, use that name in your search. Use a search for the author instead of a blanket search of all possibilities. Be warned: Spelling counts in these searches. Library catalogs do not list their authors by variant spellings of the surname.

Some online library catalogs will let you refine a search after the initial search has been completed. Take advantage of this if the search results in a number of entries so high that it knocked you off your seat.

Refining a search tells the library catalog to take the list of results and search through it for an additional requirement. For instance, suppose despite my advice you did a search on genealogy. The number of results was staggering. You can use the refine option to specify an additional term, perhaps a surname or a county.

Now that you know how to find the online library catalogs and search them, you are invincible. I’ve shown you how to make any trip a genealogy trip. Your job now is to convince the rest of your family that all flights go through Salt Lake City, and, yes, it is quite normal to have a three-day layover. I suggest that you vary the libraries when doing this. For instance, take one trip through Salt Lake City. Make the next one go through Washington, DC, and the next time go through Fort Wayne, Ind.


• Libweb Library WWW Servers <>

• LibDex: The Library Index <>

• Gateway to Library Catalogs <>

• Library of Congress: State Libraries


• Directory of Genealogy Libraries in the US


• Library Links <>