Genealogy Guide to the Library of Congress Website

Genealogy Guide to the Library of Congress Website

Learn the best search strategies for finding your family history using the Library of Congress website, with tips and tutorials demonstrating how to find free photos and old maps on the Library of Congress website.

Web address: loc.gov
Owner: US Congress         
Launched: 1994
Contact: 101 Independence Ave. SE, Washington, DC 20540, (202) 707-5000

Stats

  • Records: More than 164 million items including legal materials, films, maps, sheet music and sound recordings
  • Books and Print Materials: 38+ million cataloged books and other print materials in 470 languages 
  • Manuscripts: 70+ million 

Library of Congress 

Major Content Collections

  • American Memory: more than 100 collections containing 9 million digitized items such as American State Papers recording Congressional acts from 1789 to 1838 (laws granting individual petitions, such as for a divorce, are documented here), Civil War images, Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project, WWI Military Newspapers, and panoramic maps of US and Canadian cities 
  • Library of Congress Online Catalog: contains 17 million catalog records for books, serials, manuscripts, maps, music and more
  • Geography and Maps: more than 5.5 million maps, 80,000 atlases, 6,000 reference works, 500+ globes, and a large number of other cartographic materials in other formats
  • National Jukebox: recordings from 10,000 78rpm disc sides issued by the Victor Talking Machine Co. between 1900 and 1925
  • Prints & Photographs: more than 14 million photographs, fine and popular prints and drawings, posters, and architectural and engineering drawings  
  • Veterans Oral Histories: interviews of veterans who served in World War I through modern wars  
Timeline
1800 | Congress passes act to establish a reference library for its use
1897 | LOC building is opened to the public
1976 | LOC creates the American Folklife Center 
1987 | James Hadley Billington sworn in as 13th Librarian of Congress
1994 | LOC website debuts
1996 | 23 digital collections produced for American Memory Project as part of the Library of Congress/Ameritech National Digital Library Competition
1998 | Prints and Photographs Online Catalog debuts
2000 | Congress institutes the National Digital Information Infrastructure and Preservation Program
2002 | Veterans History Project goes online
2007 | Chronicling America newspaper site launches
2009 | LOC gets on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube
2010 | LOC acquires Twitter archive
 
The Library of Congress (LOC) is the nation’s oldest federal cultural institution and serves as the research arm of Congress. It’s also the largest library in the world. The LOC website offers digital access to a wide variety of print, pictorial and audiovisual materials from its vast collections. Our cheat sheet guide will help you make the most of this fantastic free resource for your genealogy and history research.

Searching Loc.gov

The Library of Congress might not be the first place most genealogists go to flesh out a family tree. But with millions of materials available in its many collections, your search here could turn up a record mentioning your ancestor. But you also might find community histories, maps, oral history interviews, photos and more to help you form research theories and illuminate your ancestors’ lives. You can use the main search screen (shown on the next page) to search all records, or click specific collections to search. Browse to collections of interest by topic, time period, place, or type of materials here. Note that a particular group of records may be part of more than one collection. For example, Civil War maps are searchable in American Memory and in Maps.

You can use either capital or lowercase letters when searching (case doesn’t matter), and enter words in any order. Avoid using punctuation and special characters (such as diacritics) that could throw off your search.

To get more results, use the Search All field on the home page to search everything in the catalog at once rather than searching a single collection. Also use fewer words, because many “inventory level” records include only information from a caption or caption card, so, for instance, an individual’s first name may not be included or fully spelled out (Amelia Earhart nets 56 results; Earhart gives you 61). Check spelling and spacing of search word(s), try alternate spellings, spell out abbreviations, or use wildcards to enable the search to include variations on a word (child* retrieves child, children and childlike). Besides names, search for your ancestor’s street, neighborhood, town, school, church, military unit, fraternal organization, employer or other group. Results may come in different formats including LOC web pages, prints, photos, sound recordings, text, and more.

Not sure what search terms to use? Try browsing highlighted collections or by topics to gather clues about the kinds of images that are in a collection or the kinds of words that are in the descriptions. Finding too much? Narrow results by using the Refine Your Search filters to the left of your search results. By default, LOC.gov shows you matches for items available online. Use the filters to see all items (includes descriptions for the library’s non-digitized materials that match your search), and to narrow results to a particular format (such as photos or books), date range or LOC collection. You can view your search results in a List, Gallery (large icons), or Grid (small icons) by clicking their corresponding icons above your results.

Use advanced search features within each collection to drill down and get better results. In the Prints and Photographs catalog, click Advanced to select options to “match all words” or to “match exact phrase.” Select “No variants” to eliminate words with alternate endings from your search results. If your interest is Veterans History, click on Veterans History (you’ll end up at loc.gov/vets) and select Search the Veterans Collections. You can then search or browse for names, as well as additional categories, to find oral history interviews that shed light on your military ancestor’s experience.

If you can’t visit the LOC to access non-digitized items, visit your local library to ask about using Interlibrary Loan. Here’s where to click on the Loc.gov home page to find what you need:

Library of Congress  
 
1. Type a search term and click “Go” to search all LOC collections at once, or pull down the arrow to select a specific collection to search.

2. Click for access to print, pictorial and audio-visual collections and other digital services.

3. Click to search the LOC online catalog, with descriptions of the library’s books, serials, manuscripts, cartographic materials, music, sound recordings and visual materials. Find examples of genealogical searches on the LOC tips page.

4. Contact an LOC librarian to ask subject-based questions. Some Reading Rooms have an online chat capability.

5. Click here to search the American Memory collection, which now features more than 100 themed collections of manuscripts recordings, images, maps, sheet and more.

6. Use this link to access a catalog describing about 95 percent of the LOC’s pictorial holdings. About 1.2 million are digitized online.

7. Search digitized newspapers and a directory of US newspapers at Chronicling America project.

8. Search for oral histories, photos and other materials relating to veterans.

9. Access a portion of the library’s audio collections, including recordings in the National Jukebox.

10. Browse or search for military, town and county, and other historical maps.

11. Search manuscripts—personal, organizational and other papers.

12. Find answers to most-asked  questions about the LOC, plus news and visitor information.

13. Find links to other LOC entities, such as the Copyright Office, Legislative information and more.

14. Use these links to quickly print, save or share (via social media or email) your finds.

15. Scroll down for links to LOC blogs, apps and other educational resources.

To see if information about your ancestors is included anywhere in American Memory, enter your family name in the search box at the top of each American Memory page. You’ll will want to consult the bibliographies, research guides, and web links available through the Library’s Local History and Genealogy Reading Room.

How to Find Free Photos & Maps on the Library of Congress Website 

 

Top search strategies

  1. Search for surnames.
  2. Do place-based research. To find American Memory collections devoted to particular city, state or regional subjects, you can search the collections in a variety of ways. To find information about a specific place, enter the name in the search box at the top of the page. An All Formats search for San Francisco, California nets more than 23,000 results. Specifying materials that are available online takes it down to 13,400 results. Also try searching just the American Memory collection (which has a Cities and Towns category) and the Maps collection.
  3. Map it. The Library of Congress has custody of the largest and most comprehensive cartographic collection in the world, with more than 5.5 million maps, 80,000 atlases and more. Even though the online maps represent a fraction of what the LOC has, there’s a lot to explore here. Search for towns and counties where ancestors lived. Search for Civil War battles they fought in to see battlefield maps.
  4. Search transcriptions. The LOC groups its manuscript division materials into collections such as African-American Odyssey; WPA Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1940; American Women: A Gateway to Library of Congress Resources for the Study of Women’s History and Culture in the United States; and others. These materials may be available as both digital images and as searchable text; visit the page for each collection for details about it and to browse content. 
  5. Picture it. Searching the Prints & Photographs collections will turn up photographs, prints and drawings, posters, and architectural and engineering diagrams whose catalog descriptions match your search terms. Learn more about the types of images the collections contains. The collection includes many portraits, although not all are identified. In some cases, the images belong to other libraries, and you’ll see only a small version. If you’d like to use the image in your research, check the Rights and Reproductions link for ownership information. 

Quick Tips

  • Searching for prints or photographs? Check the Library of Congress’ Thesaurus for Graphic Materials to find standardized terms the library uses to index images related to your research interests.
  • Many American Memory collections contain sound recordings, video, high-resolution images, and enhanced text that require special viewers. Most plug-ins to view or listen to these items are free downloads. 
  • The Ask a Librarian form lets you ask a general question via an online form. A librarian in your subject area will email you an answer within five days. Pages for some collections offer online chatting for instant help; look for a chat icon.
  • Once you find an item of interest, check its catalog record page. There you’ll see a More Like This section with links to similar items. You’ll also see a list of subjects the item is cataloged under (click one to search for all items with that subject) and a list of all the collections that item is part of (which may suggest other collections you should check). 
  • Most digital images in your search results will have a Share/Save tool at the top of the page. These let you share the item on social media and save a bookmark in your web browser. To save an image to your computer, click the link for the file format and size you want. If it opens in your web browser, right-click (control-click on a Mac) and select Save Image As.

Shortcuts

LOC on Social Media

More Online

 
 
 
Originally published in the March/April 2014 Family Tree Magazine; updated 2017

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