Reference Points

By Sunny McClellan Morton Premium

Maira Liriano assists a lot of genealogists as assistant chief of the New York Public Library’s Irma and Paul Milstein Division of US and Local History and Genealogy. Her facility serves more than 60,000 patrons a year, about 75 percent of whom are doing family history. We asked her about the librarian’s side of the research equation.


Q. What is your favorite thing about working with us genealogists?

A. Your enthusiasm and wonderful curiosity. You’re researching something that’s very important to you. I can get infected by it. I admire your willingness to commit time to doing the research. You don’t expect quick answers or the complete story right away. And you enjoy a mystery, or trying to put the pieces together, which is what librarians do. We share that in common.

Q. What should we understand about librarians’ expertise in genealogy?

A. It depends where you go. In most public libraries, the staff may not be trained in genealogy. But somebody on the staff might be, and you need to find that person. Don’t assume that the first person you talk to represents the entire library’s experience. Genealogy is something that only more recently we as librarians are recognizing we need to learn more about.

Q. How do your reference librarians deal with family history inquiries?
A. Everyone on our staff is trained to handle genealogical questions. But again, we’re not necessarily genealogists; we’re librarians. We help people get the most out of their experience here. We know how to use our collections, new databases and other online sources most effectively. We also know a lot about resources outside of this building and other repositories we can consult. Don’t overlook what we can help you with.

Q. How do you help with complicated questions?
A. Sometimes people ask what [they know how] to ask, instead of what they really want to know. A good reference librarian knows how to draw out your real question. Then we break the question into manageable parts. We get you started on one part at a time. Occasionally, we may get a question that’s a little difficult. We need some time to process it or to ask a colleague, so we check back with you later.

Q. How would you encourage a genealogist who is intimidated by your facility or staff?
A. If you can just walk in the door, we’ll do our best to make you feel at home. Other libraries feel the same way; it’s not just us. We’re here to make information and knowledge available for people—that’s why we exist. We exist for you. You have to believe that’s really true.

From the September 2009 Family Tree Magazine