The Library of Congress (LOC) has one of the world’s largest genealogy collections. Its 38 million cataloged books, manuscripts and other print materials in 470 languages include more than 50,000 compiled family histories and over 100,000 US local histories. The library also collects local histories from around the world, with strong collections for Western Europe, especially the British Isles, Ireland and Germany.
Only a small percentage of the LOC’s holdings are online, but that includes photos, maps and manuscripts that can be great genealogical resources. If you do get the chance to visit the library in person, it’s thrilling to sit in the magnificent Main Reading Room or browse the stacks in the Local History & Genealogy Reading Room. (Most materials are in closed stacks and need to be requested.) Whether you can research onsite or from home, here’s how to mine the library’s website for genealogy resources.
Tip: Video is an often-overlooked resource at the library. Learn how to use the historical video collections at the Library of Congress to learn more about your family’s history.
Genealogy Records at the Library of Congress
For an overview of the LOC’s genealogy resources and services, start with the Local History & Genealogy Reference Services page. Under Tours and Research Orientations, you can access a variety of more specific how-to resources, including two focusing on Amish and Hispanic genealogy research at the LOC.
Under The Collections, learn about the library’s onsite resources. A copy of every copyrighted published book in the United States is automatically added to the Library’s collections. (Click on the link for Acquiring Published Genealogies for details on donating a genealogy or local history book to the library.) In addition to family and local histories, the LOC has one of the few strong royalty, nobility and heraldry collections in America.
Vertical files in the Local History and Genealogy Reading Room contain magazine and newspaper clippings, as well as genealogical charts and newsletters. These items aren’t listed in the LOC catalog, but you can download the Vertical File Subject Index and a list of Family and Regional Newsletters.
The library doesn’t lend its books and other print materials via interlibrary loan. But microfilm copies, which cover most of its books on US genealogy and local history published between 1876 and 1900, are available on interlibrary loan. Ask your local library’s reference staff for help. And as copyright law allows, LOC staff can photocopy books by request for a small fee.
The Local History & Genealogy Reference Services page also has a Bibliographies and Guides link, focusing on genealogical topics such as African-American family histories, Hispanic research and Civil War diaries.
Digitized items you can view on the library’s website include Sanborn fire insurance maps and other old maps of US towns and cities; oral histories with former slaves, military veterans and others; photos; and digitized historical newspapers at Chronicling America.
How to Search for Your Family’s Records
Photos, maps and manuscripts
The search box at the top of the home page and on most of the site’s pages lets you search LOC online catalog descriptions of print and digital collections, as well as pages on the website and digitized items that are indexed. Using the dropdown menu to choose a type of item, such as books, maps or photos, is a helpful way to narrow the scope of your search. (You can choose Newspapers, but it’s much easier to use the separate Chronicling America search, described below.)
Filters on your results screen let you drill down by type of item, publication date, collection, author and other criteria. Selecting the first filter, for Available Online, is yet another way to see only items accessible on the LOC website.
A name search probably won’t be productive unless your relative was well-known, but it’s worth a shot. Try searches for the name and for a last name with the word family. Searching All Formats for Abigail Adams and filtering by Available Online yields 467 results. I can use the Original Format filters to see just digitized photos, books, manuscripts or another type of item.
Searching by place or other terms can lead you to maps, photos and manuscripts that relate to your research, including unindexed materials that name relatives. To find digitized maps, choose Maps from the search pull-down menu at the top of the home page and enter a state, county, town or other place. Adding a keyword, such as Civil War (to find battlefield maps) or landowner (to find maps with names of landowners) can help narrow your search. On the results page, use the filters on the left to see only maps related to select time periods, locations or library collections (see a search example above). Find photos by choosing Photos, Prints, Drawings from the search dropdown menu. Search for a county, town, neighborhood, street, church, school, business or other organization.
Family and local history books
The Library Catalog search link on the home page (under the large image) has advanced and subject search options that work best for finding offline family and local histories. Use these strategies:
Research last names
Enter the last name plus the word family in the Quick Search box. Entering Cooley family returns 74 matches, including Cooley Genealogy, published in 1941, which traces my Cooley line to Colonial New England, and handwritten family trees prepared in 1968 by my relative Julia Cooley Altrocchi.
To narrow the search to matches with the subject term Cooley family—not just keywords anywhere in the catalog record—look under the Refine Your Search filters on the results page and select Subject (instead of All) from the dropdown menu. Click the Search button. That produces 16 matches, including the two previously mentioned.
Add search terms
If you’re researching a common last name, adding another term, such as a place, helps you focus on the best matches. A search on Hall family produces 2,207 matches. Click on Refine Your Search, search on Hall family AND Wallingford (the town they settled), and hit Search. This narrows the matches to four, including two about the Wallingford Halls.
Do an advanced search
To easily build a query using AND, OR and NOT, click on Search Options at the top of the results screen and select Advanced Search. Put Hall family in the first box and Wallingford in the second box. This searches on the two search terms as Keywords Anywhere, and turns up six matches, including four about the Hall family of Wallingford.
To find history books about a place, click Library Catalog and run a subject search on the name of a town, county or state and the word history. Use the standard state abbreviation, but try the state’s full name, too. To find histories of Mercer County, Ill., click on Library Catalog on the home page and select Keyword Search on the next screen. Enter Mercer County Ill history in the Search box, select Subject in the other box and hit Search. That produces seven matches, which mention my relatives.
Browse subject terms
Browsing subject terms is a good way to find family histories, local histories and other useful items. On the home page, click on Library Catalog and then on Browse. Select Subjects Containing in the first box, enter a last name, a last name plus the word family or a place name in the second box and click Search.
When entering a county name, add the word county or co (try both) and the state name or abbreviation (again, try both). Search with Otsego County in the Subjects Containing field and matches include Otsego County (N.Y.)—Genealogy, Otsego County (N.Y.)—History and Registers of births, etc.—New York (State)—Otsego County. Click on any of these entries to view books and other items classified with that subject.
Search digitized newspapers
Newspapers often turn up family details you won’t find anywhere else. Chronicling America has two parts—digitized newspapers and a directory. Click on the Search Pages tab to do a simple search (shown below). Try different forms of a person’s name, such as John Hudson Pennington, John H. Pennington and J. H. Pennington. Search for the name (without quotation marks around it) and as an exact phrase (with quotation marks) and with the last name first. Also try searching on a name with an occupation, place of residence, spouse’s name or other terms associated with the person.
A search limited to California newspapers from 1880 to 1909 for my great-great-granduncle “J. H. Pennington” (as an exact phrase) produces 21 matches. One of them, an article in The San Francisco Call of Dec. 23, 1895, describes him as “a fine, military-looking gentleman, who had money to spend freely” and was “a visitor at all the exclusive clubs,” but was now charged with bigamy.
The Advanced Search option here lets you compose complex queries by just filling in the blanks. A search for “all the words” Pennington and “any of the words” divorce bigamy in newspapers from 1880 to 1909 produces 4,530 matches ranked by relevance. The first one is my guy. Searching on just the last name in “all the words” turns up a fascinating article in The Daily Herald of Brownsville, Texas, dated May 8, 1894, describing my relative as “a giant in stature” with “good features, frank blue eyes and a perennial smile.” Having recently departed for South America, he was now being sued for divorce by the wife he deserted in California. (She didn’t yet know he was still married to a woman in Canada.)
Click on the tab for “All Digitized Newspapers 1789-1963” to find newspapers by state, ethnicity and language. Then you can browse a specific newspaper by date. That could be helpful when searches aren’t fruitful, but you have at least an approximate date of a marriage, a death or another event.
The US Newspaper Directory, 1690-Present provides details on historical US newspapers, most of which aren’t yet digitized. Search by state, county, city, years and other criteria. The directory tells you where to find microfilm copies that may be available on interlibrary loan. Search for my hometown Glyndon, Minn., and you find that the town’s earliest newspaper, The Red River Gazette, was published from 1872 to 1874. Issues from June 27, 1872, to July 17, 1873, are available on microfilm from the Minnesota Historical Society.
Finding Digitized Books Listed in the LOC Catalog
Use catalog links to digitized books on other sites
For example, its description of The Halls of New England, Genealogical and Biographical, a 735-page genealogy published in 1883, says the library has the book on microfilm, but it also links to an electronic copy on HathiTrust and to LC Find It, which lets you search for the book on Google Scholar, Google Book Search, Google and other search engines with a single click.
Search the web
Many of the family history and local history books at the LOC are also digitized and available online at FamilySearch Books, Google Books, the HathiTrust Digital Library, and Internet Archive. Check for digitized books on those sites, which are all free, as well as subscription genealogy websites you have access to. Instead of going through each of these sites one by one, you might start by searching Google for the title.
A version of this article appeared in the March/April 2017 issue of Family Tree Magazine. Last updated: December 2019