Using Local Public Libraries as Genealogical Resources

Using Local Public Libraries as Genealogical Resources

In my previous post about 8 genealogical resources you might not be thinking of, I kind of dismissed the idea of using your local public library and told you to head to the local university library instead. I decided that wasn’t completely fair, since some public libraries do have a wealth of local history (particularly if there’s no established historical society in your area) and often the city’s depository for historical materials is tied to the public library.

In fact, a few years ago I spent a day at the Marin County Free Library, located in the Marin County Civic Center in San Rafael. If you haven’t been there, it’s just a short drive and a quick exit off the highway when you’re coming to/from San Francisco and the building itself is an absolute gem, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and lovingly kept up. It does house a number of working city offices, but you can wander the building, eat at their lovely cafeteria, and check out the displays on local history.

My favorite part of the building, though, is the free library on the 4th floor. In addition to being the quaint book haven that you’d expect a public library to be, they also have a special California Room with a wonderful collection of resources (particularly local to the area), which is staffed by librarians, historians, and volunteers who are happy to help you with whatever you’re looking for.

If you are planning to visit a public library to do genealogical work, I would encourage you to do these 5 things before you visit:

  • Be sure to purchase and bring a lightweight laptop and portable scanner. I know I’ve already harped on this quite a bit, but if the library you visit has special historical articles, it’s very likely that you won’t be allowed to check them out. You can always make photocopies (if they’re allowed), but a photocopy isn’t nearly the quality you’re going to want if this is something you’ll want for your permanent family collection and if they have photographs on hand you’re going to want to be able to scan the best image you can get in the shortest amount of time.
  • Pick 3-5 questions you want answered before you go. Showing up and saying, “Do you have anything about the Jones family?” isn’t going to be as helpful as saying, “My grandfather was Elliot Jones and I’m looking for anything you have related to his stint on the city council.”
  • If there are particular materials that you’re interested in and you know they have them in the collection, call them a day or two before you visit and let them know that you’re coming and you’re interested in seeing this particular thing. Sometimes the local archives are in a special place and letting them know you’re coming gives them a head start on pulling them out and may also inspire them to grab a few more related things you don’t know you’re interested in.
  • Take an index card with your contact information and the things that you are interested in researching. Ask them to contact you if they think of other materials after your visit. You can also ask to be added to any kind of newsletter that they send out. Librarians are great about keeping that kind of stuff at hand.
  • Consider making a donation. If you have items in your possession that pertain to local history, take them along and offer them up to help build their collection. Usually they’re perfectly happy to take a photocopy instead of demanding the original, particularly if you have written family histories or letters that are relevant to the area.

I spent about 5 hours at the library on this trip to California while my sweet husband took the kids to a children’s museum and kept them busy. I was able to scan articles, photographs, business documents, community newsletters, and other bits of ephemera that they had on file. I admit that I’m a little spoiled, because the Quan family has deep roots in San Rafael so they had a few folders for me to sift through without having to do much work on my own, but I did spend the last hour browsing through their amazing collection of California histories. I couldn’t check anything out, since I live in Salt Lake City, but I was able to write down a long list of titles and authors so I could add them to the books I plan on tracking down now that I’m home.

I also made great connections with the wonderful people who manage the California Room and they’ve emailed me a few more resources since I’ve been home, so I now know that I have more helping hands in my “genealogy tribe” in case I hit a stumbling block on this journey.

Have you ever used a public library to find information on your family history?

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