Off the Shelf: Trace Your Family History at Your Library

Back in 2014, several news outlets reported that genealogy was this country’s 2nd most popular hobby. If it waned in the intervening years, last year genealogy got a bump again. Multiple popular online genealogy resources, like FamilySearch and Ancestry, reported upticks in use.

We saw that same trend with library resources. For example, in May of 2020, use of Ancestry Library Edition among our cardholders was up by 89% from the previous year and NewspaperArchive was up by 551%. As people had more time at home, they increasingly turned to researching their family history.

October is Family History Month. The approaching holiday season often gives us more opportunities to talk to extended family and is a good time to think about the questions we have about our own family’s past. Your local library can help you start that conversation and begin the research to find answers.

A curiosity about our family’s past may develop from a general passion for history, a need for legal or medical information, a desire to visit ancestral sites in this country or abroad, or a puzzling family story to verify. Whatever the reason for starting, many people find family history research to be a rewarding and absorbing pursuit. Researchers may plan their vacations around researching in areas their ancestors once lived or spend hours on the computer following clues about their family’s past.

Family historians also spend a lot of time at libraries. While online research options have increased, there are still many resources that can only be found in local history collections in libraries around the country.

Having a local history and genealogy collection is important for public libraries because researchers regularly ask for this information and because it is a unique local service. As I often say, every public library invariably has books by James Patterson and other popular authors on their shelves, but no other library has the collection of postcards, yearbooks, diaries, club minutes, city directories, letters, and photographs of Burlington and Des Moines County that can be found at the Burlington Public Library.

Local library collections also may include guides or indexes that area researchers or genealogy societies have created. For example, we have an old card catalog that serves as an obituary index that the Des Moines County Genealogical Society created. We also have clipping files on individuals, businesses, homes, and organizations that past librarians assembled.

If you are interested in getting started on researching your family history, it helps to first learn about the process used to do genealogy research and the tools available. There are many excellent beginner books. Your local library staff can help you find some to borrow.

Before jumping in to research, start by assessing what you already know. An easy way to get organized is to use a pedigree chart that records your ancestors names and their birth, marriage and death dates and places. This step is best done in pencil, because sometimes what we think we know and what we find when we research turns out to be different. Getting down what you know shows you where you have gaps that you can research. You can find these charts online or ask your librarian to print one for you.

Don’t forget about clues that you may have in your house. Photo albums, a family bible, or other records can help fill in gaps. Of course, they may open more questions, too.

Like many family historians, you may find some great photos that have been passed down in the family that don’t have any names or other labels. Even if you don’t do family research, consider taking some time to label any unlabeled photographs that you have. Future family researchers will thank you.

Talking to other family members also may help you fill in gaps from their knowledge. They may have records or pictures that they are willing to share, or they may connect you with someone who has already done research that you can use. The holidays are a great time to reach out.

It is especially important to take the time to talk to older family members. You may want to check out a book on doing oral history or recording family memories to help you start the conversation. Doing an audio or video recording, if the person is willing, creates a wonderful record for future generations.

Once you have identified what you know and where you still have questions, it is a good time to go back to your library. If your family is from the area, the library’s local records may help you. Even if your family research needs to go outside of your local area, public libraries often have resources beyond their immediate area. For example, our library’s genealogy collection has books of passenger lists with people who came from Germany, Civil Roll rosters, and more.

A tip that I often give is that, if the person you choose to research is no longer living, start by finding a death record and obituary. These records typically have information about parents and birth dates that will help lead you to other records and other names to research. You’ll also want to dig into the census and many other types of historical records to discover your ancestor’s story.

Burlington library cardholders can access Ancestry Library Edition and Heritage Quest Online, which contain a wealth of information from indexes to scans of original records. We also offer NewspaperArchive and NewsBank for access to local newspapers from this country and other parts of the world. Newpapers are a great place to find obituaries, birth and marriage announcements, and other articles that mention family members.

Each person’s family history is unique and so is their search. Some people stop after finding a few generations and others spend years searching for more information. Ask at your local library to learn more about getting started on your family history hunt.

See you at the library!