Finding Genealogy in Library Catalogs

by Gena P. Ortega | Apr 22, 2013

When I was a teenager working at our city library, the only way to search the library's collections was by stepping up to a wall of cabinets with little wooden drawers that held numerous index cards in alphabetical order. They organized materials, but they could be cumbersome to work with.

Online library catalogs have made things much easier and faster. Here are some tips as you conduct a reasonably exhaustive search for your family history.

Not Just Your Local Library

All those years ago when I worked at the library, conducting an exhaustive search required pulling out several of those card drawers and searching. What if you were curious about the resources at a different library? Back then, you needed to call or make an additional trip to search that collection.

Fast forward to the present day where those little drawers are now sold at antique stores and library catalogs are searchable online. Not only can you easily search your local library's collection but also thousands of libraries at once by using catalog websites like WorldCat, which includes the catalogs of over 10,000 libraries and includes 1.5 billion items.

Where to Start

Books are by cataloged by author, title and subject. When researching your family history you may not know the author or title of the sources you need. You will most likely want to search by a keyword.

Searching by an ancestor's name may be the least effective way to search in a library catalog. Why? Unless your ancestor is the author of the book or the book is about them, their name won't appear in the card catalog. That doesn't mean they aren't mentioned in a book; it just means they don't appear as one of the subject headings.

Start with using keywords like the name of the city and state your ancestor lived in. Then try the county and state. Was your ancestor a member of a church? Try a combination of keywords for the place and the church's name. Try searching on the name of the group your ancestor belonged to, such as the International Order of Odd Fellows, Masons or the Grand Army of the Republic.

Make sure to keep a list of all the keywords and phrases you search on and record what you find, even if you find nothing. This research log can come in handy as you discover additional catalogs to search. Also, remember that catalogs are not stagnant; they are constantly being updated to reflect new additions and changes to collections so plan on searching the catalog again as your research progresses.

Subject Headings

Have you ever searched a library catalog and couldn't find what you wanted? What keywords were you using? What you may consider a great keyword or phrase search may not be the same words used to catalog the books.

Why is this important? Consider this. One of my research interests is cookbooks. What word would you use to find cookbooks in a library catalog? You're probably thinking, "I would use the word cookbooks to find cookbooks." Only problem is that until recently, the subject heading used to catalog cookbooks was "cookery." So a search on "cookbooks" would not have led me to all the possible resources I might be interested in. It would give me some results, but not everything.

Online catalogs help you with possible subject headings by providing links to those that go with your results. For example, for the book for Isle of Canes by Elizabeth Shown Mills, WorldCat suggests the subject headings "African American families -- Fiction," "Louisiana -- Fiction" and "Islands -- Fiction." I can click on one of these headings and new search results are shown using that subject heading. That can lead to resources I may not have found otherwise with the keywords I was using. Many library catalogs have their subject headings hyperlinked in a similar way.

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There Are 50 Pages of Results. Now What?

The great thing about today's library catalogs is that they allow you to narrow your results so that you are only seeing the results that are pertinent to your research. Most catalogs will give you various choices of how to see or filter your results. This is where you can narrow a result by type, language, format, year, audience, and other categories. Use these tools to exclude materials that aren't relevant to your research. For example, you could exclude fiction or juvenile titles.

It Pays to Explore the Catalog

Online library catalogs provide the convenience of starting your research from home. Save time at the library by starting your "to look at" list before you even get there. By taking some time to explore the catalog, you'll find all sorts of good resources to examine. And remember, if you have trouble finding what you need, ask a librarian. They are happy to help!


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