Family History Research At University Libraries

by Gena P. Ortega | May 19, 2011

Gena P. Ortega

Go back to school! Well you won't really have to attend a school but one place overlooked by genealogists is the university library. University libraries, like all libraries have resources that cover genealogy and local history as well as newspapers, special collections, manuscripts, and digitized collections. Researching an academic library should be part of your overall research plan.

What Does a University Have to Offer?

A university library offers much more than the usual books and periodicals. Universities provide researchers with manuscript collections, archival collections, photographs and ephemera. For example, many universities have digital collections that are available online. One example is the USC Digital Archives, which includes maps, photographs and theses/dissertations from the University of Southern California. The thesis collection is one of my favorites. It includes a 1936 thesis from a sociology student that details the societies and organizations that were at the heart of the French community in Los Angeles. This is a must have for anyone with French ancestors living in the Los Angeles area in the early 1900s.

University libraries have manuscript collections that can bring rich detail to your ancestor's life. Manuscripts are typically items that have not been published, so this can include diaries/journals, store ledgers, correspondence, scrapbooks, newspaper clippings, personal papers of an individual, photographs and ephemera. (Ephemera are paper items that were not meant to be used more than once like posters, tickets, menus and the likes). Items from a manuscript collection may come from people who lived in your ancestor's community. Although your ancestor did not leave a diary behind, a neighbor might have and within that diary may be mentions of your ancestor. Manuscript collections contain information that documents a community and within that documentation can be information that provides you with more than just the dates and places of your ancestor's life.

One example of a manuscript collection can be found on the East Carolina University website. They provide an overview of their manuscript collection, categories of manuscripts, and how to access their collection. You can learn more about their collection through their Collection Guides. One item in their collection is the Utaka Hoshimoto Papers, a collection that documents his World War II military life. In this case, Mr. Hoshimoto was from Utah, a good reminder that manuscript collections are not always located in the place where a person lived.

Manuscript collections and other archival collections are often cataloged differently than a library collection. Manuscript collections may be cataloged according to the location they cover or the author of the collection. When searching an archival catalog, make sure to not only conduct a surname search but include a search on the location your ancestor was from. You can also search for characteristics of your ancestor like their occupation or religion to find items that might provide social history background for your ancestor.

Some university libraries also have Women's Manuscript Collections that include materials owned by or written by women.

Not sure what academic libraries exist in the area that your ancestor lived? Try Libcat, for a list of all types of libraries, indexed by state.

Using the Online Card Catalog

A search on a university library online catalog may be different than searching your local public library. Public library catalogs use the Dewey Decimal system to classify and organize their books while academic libraries use the Library of Congress Classifications. Another difference is that with public libraries, anyone can search a an online card catalog however, with academic catalogs, portions of the catalog is restricted to those who have a library card. You may be only able to search books versus periodicals, dissertations or online databases.

As you search the library catalog try searching for materials that are about the locality of your ancestor. This will provide you hits that may include items that include mention of your ancestor rather than searching on just your ancestor's name and not finding anything. If you don't find items, then look for the catalog's advanced search feature. Advanced searches allow you to narrow or broaden your search with additional keywords. In some cases, the library might also provide an online guide to help answer questions about their catalog guide or additional subject guides that detail materials covering a specific subject.

As you search the catalog, check for a feature that allows you to save the books you are interested in. Once you are finished searching you will be able to email or print off your list. This will help create a research bibliography for you that you can use on your next research trip. Some catalogs, including WorldCat, generate a citation which can be helpful as you create a research log of what you have looked at, thus not duplicating your efforts.

An alternative to searching on university library catalog is to use WorldCat, <>, which allows you to search through 1.5 billion materials available through 10,000 libraries, including university libraries. WorldCat includes books, periodicals, these/dissertations, and archival collections. When you provide your zip code, WorldCat shows what libraries nearest you has a particular item that you are interested in. In some cases you may be able to do an interlibrary loan between your local public library and a university library.

Another place to search for university collections is through the National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections (NUCMC). This catalog includes repositories from throughout the United States. NUCMC is searchable by keyword and can help you locate collections by searching on a locality or subject. This catalog is a little tricky to search, I recommend looking at the Frequently Asked Questions.

Not finding what you need? Ask a librarian for help. You can do this by calling the library or through email but many university library websites offer a real time chat feature where you simply type your question in a chat room and the librarian provides the answer. Stay away from going into too much detail about your research. Stick to the facts of what you need. It's better to say "I'm researching a family who lived in Frontier County in the early1900s, what materials might you have covering that area?" then "I'm researching my grandfather and he was a pioneer of Frontier County, I want to find out everything about him."

Before You Visit

As with any visit to a repository you want to be prepared. Know beforehand what you want to look at by searching the online catalog. By searching and noting what resources you want to research you will give yourself more time to do research.

While most academic libraries welcome members of the community to research, there are some that restrict who can research at their facility. Private academic libraries often will restrict who can use their facilities while public universities and colleges most likely will allow community members to research at their facility as well as grant limited borrowing privileges because they receive state funding. Whenever you decide to research at any library or archive, call or consult their website first to learn about the facility and any restrictions they have on researchers. In some cases you may just need to sign in and show identification but in other cases, the library may not be open to anyone outside of their academic community. Make sure you are familiar with the campus and know where and how much parking is. You may also want to note where the nearest caf´┐Ż on campus is in case you get hungry from finding so much information on your ancestors.

Also, while searching on the library catalog make sure to note the availability of items you are interested in researching. Some items may be in closed stacks and have to be retrieved by a librarian. They may also have items that are archived off site and need 24 hour notice to retrieve them.

Finally, make sure that you understand their photocopying policies. It may be fine to use a photocopy machine to copy pages out of a book or periodical but a manuscript collection may require special handling due to its age or condition. If you are planning to use the item for a family history book or to post on the Internet, you will need to ask about the institutions copyright policies. If they own the copyright, they may require a letter indicating what you plan to use the item for and possibly payment for a one time or more use.

A university library can hold genealogical resources that are not found elsewhere. Manuscript collections, digitized collections, local history collections, and reference books are all available at university libraries. Broaden your research horizons and use an academic library to learn more about your ancestor.

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