Genealogy and Public Libraries

by Emily Guier, Head Editor, INALJ Wyoming

Genealogy and Public Libraries

emilyguierIn my first year of taking classes for my MLIS, I was working full-time as a legal assistant. In order to get some library experience, I volunteered with my local public library. The woman who was in charge of assigning volunteers tasks thought I would get more out of the experience if I were doing some research projects rather than simply shelving books for a few hours a week. And so I was introduced to the Wyoming Room.

The Albany County Public Library in Laramie has a room dedicated to Wyoming authors, historical research tools, and newspaper clipping files of local interest stories. This room was awesome and I loved spending time in there. As the Wyoming Room volunteer, one of my tasks was to assist with genealogy and obituary requests. Having not spent any time doing genealogical research prior to this, I had no idea how many people request copies of obituaries to get them started on their research. On average, I would have several obituaries to find each week, often from patrons who lived in other parts of the state or country.

Often times, the search for an obit was straightforward. The patron would send the name and applicable dates and I would locate the appropriate issue of the newspaper. For speed, microfilm tended to be easiest, but ACPL had back copies of the local newspaper bound in large hard-cover editions that were really fun to flip through, especially to look at the classified ads. Not all genealogy requests are simple, though, and the puzzle of finding some obituaries when the patron was unsure of dates created a fascinating puzzle, and allowed me to stretch my research skills over a variety of library resources.

Public libraries provide many resources for exploring genealogy. (Disclaimer: I am not an expert in this and will only touch on the resources I have used and have some degree of familiarity with. I imagine more experienced genealogical researchers are shaking their heads at this elementary approach!) Databases like Ancestry or Heritage Quest are available to cardholders at no additional cost. As I mentioned above, back issues of local newspapers are a valuable resource and tend to be available in a variety of formats. It is important to note that there other, more easily overlooked sources in addition to papers and databases:

  • Phone books – old phone books can help determine the dates of a person’s residence in the community. Many libraries also have business directories that stretch back many years.
  • Cemetery records – some cemeteries have an online database of where people are buried and the date of their internment.

Often, communities will have local genealogical societies that can serve as a resource with these kinds of inquiries. In Laramie, members of the genealogical society compiled an index of obituaries for a period of years that was an invaluable and time-saving resource. I have also noted that many public libraries will hold genealogical workshops to help people get started in their search or assist them in making progress.

Even after years as a devoted library-user, I am amazed at the variety of services public libraries provide for their communities. What are some other lesser-known but interesting services your library provides? Have you done any genealogical research through your public library, and if so, would you add any resources or research tips?