Using Libraries’ and Archives’ Catalogs Effectively


Course Overview:

Computers have changed everything in our lives, and few changes have been more dramatic than in the area of access to information. When I was growing up, the library card catalog was a familiar fixture in our small-town library. Beautiful walnut index card file drawer cabinets on sturdy legs, the cards organized by author, by title, and by subject. The cards were typed and, as a teenaged volunteer and later part-time employee, I certainly typed my share of them. The books were classified as fiction or non-fiction, and the latter were assigned the appropriate, unique Dewey Decimal Classification System call number.


Understand the Classification System in the Repositories

Serious researchers, students, and casual users of libraries and archives usually learn very quickly how to navigate the facility they are using. The physical layout of the facility and the locations of the various resources are essential but, these days, we must recognize that the primary access point to all the resources is the Online Public Access Catalog, or OPAC. The catalog typically includes the facility or facilities for accessing the resources there – books, magazines, periodicals, serials, maps, microform materials, special collections, digitized materials, and other materials. In addition to the items included in the catalog, there typically may be online subscription databases available, as well as public access Internet computers.


It is essential that, as a genealogical researcher, that you invest the time to study and form at least a rudimentary understanding of the library’s or archive’s classification system’s structure. This will help assure a higher success rate in locating and accessing the materials you want to use, both in the facilities you physically visit and ones located at a distance from you. I’ll share more on that later in the article.