Lesson 6: Use the Catalog to Your Best Advantage!


The most effective genealogical researchers make it a point to learn how to use catalogs to maximize their ability to connect with resources. Certainly, if you visit libraries and archives in person, you can use a catalog while there and get help if you have trouble locating the resources you want. However, doing your research in advance of an on-site visit will save you precious on-site time. If you are conversant with the use of the catalog yourself, however, you can make a tremendous amount of headway with your research into the available resources without needing to even speak with a librarian. Let’s look at three examples of the effective use of catalogs.


Example 1:

Let’s say you are planning to visit the large genealogical collection at the New York Public Library, and you want to save yourself some time on-site. If you visit their Web site at http://www.nypl.org, you definitely want to know the address of the facility you want to visit, the days and hours of operation, their policies for use of the facilities, and the cost of photocopies and other services.

If you enter the word ‘genealogy’ in the search box on the main screen, you will be rewarded with a number of links to the library’s collection. You would learn, by visiting the one at http://www.nypl.org/research/chss/lhg/genea.html that The Irma and Paul Milstein Division of United States History, Local History and Genealogy is located at The New York Public Library, Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street, New York, NY 10018-2788, and that their telephone number is (212) 930-0828. An e-mail address is also listed. You can then read about the collection’s contents, that it offers an e-mail reference inquiry service, and access to a number of electronic databases online.

More important, you can use LEO, the Catalog of the New York Public Library, or CATNYP, the Research Libraries Online Catalog, to search by word/keyword, author, title, subject, call number, or other criteria. You also can use advanced search options.

By using the online catalog from your home computer, you can certainly compile your list of materials that you want to use at the library in advance of your visit. By having read the material at http://www.nypl.org/research/chss/lhg/research.html in advance, you will have learned that many of the library materials are held in “closed stacks,” and must be retrieved for researchers by library staff. That means that you can have your list of materials you want, organize them into a sequence to be retrieved for you, and then you can work them in an organized fashion when you arrive on-site to conduct your research.

As I mentioned before, the online catalog of The National Archives in Kew at https://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/ allowed me to place orders for several items in advance of my visit so that they were available when I arrived. Many libraries and archives allow you to place an “electronic reserve” on an item to hold it for you.


Example 2:

You know that National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) at https://www.archives.gov/ is one of the greatest genealogical resource facilities in the United States, and you probably know that NARA has a number of branches located across the country. However, not everything is available at all branches. By performing researching online at their Web site, you would learn that the originals of the World War I Draft Registration cards are located at the NARA Southeastern Branch in Morrow, Georgia, but that microfilm is available at all branches. Perhaps you are then going to plan a visit to Morrow and want to make the most of your time at the NARA Branch.

Your advance research would provide you with the address of the facility, the days and hours of operation, but you would also learn that you must have a researcher’s ID card. You could learn in advance what is involved in completing an application and getting your ID right away. You also could prepare for your trip in advance by using NARA’s catalog, the Archival Research Catalog (ARC), to locate information about their holdings. If you want to use their microfilm of the World War I Draft Registration Cards, you could use their Microfilm Locator to determine the microfilm publication number (M1509) and the appropriate roll for the area in which your ancestor lived at the time of the draft calls.


Example 3:

Let’s say you were interested in the family history of the Ball Family of Virginia and you’d heard that there was an old book available about the family. If you know the library in which a copy is held, you could go to their Web site, access their catalog, and get the information. Some catalogs facilitate e-mailing a copy of the catalog record to your e-mail address, saving you time and energy.

If you did not know which library or libraries have a copy of the book, you may be able to use the WorldCat database to find out. This is a free database available online at https://www.worldcat.org/  It is a catalog of U.S. (and some foreign) libraries’ holdings. If you have never used it before, you may find it helpful to call a reference librarian at a nearby public or academic library to talk you through the steps.

Once you have the information on the book in question, you now have all you need to visit the library and locate the book in the collection. However, if you cannot or will not visit the library, there is another option open to you: Interlibrary Loan, or ILL. ILL is a service that allows customers of a library to request the loan of a book from its owning library to their own. However, since most genealogy and local history collection materials are non-circulating reference materials, chances are slim that you can actually have your library borrow the book. However, all is not lost! ILL can be used to request that photocopies be made of certain pages and sent to you or to your library for pick-up. You will probably need to make two ILL requests. The first will request a copy of the pages of a book’s index for the surname(s) you are researching and a second, after you’ve received the index pages, will be used to request copies of the text pages from the book in question.


Course Summary: Work like a Professional!

I think you can see from each of these examples that there is tremendous value to having performed advance research in an online catalog. This is what a professional genealogist working for or with clients will do. He or she will develop a research plan in advance, determine who is to be researched, identify what is already known and what has already been researched, and negotiate with the client what information is needed or desired. Based on all of this, the professional researcher will assess what records might be available, where they may be physically located or stored, and then formulate a detailed research strategy before leaving on the research trip. This advance preparation almost always includes accessing the online catalogs of local public and academic libraries, as well as those of local and perhaps state, regional, and national archives.

Your research should be done just like that of a professional genealogist. You can improve your research skills as well as your time management by investing the effort to become really conversant with the use of the electronic catalogs of libraries and archives. And with your expanded catalog searching skills, you can be sure that your research success rate with improve.

And when in doubt, ask the library or archive staff for help and instruction.