Along Those Lines: "Five Things to Learn about Your Library"
by George G. Morgan
Your library is a different place than it was when you were growing
up. The "Information Age" was accelerated by the introduction of the
Internet to the public and its explosive growth more than a decade
ago. Libraries rose to the challenge and now are technology sites,
providing access to the Internet for millions of people. Libraries
also offer access to databases, electronic media, and "traditional"
resources such as printed books, periodicals, serials, and
As libraries have grown and have expanded their scope of access, not
all of us have grown with them. If you think you know the difference
between a card in the old card catalog drawer and its electronic
replacement in the online catalog, that's terrific. But if you're not
a regular library customer--what used to be referred to as a patron--
you may not know how to use the library very well at all.
In "Along Those Lines..." this week, let's explore five things that
you should learn about your library in order to take advantage of all
it has to offer.
THE ONLINE CATALOG
The online library catalog, in most areas of the U.S. and in many
other places around the world, has replaced the old wooden cabinet of
drawers containing typed cards. It is an essential access point into
the collections of any library or archive, and it operates much like
an Internet search engine. An electronic catalog provides much more
flexibility in quickly locating materials in the library's
collection. First of all, you can search the catalog in multiple
AUTHOR. Enter the author's name and search for all materials produced
by this author. Some catalogs allow you to enter a partial name or to
use "wild card" characters to replace letters you're not sure of.
TITLE. Enter the title of the work that you want to locate.
KEYWORD. This option is great if you're not sure of the exact title
or if you want to find all the materials with one or more words
included in the title. Enter one or more words that might appear in
the title, such as:
Entering these two words produces a search results list that includes
all books for North and South Carolina with the word marriage in the
title, such as "Marriage Records," "Marriage Bonds," and "Marriage
and Death Records."
SUBJECT. Every item in the electronic catalog is assigned to one or
more subject areas. Samples might include "genealogy," "American
history," "religion," "Germany," "botany," and many others. If you
want to see every item in a library's collection about genealogy, try
Some electronic catalogs provide other options that might include
such choices as a Quick Search (search using a keyword that might
appear in either the title, the subject references, or both), a Call
Number search (list all the items in the 929 area of the collection--
more on these numbers will follow in the section on organization),
the ISBN/ISSN number, the barcode, or some other numeric
classification), or an Audio/Visual search (search only videotapes,
audiotapes, music CDs, DVDs, or eBooks).
Online catalogs make it possible to access the catalog from anywhere.
Certainly they are accessible from the many computers inside one
library or all the libraries in a system, but the catalogs are also
often embedded in a library's website. This allows you to access the
catalog at any hour of the day from any computer with access to the
There are many software companies that offer their own electronic
catalogs, so there are going to be differences in appearance, in the
number of search options, and in the way the search results are
displayed. Some even allow you to save your searches and to print or
e-mail them. Check with your librarian if you have questions or if
you need help to fine-tune your use of this tool.
THE ORGANIZATION OF THE COLLECTION
The online catalog allows you to determine what materials are in a
facility's collection and where they are located. Most public
libraries use the Dewey Decimal Classification (DDC); most academic
libraries use the Library of Congress (LC) classification system.
Let's focus, though, on the public library.
A public library typically uses DDC in order to provide structure for
filing the materials. This system uses high-level numbers 000, 100,
200, 300, 400, 500, 600, 700, 800, and 900 to separate large groups
of nonfiction materials. Most genealogists concentrate their research
in the 900s, although we also use dictionaries from the 400s,
literature from the 800s, and other resources around the library.
Within each of the "hundreds" are subcategories or subclasses that
group materials at a more granular level. For instance, within the
900s is the familiar (to genealogists) 929 area, which contains
genealogy, names, and insignia. A good reference for the complete DDC
can be accessed at http://www.tnrdlib.bc.ca/dewey.html
Not all genealogy collections are classified and not all materials
are filed alike, however. Some libraries adhere strictly to the DDC
system. That means that there will be items of interest filed in the
929s, of course, but there also will be materials of interest to your
research filed separately. For example, you will find state materials
also filed in one of the following areas:
- 973 General history of North America United States
- 974 General history of North America Northeastern United States
- 975 General history of North America Southeastern United States
- 976 General history of North America South central United States
- 977 General history of North America North central United States
- 978 General history of North America Western United States
Therefore, you may have to search in both the 929s and the 970s in
order to locate reference books for Kentucky. Periodicals may be
filed separately as well.
Your library's genealogy collection may, however, be organized
differently--in what is referred to as a "modified Dewey" system. In
order to bring materials from different geographical areas together,
some libraries have cataloged (and labeled) materials for each area
together. That means that you may actually find all of the materials
for the British Isles shelved or grouped together. Some libraries
also interfile the periodicals with the books.
Each library, despite the use of the DDC, may therefore have
cataloged and filed its collection a little differently. It behooves
you to invest the time talking to the reference librarian to
understand right away how the specific library's collection is
organized. Oh, and by the way, not everything is cataloged. For
instance, you may find that the maps, photographs, and the disparate
contents of the vertical files (loose papers in folders in the file
cabinets) may not even be included in the catalog. Therefore, be sure
to ask for guidance on the contents and location of these materials
within the collection.
As you can see, you might easily miss some important research items
if you don't take the time to learn how the collection is organized.
You know about that old word--ASSUME--don't you?
PATHFINDERS (A.K.A. HANDOUTS)
Whenever you visit a library, look for the free handouts that
librarians refer to as "pathfinders." These handy little reference
flyers can tell you a great deal about how the collection is
organized, where materials are located (maps of the library or a
collection), and "how to" instructions for conducting specific
research. The Tampa library, for example, has more than twenty
pathfinders specifically relating to the genealogical collection that
include: table of U.S. federal census microfilm holdings, listing of
the ships' passenger list microfilm, locating and working with
military records, and how to get started with your African American
research. They also offer other pathfinders in the collection
relating to the DDC, Interlibrary Loan, and other topics. The library
in Vero Beach, Florida, offers fifty-five pathfinders, and the one in
Ft. Myers maintains a binder of more than 200 pathfinders that you
can photocopy. Libraries may also place some or all of their
pathfinders online at their websites, often in PDF file format. I
collect these pathfinders and maintain a reference binder by subject.
An often overlooked and very underused library resource is the
collection of subscription databases. Libraries may also refer to
their collection of databases as the "Information Gateway." As a
genealogist, I use all sorts of databases, including Ancestry's Library
Service (check with your local library for availability) and other
"genealogy specific" databases. However, I also use a number of
general databases available from my Tampa-Hillsborough Public
Library System on a regular basis: Gale's Ready Reference Shelf (for
government agencies), InfoPlease Almanac, Biographical Dictionary,
bigchalk Library, Info Trac, Digital Sanborn Maps, Biography Resource
Center, and others. Don't limit yourself to just the genealogy
databases when there is so very much more information available.
Take the time to learn what databases are available and how to
I've written a number of columns over the years concerning
Interlibrary Loan (ILL), a service that gives library customers
access to the holdings of other libraries. (See "Secrets of
Interlibrary Loan" at:
ILL allows you to initiate a request through your own library to
borrow books. However, since most genealogical materials are non-
circulating, an ILL request can be used to obtain copies of pages
from a book (index and/or text) or a document, and have the owning
library send them to your local library. It also is a method of
borrowing books or microfilmed materials for use at your own library,
usually under certain conditions or for a small fee.
If you don't know about ILL and want to extend your research reach
and range, all you have to do is locate the item in another library's
online catalog, and then ask your library to initiate an ILL request
for you. Ask your library about the ILL services they provide, their
policies, and about any costs associated with the service.
MAKING IT ALL WORK FOR YOU
So you thought you knew everything there is to know about libraries!
Well, there are lots of secrets for getting the most out of your
library. Cookies make a good librarian bribe--or "thank you!"
However, as you can see, there are new and different library
resources that you may not be using at all or to their fullest
extent. Spend some time visiting and getting to know your library.
It's a great resource, always changing and growing. Don't think that
the Internet is the end-all resource, because it certainly isn't.
Librarians are "information brokers," and are there to employ their
research expertise and to assist you. Visit your library soon!
George is president and a proud member of the International Society
of Family History Writers and Editors. Visit the ISFHWE website at:
. Visit George's website at
for information about speaking
Copyright 2004, MyFamily.com. All rights reserved.
We encourage the circulation of the "Ancestry Daily News" via non-
profit newsletters and lists providing that you credit the author,
include any copyright information (Copyright 1998-2004, MyFamily.com,
Inc. and its subsidiaries.), and cite the "Ancestry Daily News"
) as the source, so that others
can learn about our free newsletter as well