Van Ness, © 1999-2008
who works with a primarily genealogical clientele (and
who is not
advertising for look-up requests--hint, hint), I
a few minutes and offer some tips for getting information out of an
out-of-town library. As the recipient of all kinds of requests for
information, I'm probably in a good position to clue all of you in to
what works and what doesn't. Let me start be drawing a distinction
between a reference question and a research question.
question is one that is almost certain to have one, proveable right
answer. For example: "What is the capital of New York State?" Or "When
did Albany become the capital of New York?" A research question is one
that will have multiple answers, perhaps some more right than others,
depending on your point of view. For example,"Why is Albany the capital
of New York?" Or "Why did Germans emigrate to America?" or "What does
the LDS have?"
usually answer reference questions in any form--in person, over the
telephone, fax, or email. But now that you know the difference between
a reference question and a research question, it helps to explain why
some libraries refuse to do genealogical research. We are not qualified
to draw genealogical conclusions any more than we are to draw medical
or legal ones, even though we may have loads of health and law guides
on our shelves. And genealogical books.
kind of wierd, but the parallels to law and medicine are appropriate. A
law librarian does not represent people in court and a medical
librarian doesn't diagnose or treat illness.
around the occasional ban on genealogical research requests is to
transform your research question ("Who were John Jingleheimer's
parents?") into a reference question ("Does your library own any books
about the early settlers of Jingleheimer County?" or "What Catholic
churches were listed in the Jingelheimerville city directory in 1910?"
or "What is the address of the archives of the local Catholic diocese?"
and so on. Turn a question with many possible answers (thus demanding
that a librarian draw possibly unwarranted conclusions) into a question
with one, proveable, right answer.
are out of town or out of state, learn what you can at home first. For
example, though it is obvious that if you live in California, you will
have to contact someone in New York to get vital records from New York
State, you can still find out fairly easily, wherever you live, when
the statewide vital records program actually began in New York State
(1880). No need to waste time and postage requesting records that don't
order, some DOs when contacting an out-of-town library:
do you get
around the reluctance of some libraries to do genealogical research?
You just have to do a little or a lot of homework first. Here's where
the internet is a good place to start. Libraries increasingly offer
online access to their catalogs. If you can find the library's website
and search its catalog, you may find that it owns a source that is
potentially valuable for your research. Start by searching on the
surnames or place names of interest. Maybe it owns a book called "The
Early Settlers of Jingelheimer County." If you learn to read the
bibliographic record, you can probably determine if the book has an
index or not. Armed with this information, you call or write and ask if
the librarian can check the index of this book for John Jingleheimer.
Thus, you are not asking the librarian to determine how all of the of
Jingleheimerville are related; that's your
task as a
how you might get the information you need; each library has its own
policies and limitations. You might find that you have assumed
incorrectly that the library has what you're after. Our local example
is vital records: our library doesn't have copies of local vital
records. They're in governmental hands, end of story. We also do not
have indexes to what is in governmental hands. We have a form letter to
answer the frequent requests for birth certificates, naturalization
are any free finding aids, handouts, or bibliographies describing their
local history or genealogy collection. Or any for sale.
and include return postage. The problem with the stamped,
self-addressed envelopes that come to my library is that they are often
too small to hold the photocopies that people have requested. We love
it when we get a stamped, self-addressed manila envelope.
address. Call your local library and ask for the address if you don't
have it. (That's a reference question.)
hand write--your request. Please.
narratives on how you are related to the person that you are
researching. It doesn't make any difference to librarians if you are
kin or not.
or two facts or questions per letter (which is difficult, I know). You
are more likely to get a response if you keep your requests short. "Is
John Jingleheimer in the 1917 city directory, if so may I get a
photocopy of the page" is more likely to get you a response than "I'm
interested in anything on the Jingleheimers" or worse, "Please send
everything you have on the Jingleheimers."
grocery lists of look-up requests ("Please look for John,
Mary, and George Jingleheimer in the 1900, 1910, 1920 censuses,
city directories, in the church records of Our Lady of Perpetual
Microfilm parish, and please send their obituaries and those of any of
their children."). These will likely get ignored or returned to you
with a "sorry" form letter.
put your return address on your letter, in case the envelope gets lost.
If you're willing to be contacted by phone or email, include those
off, here are some examples of research requests that we've had to turn
down. Remember that I do not presume to speak for all libraries in
giving these examples.
of luck to
of you when contacting out-of-town libraries, and I hope that this
message has not been interpreted as an advertisement on my part for
research requests. My desk is overloaded as it is.
all of the Buffalo yearbooks from 1967-1969 and copy every girl named
Rosa?" This county has hundreds of private, parochial, and public
schools. Does this person want high school or college yearbooks?
Assuming we have every relevant yearbook, we don't
have the staff to read each one page by page in search of Rosa.
_____ in the censuses from 1900-1920." Now that the LDS has made census
films widely available to almost everyone, we refer people to them.
Because 20th century censuses for NY state are not indexed (unless you
count the Soundex, which we do not own), we cannot do census searches.
family group sheets for _____ family. What is Mary's maiden name? Where
was she born? Who are her parents? How are Mary and Susan related? Is
John George's brother or son? Any blanks you can fill in would be
appreciated." Uh, nope, sorry, we just can't
take on this kind of fishing expedition
your church records for Joe Jingleheimer." Well, which
church? We don't have records for every church in town and what we do
have is microfilmed, with not always legible handwriting, sometimes in
Latin or German, and is rarely indexed. We don't have enough staff to
each of 200 rolls of filmed church records in the hopes that Joe will
show up. Except for the language problems, the same applies to
posted to soc.genealogy.methods on 20 April 1999, reprinted
some genealogical newsletters by permission, and converted
to HTML in June 2001. Updated 18 March 2010.