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Library Resources for Genealogists

Updated on March 30, 2014
A starting point. Ellis Island, New York, where many Americans can trace their families back to Europe.
A starting point. Ellis Island, New York, where many Americans can trace their families back to Europe.
Village churches in the old country. Birth, marriage, and death records were traditionally kept by the Church in Europe up until the 20th century. Photo of Belz, Ukraine.
Village churches in the old country. Birth, marriage, and death records were traditionally kept by the Church in Europe up until the 20th century. Photo of Belz, Ukraine.
The LDS (Mormon) headquarters in Salt Lake City, Utah. The LDS owns  the largest single repository of family records in the world.
The LDS (Mormon) headquarters in Salt Lake City, Utah. The LDS owns the largest single repository of family records in the world.
Main Street, USA. County court houses are another good place to look for old records. Photo of county courthouse in Red Oak, Iowa.
Main Street, USA. County court houses are another good place to look for old records. Photo of county courthouse in Red Oak, Iowa.
Cemetery records and death indexes are vital records that can help locate ancestors. Photo of Granary Burying Ground in Boston, MA.
Cemetery records and death indexes are vital records that can help locate ancestors. Photo of Granary Burying Ground in Boston, MA.

Genealogy Primer (Pathfinder):

A general orientation and guide for the beginning genealogist at public or community libraries

Genealogy is a popular pastime and many people who start to search for their family roots can find resources at the local library. This pathfinder will serve to help beginners interested in genealogy in a public or community library. Most libraries have resources that have genealogical information, but unless it’s concentrated in a designated area, it is not always easy to locate. As a result, many patrons give up quickly because of the lack of concentration of these resources or proper guidance. This pathfinder was written to better orient the patron as to where and how to find genealogy resources and reference material at the local library. There are also other resources for the beginning genealogist which may or may not be located in a library. These include: maps, atlases, gazetteers, ethnic sources, vital and cemetery records, church records, censuses and tax lists, probate records, land records, court and legal, military and immigration records, state and national archives and historical societies, many of which have their own libraries.

Library Catalog

Libraries will have computer terminals usually located in lobby areas or in areas with high visibility. Go to the nearest terminal to search the library’s on-line catalog for books and materials related to genealogy. There are a number of searches you can do (keyword, subject, title, or author, for instance). If you don’t have a specific title in mind, try the keyword or subject searches. Based on the Dewey Decimal System, most genealogy books will be in the 929s of the stacks or reference section. Try typing in these suggested subject searches to start:

“genealogy,” “family tree,” or “family history”.

Reference Section

It’s not likely you will discover a new ancestral line in the reference section. However the reference section is a good place to look for general resources that will help you in your genealogy search. Many of the sources pertaining to genealogy in the reference section will be guide books and they can be helpful as to where you can find records. Below are some suggested reference resources (call number may vary slightly depending upon library):

R 352.3 PUBLIC Public records online. A directory of public and government records, databases and CD-ROMS that can be found on the internet.

R 929.1 PARKE Library service for genealogists. This text will help guide the user to genealogy resources in the library.

R 929.3 PRINTED Printed sources: A guide to published genealogical records. A comprehensive source for genealogical records in print form; includes books, vital records, and periodicals.

R 929.1 SOURCE The source: A guidebook of American genealogy. Very encompassing, this books includes all aspects of genealogy, including print sources, databases, archives, genealogical and historical societies, and research strategies.

R 929.302 KEM Vital records handbook. Includes information on registered births in the United States, Canada, and Great Britain.


Most genealogy books in the stacks will have a call number beginning with 929 in the Dewey Decimal System. Once you locate the 929 section spend some time browsing that area of the stacks. Suggested genealogy resources in stacks:

929.1 Latham How to find your family roots

929.1 Melnyk Family history 101: A beginners guide to finding your ancestors

929.1 Renick Genealogy 101: How to trace your family’s history and heritage

929.1028 Kemp Virtual roots: a guide to genealogy and local history on the World Wide Web

929.1072 Carmack The family tree guide to finding your Ellis Island ancestors

929.10899 Burroughs Black roots: A beginner's guide to tracing the African American family tree


Because they hold a lot of memory and don’t take up as much space it’s not uncommon for a library to have a good selection of CD-ROMS, especially ones related to genealogy. Excellent vital records are stored and published on CD-ROMS which might be in your library. Below is a list of CD-ROMS with genealogical information. This selected list serves to give you an idea of the diversity, or types of vital records and information, that can be found in this medium. There are CD-ROM records based on marriage and burial records, head-of-household, ethnic groups, and religious groups.

CD-ROM 929.373/FAMILY Scotch-Irish settlers in America, 1500s-1800s immigration records.

CD-ROM 929.3747/HEADS Heads-of-household listing New York as birthplace in the 1870 federal census.

CD-ROM 929.30893/WORLD World Immigration Series: Germans in the 1870 federal census

CD-ROM 929.374813/HERITAGE Heritage Books archives: Quaker marriage certificates.

CD-ROM 929.5/HAMILTON Hamilton County, Ohio, burial records. Volumes 1-9.


Non-specific (general): Periodicals such as daily newspapers are excellent places to find information on ancestors because they contain obituaries. Most large public libraries and academic libraries will have major newspapers such as the New York Times on microfilm. More obscure (foreign, organizational) or local newspapers might require a visit to a library in that locality. Ask the reference librarian what newspapers are held on microfilm in your library. If the newspaper you are looking for is not in the collection, ask the librarian for help in locating the place where you can access the records.

Specific genealogy periodicals:

Genealogist: Excellent and a very authoritative scholarly journal on genealogy. The articles are long and written by professionals. This journal may be too in-depth for the novice.

Genealogical Helper: Bi-monthly, largest genealogy paper in circulation, with a low fee but black and white graphics, and much advertising, albeit with many published resources such as directories.

Ancestry: Bi-monthly, high quality graphics, good authority and quality articles by well-known genealogists with good columns about archives and library sources.

Heritage Quest: Issued six times per year with long articles and sound authority.

Family Tree: No cost, issued six times per year. This periodical serves as the mouthpiece for the Odom Library collection in Georgia which has a strong Scottish focus, but no feature articles.

American Genealogy Magazine: Bi-monthly, published by genealogists and not a private company. It has authoritative articles and information on primary sources.

Family Chronicles: Has eight feature articles per year but writing does not reflect authority as other periodicals do. However, articles are of interest.

The Internet

The internet is a great resource but it’s not always easy to use because it is un-indexed and not well organized. However, there are some excellent sites for genealogy. Many genealogy websites are fee-based. Below are some websites worth visiting. They are categorized into fee-based, free, and public indexes. The fee-based sites can help you build family trees and find family records, but charge money. The public indexes have indexes that are public record, for instance, the Social Security Death Index (SSDI). Under free there are websites that have links and resources to other websites, or provide information to help you search for ancestors. These categories aren’t mutually exclusive, for instance you can access public indexes on both (fee-based) and FamilySearch (free).


A popular site for people doing genealogy searches that has related links. The user can get some information gratis by typing in a name in the search box. Much of the information is sourced from the US Census or Social Security Death Index, and these on-site links require payment.

Very easy to use but you must register for a fee or with an organization that has access. The major categories are US Census search, literature search for books on genealogy, people and places search, Revolutionary War and Freedman’s Bank (African-American) searches.



This website is part of the Church of Latter Days Saints (LDS) FamilyHistoryCenter, which is headquartered in Salt Lake City, Utah and runs hundreds of branches across the US and in 88 countries. The online resources on this website are exhaustive and among the best in the world for genealogists. Especially comprehensive are the lists of indexes to various holdings in archives across the world.

Statue of Liberty – Ellis Island Foundation, Inc.

If you register you can access valuable records for free. Most of the records are from passenger ships’ manifests that docked at Ellis Island from 1892-1924. Type in a surname to get basic information such as residence, year of arrival, age on arrival, passenger record, and ship manifest. Also, very helpful is the genealogy tab which has numerous links to online resources.

Public indexes:

US Census

Taken every ten years since 1790, the last US Census that is available to the public is the 1930 version (they must be kept confidential for seventy years). These records can be accessed for a fee on websites such as, but visitors to the National Archives can access them for free on location. Importantly, the US Census Bureau cannot help you access these records because they transfer them to the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA).

Social Security Death Index

This index is also available on fee-based sites such as those listed above, but you can also access information from this index for free on the LDS’s FamilySearch site (see also Databases section below). Another website that will allow free access to the SSDI is New The SSDI holds information such as first and last names, social security numbers, date of birth and death, residence, and issuing state.

UK Census

Census taken every ten years from the United Kingdom from 1841 to 1901. These records are accessible at or if you visit England, for free on-site at the UK National Archives in Kew. These records cover census for England, Wales, ChannelIsland and Isle of Man.

Note, the census for Scotland and Northern Ireland are not included. For information on those two domains contact the GROS (Scotland) and the NISRA (Northern Ireland).


Databases are usually fee based unless they are public records, such as the SSDI. Some public or academic libraries may allow access to databases for free if you hold a library card or are enrolled as a student. You can do a general web search by tying in “genealogical databases” and find various websites which have databases or links to other materials. Below are selected databases which will have information that will help in genealogy searches.

Biography & Genealogy Master Index (BGMI): Contains information of close to 14 million people and access and information to other indexes.

FamilySearch (see also Internet above): LDSChurch sponsored; contains seven databases, indexes and catalogues and CD-ROMs. Excellent, authoritative and comprehensive, albeit potentially confusing for the novice.

Ancestral File: Lineage-linked databases with information on 15 million persons. Positive feature is linking individual to relatives and user-friendly for novice computer user. Part of the LDS holdings.

International Genealogical Index (IGI): International in scope, with comprehensive birth, christening and marriage records with over 200 million entries. Includes CD-ROM with updates.

Social Security Death Index (SSDI) (see also Internet above): US Government index with more than 50 million entries of deceased.


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