Genealogy & Local History in Buffalo, NY

Out of Town Libraries: Research Tips

By Cynthia Van Ness, © 1999-2008

As a librarian who works with a primarily genealogical clientele (and who is not advertising for look-up requests--hint, hint), I thought I'd take 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.

A reference 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?"

Librarians 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.

This may seem 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.

The way to get 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.

Even though you 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 exist.

In no particular order, some DOs when contacting an out-of-town library:

  • Call and ask 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 papers, etc.
  • Ask if there are any free finding aids, handouts, or bibliographies describing their local history or genealogy collection. Or any for sale.
  • Write a letter 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.
  • Get the right address. Call your local library and ask for the address if you don't have it. (That's a reference question.)
  • Type--do not hand write--your request. Please.
  • Omit lengthy 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.
  • Focus on one 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."
  • Skip long grocery lists of look-up requests ("Please look for John, Mary, and George Jingleheimer in the 1900, 1910, 1920 censuses, 1900-1920 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.
  • Remember to 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 things, too.
Now, how 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 Jingelheimers in Jingleheimerville are related; that's your task as a genealogist.

Before I sign 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.

  • "Can you look at 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.
  • "Please find _____ 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.
  • "Here are my 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
  • "Please search 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 read 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 cemeteries.
Best of luck to all 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.

Originally posted to soc.genealogy.methods on 20 April 1999, reprinted in some genealogical newsletters by permission, and converted to HTML in June 2001.  Updated 18 March 2010.