Saturday, August 13, 2016

Researching Genealogy at America's Library

It's true. The Library of Congress (LoC) boasts the world's largest collection of books. However, despite what you may have heard, it does not have every book.

Library of Congress - photo by author

After dispelling that tenacious myth, a staff librarian walked a class of nearly 35 students - including myself - through the many genealogy-oriented resources in its collection.

The librarian's message was simple: to become a better family historian, you should become familiar with the historical documents available at the LoC. "With genealogy (unlike a 500 piece puzzle) you don't have all of the pieces in one box," she said. "It's not neatly packaged. You have to go around and look for it."

A Vast Collection
With approximately 130 million items in all formats, languages, and subjects, there's plenty to look through and bound to be something that appeals to the interests and research of all genealogists.

The LoC's vast collection does not consist solely of copyrighted, professionally-published books. In fact, not all copyrighted books are kept in the LoC's collection. For example, a copyrighted 2nd grade math book may not be stored permanently.

Fortunately, for the family historian, anything that is genealogy-focused - whether it's copyrighted or is an amateur publication that is privately produced and submitted to the LoC - is kept permanently in the collection. This includes over 50,000 family histories.

Your ancestor's story helps document and illustrate American history, and in turn aids the LoC in fulfilling its core mission. Interested in submitting your published family history to the LoC? Drop it in the mail today!

With so many family histories in the collection, genealogists should be sure to search the LoC catalog for their surnames. Who knows, perhaps you'll find a copy of that long-sought-after family genealogy that your possessive great-aunt was unwilling to share.

Local Histories
In 1876, as the the United States was preparing to commemorate its first 100 years, Congress encouraged towns and counties across the country to publish retrospective local histories. Copies of many of these are held in the LoC's stacks.

These volumes often included photos, biographies, maps, and lists of soldiers, judges, lawyers and community leaders. Where else are you going to find a biography of a local farmer? I was fortunate to find my own 3rd great-grandfather - a farmer - in a historical publication for a small Iowa community.

Given the age of many of these histories, they are no longer copyrighted and can be digitized. Try searching Google Books for local histories where your ancestors lived. You may be able to bypass a trip to the LoC altogether.

City Directories
If you're trying to pinpoint an ancestor's location between the decennial federal census enumerations, you definitely want to search city directories.

The LoC has a large number of city directories from across the country and covering many decades. In addition to locating an ancestor's location, city directories often provide an individual's address, profession, name of where they worked, and sometimes a spouse's name.

Some of the directories are still in hard bound volumes, but most have been microfilmed and can be viewed on site in the library.

Reading Rooms
The LoC also features reading rooms dedicated to specific thematic topics including rare books, newspapers, science and business, manuscripts, prints and photos, religion, and regional (European, Asian, African and Middle East).

Each of these reading rooms are staffed by librarians who specialize in the thematic area, and can help researchers with questions and interpret or identify additional resources in the collection that may advance your family history research.

Something For Everyone
Immense in size and scope, the LoC's collection clearly offers enormous potential for genealogists. As family historians seek vital records, they should also investigate the historical documents that detail the worlds in which their ancestors lived.

The LoC is the go-to venue - unrivaled in its collection - with resources certain to contextualize and enhance your genealogy. Simply put, there is something for everyone.

It's easy to start, too, with the helpful Before You Begin guidance. Happy researching!


  1. How exciting for you to be able to research there. Did you find something good? Going to the LoC is definitely on my bucket list!

  2. I found a compiled genealogy for a many times great grandfather, which included the name of my own great-grandmother. There's something really special about reading the names of people you knew in life under the breathtaking dome of the Library's Jefferson Building.