Genealogy and Libraries

I’m currently taking a class on “Genealogy & Library Services” that’s pretty fantastic. We explore the nuts and bolts of doing genealogy research, as well as best practices for helping patrons access genealogical information and collections, both physical and online.

It’s really been an eye-opening experience for me in a lot of ways. First off, while I’ve always been interested in genealogy, I’ve never done extensive research into my own family. It’s been really great to go to various institutions and find bits and pieces of my own family’s history. Case in point: a published history of my dad’s hometown that contained a page on the original (my great-great-great-grandfather’s) family farm!

This is a drawing of the first cabin built (not by my ancestors) in my father’s hometown, from 1837! (Source)

Another interesting part of the class has been our exploration into the different types of institutions that have records of interest to genealogists. Archives and libraries seem fairly standard, but it’s also often very beneficial to visit churches, local historical societies, courthouses, and academic libraries (the University of Illinois has a Map Library and an Illinois History collection, both of which could yield excellent information for genealogy researchers).

And lastly, it’s been very interesting to talk about the divide/tensions between the genealogy community and the academic community. My professor and many of my classmates have discussed their experiences of being shunned, slighted, or just not taken seriously by librarians and archivists when trying to conduct genealogical research in the past. This runs completely counter to my experience; while I haven’t pursued much genealogical research myself, I used to work at a college archive where we received many requests from genealogy researchers. We always treated them with kindness and respect, and never put their requests behind “academic” or “scholarly” queries. In fact, I really enjoyed helping genealogy researchers, as many of them were seeking more interesting background information about the time during which their ancestor attended the college (e.g. the cost of tuition in 1889 or a typical freshman year course-load in 1932). But I’ve been told my experience is outside the ordinary, and that at many institutions genealogy researchers are talked down to and/or treated badly. We talked a lot in class about how to mend these bridges and work with genealogists, as their numbers grow every year and they are some of the most loyal patrons at many institutions.

Overall it’s been a lovely class that’s really opened my eyes to a new kind of research, a new kind of patron, and a new way of looking at various institutions. I hope that wherever I end up working I’m able to once again assist genealogists, because now I feel much more prepared.


One thought on “Genealogy and Libraries

  1. A very nice piece, Nicole. As archivist at Beloit College, I enjoy working with genealogists, who usually have a real passion for local history as well as their own family history. Our interactions often turn into trading sessions and our archives become enriched with new information and sometimes with useful material for our files and collections. I also find that genealogical research stretches the mind and greatly sharpens valuable research skills!

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