Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Monday, May 23, 2011

Non-traditional Genealogical Data Sources

My experience of attending university and teaching a community college leads me to believe that only a very small percentage of the students who attend and graduate from a university or college ever use the resources available in the schools' libraries. I can remember when I worked at the library at the University of Utah, the entire library would be empty on non-school days. I used to think, what are all of these students doing here at a university, if they don't come to the library?

The libraries of the world also constitute a vast resource of information that is totally ignored by genealogists. I have come to believe this because the sources are never mentioned in any of the genealogically connected sites. I also find that very, very few of the patrons at the Mesa Regional Family History Center have ever visited any other research site. Few of them have even been to the Mesa Public Library, which is only about 2 miles away.

Even though many of the larger libraries have extensive online sources, even these more available resources are seldom used by genealogists. There are exceptions but my impression is that very, very few people outside of academic researchers and professionals ever use these databases. I am certain that many college and university graduates can get all the way through their school experience without ever doing any real research and without using hardly any online database resources.

This dismal view of genealogical researchers comes from years of my experience in helping both professional and non-professionals. Genealogists, even professional ones, think along very traditional and repetitive lines when it comes to research. Usually, when I suggest looking at a university library's special collections, I get blank stares. Few people, outside of academia, even know they exist. Part of the reason for this lack of awareness stems from the barriers academic institutions have created around their collections.

For example, the Arizona State University Library has huge special collections library, including hundreds of online databases available only to the students and faculty of the University. Under some circumstances, if you are a sponsored by a faculty member, you can get a User name and password. In this regard, ASU is no different than any other major university. If you are persistent, you can find indexes to much of the information and access to most all. A visit to the library or research center may also gain you access to the collection. When was the last time you visited a university library for genealogical research?

In addition to the huge collections of genealogically and historically valuable material locked up in university libraries, there are also huge commercial databases that cater only to these institutions. In my last post, I talked about There are literally dozens, if not hundreds of similar online databases that have huge accumulations of data about people, such as or Have you even even heard of these resources?  Have you ever used them for genealogical purposes? If you want some idea of what is available, go to the website for any major university, take the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill website for an example and click on the link to Libraries. Take a look at UNC's Digital Collections. Were you aware of these resources? You can find the same kinds of resources available from each and every other university in the world.

The resources available to anyone with the knowledge and perseverance to find them are almost inexhaustible. There is no way you can ever run out of places to look. The trick is knowing that the resources exist, having the knowledge and research experience to take advantage of the resources and the perseverance to hurdle the barriers placed in your way by the academic institutions themselves. In some cases, you may have to pay a friend or two for access to their database. For example, if you have an attorney friend who has access to WestLaw, you may be able to pay him or her for the time to look around and see if there is information that might help you.

Access to these huge databases is not limited to university libraries. Some of the larger public libraries also have huge collections. Take the New York Public Library for example. The NYPL has over 600 articles and databases including 141 genealogy related online databases. What is the hitch? You must apply in person for a library card, you must also work, attend school, or pay property taxes in New York State. However, visitors from out-of-state can obtain a temporary access card with an expiration date consistent with the length of their stay. But you don't need to go to New York, why not try your own state library system?


  1. So much to say. I am a librarian and worked in a large private university for most of my career. In all fairness to genealogists who don't take advantage of university libraries, we will not let them in (at least in a private university). Public university libraries may operate differently. You see students and faculty pay a high premium for those resources and the public is not welcome. Especially genealogists who have an abysmal reputation among librarians.

    One point though needs to be made clear. Whether or not it is a public or private university--no one is going to let you use Westlaw or the full Lexis-Nexis. Those databases, and most university databases, are paid for by the seat (i.e. how many students/faculty are expected to use it). Again, the public will not. Westlaw and Lexis-Nexis are so specific that within a university there are the law students (naturally) who can use it and the undergrads who can't. Trust me, I turned away most of my university because of the contracts that Westlaw and Lexis make you sign.

    Special collections can be accessed if you call ahead. Use the university's library OPAC and see what is available. I've found huge resources in: general store ledgers, justice of the peace ledgers, private correspondence, diaries, etc. These materials you can access but you will have to jump through some hoops.

  2. My local genealogical society has had the Special Collections librarian speak on how to access his University's collections, who to contact, and even which parking lot is most convenient! He was extremely interesting and very helpful.

  3. One way around Martin's situation is to take one class as 'personal enrichment' - or whatever the local college calls it. This may cost you a little more, but you benefit from what you learn in the class as well as have access to their databases and other resources in their library.