From time to time, I see lists of the major libraries known for their collections of genealogically related reference collections. A representative list is found on a FamilySearch.org Research Wiki page entitled, "United States Archives and Libraries." Archives are far different than libraries. For example, this particular article lists the National Archives and Records Administration as the first location mentioned. The comment made states as follows:
The National Archives (NARA) has a vast collection of documents created by the federal government. The records most often used by genealogists are census, military, land, and immigration records.It is true that the National Archives has a huge collection of documents. It is also true that some of these records are available to genealogists and are valuable for research, but this is only part of the challenge faced by the genealogical researcher. As I have written about recently, access is the main issue with doing research and the documents in the National Archives, for the most part, are not easy to access. Only a vanishingly small percentage of the documents in the National Archives have been made available in digital format.
The next facility listed in the Research Wiki article is the Allen County Public Library in Fort Wayne, Indiana. This is a marvelous genealogical resource location. But the real question involves more than an emphasis on genealogy, the real issue is the entire collection of resources available in the library. All of the libraries listed have access to online collections, in fact, most of us have access to the same online collections if we want to spend some money for subscriptions. Being able to go to a library to use Ancestry.com or Fold3.com is not as much of a draw as it was a few years ago.
If we go to a list of the largest libraries in the United States, we will find some that are of notable interest to genealogists. Number one on the list of these large libraries is the Library of Congress with the Boston Public Library coming in second. Both of these libraries, simply by virtue of their huge collections are important places to do genealogical research. Third and fourth on the list are the Harvard University Library and the New York Public Library. If you review the rest of the list, you will see that these libraries fall into two distinct categories: they are either located in major cities or they are associated with major universities. So if you are interested in genealogical research, you should be looking at one of these libraries for documents.
One important thing to remember when doing research is that the smallest local public library or historical society may have the documents you need to do your research. Large libraries simply have more stuff and finding what you are looking for increases with the amount of stuff available. But large libraries also impose their own challenges and learning how to find what you are looking for is a learned skill that takes a great deal of time and experience to acquire.
But let's get back to genealogy. Which of these large libraries have the largest collection of genealogical resources? That is the real question. For a very long time, the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah has claimed to have the largest collection of genealogically related material in the entire world. That is probably correct if you include their unsurpassed microfilm collection.
But here we come to another issue. How many people do these libraries have available to directly help patrons with their genealogy? It is one thing to go to a library that has a vast collection of records and books and other stuff, but how do you get help with your genealogy? From this standpoint, there is no question that the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah has the largest staff dedicated to genealogy as well as a major collection of documents and records.
Now, what about the Brigham Young Univesity, Harold B. Lee Library? The Lee Library ranks number 53 on the list of the largest public libraries in the United States, but this list does not rank either the number of genealogically valuable collections or the number of support staff dedicated to helping patrons with their genealogy. For some time now, I have maintained that the BYU Family History Library, part of the Harold B. Lee Library, is the second largest such facility in the world.
There are some important factors to consider when making such a claim. First, is the number of records, but in addition to having piles of records, those records must be accessible and then there should be a staff dedicated to helping patrons find the material they are looking for. As far as numbers, the BYU Family History Library has over 30,000 rolls of microfilm and tens of thousands of microfiche. The number of books available in a large library is always a difficult number because genealogists rely on a broad spectrum of resource material from maps to biographies and local histories. So, in a real sense, the ideal genealogy library would not only have a huge dedicated collection, but also access to an even larger collection of books and records plus the bonus of haveing a dedicated staff to helping genealogically interested patrons. The BYU Family History Library has about 130 people who are dedicated to helping patrons with their personal research.
When you take all of these factors into account, I can still maintain that the BYU Family History Library is the second largest such dedicated collection in the world.
Now, here is another issue that I keep mentioning because of its importance. We are presently in a major transitional era as it pertains to information. For example, the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah has around 356,000 books. Traditionally, to use these books, you would have to travel to the library. But now, as of the date of this post, 219,026 of those books have been digitized and put online. It is true that some of those online books can still only be accessed from the Family History Library, but in effect, most of those books can now be accessed by anyone with an internet connection. The same thing goes for the 2.4 million rolls of microfilm. Although the number of rolls of microfilm from the collection that have been digitized is not publically available, announcements have been made that the entire collection will be digitized in the next two years or so.
The Library of Congress is said to have over 30 million books, but it also a fact that estimates are that more than that number of books have been digitized and are likely available online. So, as we keep progressing into this new age of digital, online records, I suggest that we start reconsidering how we view libraries. I can now usually do most of my research online, supplemented by a few microfilm records. I still use the paper book collections at the library and I still use the dedicated online resources at the libraries. But now, I would consider the staff and the help I receive as a more important issue than the numbers of records. Once again, I come back to my statements about the BYU Family History Library.
OK, now what is the reality? Genealogists need to start realizing that research is research. Records are records and what we need may be in any one of the hundreds and thousands of repositories around the world. It takes time and a considerable effort to become acquainted with any library's collections so let's stop believing in so many "brick walls" and start realizing that we will never, individually, have the time to search all the places where the answers might lie.