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

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Genealogists and The National Union Catalog

This post isn't just about genealogists and the National Union Catalog (NUC), it is about using historically valuable reference books in general. I chose the National Union Catalog because in all my years of reading about genealogical research, I have found no significant mention of the NUC or its companion, the National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections (NUCMC). What I observe of the students at Brigham Young University, Harold B. Lee Library is that they are glued to their computers and other electronic devices and with only a few notable exceptions, ignore the vast resources in the books surrounding them. The same thing can be said about the patrons who come to the BYU Family History Library section with the exception that more of them are involved in the microfilm collection.

The NUCMC is described as follows:
The Library of Congress provides a gateway for searching OCLC WorldCat (Manuscript materials) -- nearly 1.5 million catalog records describing archival and manuscript collections and individual manuscripts in public, college and university, and special libraries located throughout North America and around the world. Access to this gateway is made available courtesy of OCLC, Inc.
 Most genealogists are stuck in the Census/Vital Records syndrome. They focus on a few online and readily searchable resources and then conclude that they have "searched everywhere" and become frustrated with their inability to find their ancestors. Of course, I am ignoring that segment of the casual genealogists who simply copy online family trees, but I am more interested in considering those who at least start down the road to research.

I am not denigrating online resources. The usefulness of online sources increases every day. But I am pointing out that there is another world out there where finding information involves libraries, archives and other repositories that may not have digitized all their collections just quite yet. This week when I spent a day long session at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah, I would guess that 80% or more of the patrons were sitting in front of a computer and most of the remaining patrons were sitting in the dark shadows of the ancient microfilm viewers.

One symptom of this lack of awareness of genealogical resources is the surprise I get from those who attend my classes when I mention the OCLC online catalog. The is the world's largest library catalog. This lack of awareness of the catalog is strange since the Catalog now links almost every entry to the catalog. For example, here is a screenshot from the Catalog. These U.S. District Court records are online in digital copies but there is also another link to the for other possible copy locations.

This is only the beginning of the search. It turns out that this particular set of records, which originated in the collections of the National Archives, came through the online website, As an illustrative side light, I have previously found one of my ancestors, Samuel Linton, in these court records. However, a search in the records does not show a record for Samuel Linton. The reason? I can only guess. Here is the cover sheet for Samuel Linton's District Court case.

This case is clearly within the time period supposedly covered by the collection on But it does not appear in a search of the records. Now, we are back to the NUC issue. Had I not previously found this record in the National Archives branch in Denver, Colorado and a digital copy on, I could conclude that there was no copy available or I would be inclined to subscribe to However, I looked up the same record in and found that this same record is in the Brigham Young University, Harold B. Lee Library. Here is the screenshot.

Here is the record from the BYU Catalog.

So, if I wanted to see this item, I could do so by looking in the library that is only a ten minute trip from my home. Hmm. It seems to me there is a lesson here.


  1. I have NEVER been able to access anything I've found through worldcat. Every inquiry I have ever made was returned as unknown or not at that location. I don't bother any more.

    1. I'm sorry, but I have no idea what you are talking about. is a catalog of catalogs. No one can access anything through, of course. It only lists libraries where the material is located.