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

Friday, July 7, 2017

Walking the Shelves -- A Basic Genealogical Tool

Libraries have books and books have information about your ancestors. In our mad rush to get online and use all the resources, it is grounding to remember that we have thousands of years of accumulated knowledge in books. Current copyright laws around the world severely limit newer books from being generally available through digital copies online. Fortunately, there are still a few people out there who are publishing valuable genealogical records in paper book format. To access these newer published records we have three options:

  • We can buy the book from a publisher or supplier
  • We can try to find a digital copy of the book available
  • We can try to find the book in a library
I also need to mention that there is a lot of information available on CDs and microformats such as microfilm and microfiche, but I am focusing here on books. 

Some of us end up buying a lot of books. I have been trying to give my book collection away to my children for several years, but they all have huge collections and really don't want to add in all my books also. Despite resolutions to avoid buying any new books, we seem to add new ones at an alarming rate. But there is a limit. Some books are wonderful for reference, but I really don't need my own copy. If I can't find a digital copy, I start looking in libraries. Fortunately, I live very close to the huge Brigham Young University Harold B. Lee Library and reasonably close to the Salt Lake City Family History Library. Between those two libraries, I can find almost any book I can identify that I need and is not available in digital format. 

Here is an example of a book I discovered and could not find online:

Watson, Judith Green. South Kingstown, Rhode Island Tax Lists, 1730-1799. Rockland, Me.: Picton Press, 2007.

I did find that the book was in digital format, but it was only available from the in a university library. Unfortunately, my access to the Brigham Young University Harold B. Lee Library does not include access to digital books from the So I had to look for a paper copy. Fortunately, the BYU Lee Library catalog showed that they had a paper copy. 

So, I went to the Social Sciences section of the Lee Library and started looking. I ended up crawling on the floor, looking book by book at the books in the section where the book was supposed to be because it was on the bottom shelf. Meanwhile, I began to see other interesting books that might help my research. This is commonly called "walking the shelves" and it is the ultimate way of doing research in any library. Catalogs are great. Looking in is great. But there is no substitute for walking the shelves. 

This past week I spent a day in the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah and during almost the entire time I was there, I walked the shelves. I simply look at every single book on the shelves and pull off every book that might be of some possible interest. I then go through the books and see if they are relevant. Using this method of searching, I foud the exact information I was looking for. When I went into the Family History Library, I had no idea if what I was looking for was even available, but I found the exact information, this time a will abstract, that opened up the research I was doing at the time. 

When I write about "walking the shelves," I am referring to this process of pulling every single book off of the library shelves and examining its contents. I may seem slow, but it is ultimately the most efficient way to find what you are looking for and a lot of things that you did not expect to find. Oh, I first became aware of the Tax book cited above by walking the shelves in the Family History Library in Salt Lake City. 


  1. James. In my two trips to the FHL the majority of my time is spent in the book section. Most of my 500+ images (taken with my digital camera) are of book pages. I do something similar to you in walking the shelves, but I have to say that bottom shelf gets overlooked by me. Next time I'm at a library you can expect to see me on my knees making sure I don't miss something important. 😃