Library Catalogs

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General References and Guides

This article is part of a series.
Introduction to the General References and Guides
Overview of Databases and Indexes
Database and Index Types
List of Specific Databases and Indexes
Library Catalogs
List of Useful Finding Aid References

This article originally appeared in "General References and Guides" by Kory L. Meyerink, MLS, AG, FUGA in The Source: A Guidebook to American Genealogy

A number of genealogical libraries have published catalogs of their holdings in some form. Such catalogs can serve as bibliographies or indexes to published genealogies and family histories, depending on how thoroughly the genealogies were cataloged by the library. Some catalogs only reference a book according to the one or two family surnames identified in the title of the book. Others, recognizing that every family includes many branches with different surnames, identify additional surnames in the book that are represented by many entries in the index. Such inclusive catalogs can be seen as a partial index to surnames in family histories.

Therefore, catalogs should be one of the first sources consulted when beginning research on a new family or when one has found new information about an earlier generation. Remember that libraries continue to acquire books after their catalogs are published, so published catalogs are out of date as soon as they are printed. In the past, libraries issued supplements to previous publications to inform readers of their new holdings.

One product of the numerous efforts made over the last two decades to automate libraries has been the online availability of library catalogs. Today most genealogical libraries have catalogs on the Internet, making access even easier than in past years, allowing almost anyone with an Internet connection to access them. They include libraries of great interest to genealogists, such as the Allen County Public Library in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and the New York (City) Public Library, as well as many state libraries. The easiest way to locate the online catalog for a library of interest is to search for the library's name, or location, in one of the major Internet search engines. Also include the word 'catalog' as part of the search string, and one of the first responses should be a link to the library's website.

While the growth of the Internet has made increasing numbers of such catalogs available to more and more researchers, many libraries have not yet automated their entire collections; in some cases, only portions of a catalog may be accessible through such media. Also, of course, catalogs contain only descriptions of the actual books or sources. A search on Google or most other Internet search engines will lead to an amazing number of previously hard-to-find titles. The use, value, and differences between various genealogical library catalogs is the subject of significant discussion in chapter 16, 'Family Histories and Genealogies,' Printed Sources. Most of the following catalogs in this chapter are described in further depth there, along with several other catalogs. The following discussion focuses on the use of library catalogs to identify family history books. Library catalogs identify tens of thousands of other valuable genealogical sources as well.

Family History Library Catalog

The Family History Library has the largest single collection of genealogical records in the world. Consequently, the Family History Library Catalog is the largest bibliography and finding aid for genealogical research. The catalog entries include detailed, analytical descriptions for each source, book, and manuscript in the collection. The main purpose of the catalog is to describe the records fully enough that practical choices for research can be made.

The catalog is available on the Internet and CD-ROM. Both versions include the same catalog entries, and most of the same features. They both permit the same searches for the following topics:

  • Author
  • Title
  • Place (sometimes called locality)
  • Surname (for family histories)
  • Keyword (any word in the description of the source)
  • Subject
  • Microfiche or microfilm number
  • Book call number

The Internet version of the catalog is updated regularly, but the CD-ROM is generally updated only every few years (see figure 2-4). The CD-ROM version can be purchased for home or institutional use, making research less dependent on an Internet connection or modem speed.

The Family History Library collection includes more than 150,000 separate family histories cataloged according to one or more surnames. Up to 1,000 new titles are added each month. Approximately twenty percent are surname newsletters, manuscript collections, and biographies; the remainder are genealogies or family histories. Furthermore, eighty percent of the titles in the surname section of the catalog pertain to U.S. or Canadian families. Thus, this catalog lists about 100,000 family histories for North American families, making it the most important and comprehensive bibliography of genealogies available. Each family history is listed under an average of five to nine names, yielding more than 600,000 references.

In addition to published family histories, the catalog describes another 200,000 genealogical source books and histories from throughout the world. It also identifies the original records available on two million rolls of microfilm from nations throughout North and South America, Europe, and other locations around the globe.

Genealogical Library Master Catalog

Perhaps the second most valuable library catalog for genealogy is actually a collection of the catalogs from many libraries. The Genealogical Library Master Catalog is a CD-ROM publication of the catalog entries from 18 genealogical libraries around the country, including a few major state library catalogs. Compiled by Rick Crume and published on three CD-ROMs by (Glyndon, Minnesota), the 1999 edition of the catalog includes more than 100,000 entries on each disc, with each disc listing a different type of record: family histories, local histories, and genealogical sources.

Many of the titles are listed multiple times, as they appear in several of the libraries who contributed to this collection. This allows the researcher to view different catalog entries for such sources, which provides a more complete description of these duplicated sources. An online version of this catalog is available through

Library of Congress Catalogs

The Library of Congress has one of the largest collections of genealogies and family histories in the United States. It also has a long history of publishing its genealogical holdings list to benefit researchers seeking to identify sometimes obscure family histories. The 1919 catalog was superseded by Marion J. Kaminkow's Genealogies in the Library of Congress: A Bibliography. This catalog can be found in most genealogical and research libraries. It lists the 20,054 genealogies in the library's collection as of 1972. Be sure to check the addenda in each volume, where approximately 700 titles are listed. The Library of Congress has added about 12,000 cross references for surnames mentioned prominently in books about other families.

Arranged alphabetically by surname, the entries contain complete bibliographic citations. See and see also entries lead the user to genealogies that would usually be overlooked. The books indexed are, of course, available in the Library of Congress, but many can also be found at other major genealogical libraries.

Three supplements have been published to update this catalog. They cover books from 1972 through 1976; between 1977 and 1986; and from 1986 to 1 July 1991. Combined, the supplements list approximately 22,000 recent genealogies. With the placement of the library's catalog on the Internet, it has not been necessary to issue supplements in paper format. Rather, the Library of Congress catalog is the best place to search for genealogical holdings in the nation's library. However, it is also a good illustration of why online catalogs are not sufficient.

The Library of Congress has been acquiring genealogical sources for almost 200 years, but only since the 1960s have they used a computer to catalog those books. Tens of thousands of genealogical and historical books were cataloged before the days of computers. Many of these sources have not been entered into the computerized catalog. Of those books which had been cataloged in the pre-computer days, only those which had to be re-cataloged (due to being microfilmed, having a new edition, or a change in the original cataloging) would be in the computer catalog, and available on the Web.

Another reason not to rely just on the online catalog is that, contrary to popular opinion, the Library of Congress does not have a copy of every book ever printed in the United States. Especially lacking are genealogies and family histories. Such books are often printed in small quantities and distributed through personal networks. Realizing this, the editors of Genealogies in the Library of Congress set out to locate genealogies not in the Library of Congress. The result was A Complement to Genealogies in the Library of Congress. It is a bibliography of 20,000 genealogies found in one or more of twenty-four major libraries outside of the Library of Congress collection. The format is the same as that of the earlier volume (without cross references). It also indicates in which library the book can be found.

This book includes the more obscure titles and gives their locations. However, it is not comprehensive; several libraries surveyed only portions of their collections. Also, some libraries with major genealogical collections did not participate. The same titles may be in many other libraries as well, so be sure to check the catalog of any local research library. In 2002, the Genealogical Publishing Company reprinted the five print volumes of the Library of Congress genealogical catalogs, along with the Complement and made them available to research libraries as a set. This further underscores this collection as one of the most significant finding aids for genealogical research.

National Society Daughters of the American Revolution, Library Catalog

This catalog is another important tool for locating compiled genealogies. While the DAR Library includes mostly major published genealogies, its collection is unique for its holdings of genealogies that were published in very small numbers'sometimes fewer than a dozen copies. Many of its typescript genealogies can be found in no other research library. They are listed in the DAR's Library Catalog, Volume One: Family Histories and Genealogies. This catalog, along with a small supplement published in 1984, lists 15,031 titles of family histories and genealogies.

It is arranged alphabetically by the names of the primary families treated. The entries include complete bibliographic citations as well as DAR Library call numbers. In addition to an author index, the catalog has a surname index with approximately 26,000 entries that indicate in which books a surname is prominently mentioned, even if the name is not included in the title of the book. Volume 3 of the catalog, published in 1992, includes references to 4,123 family histories acquired by the library within the previous decade. This library has also made their catalog available online, generally superseding these print catalogs. However, where the print catalogs are available in a research library, they can often be easier to browse when seeking variant spellings for surnames.

New York Public Library'Dictionary Catalog of the Local History and Genealogy Division

The New York Public Library (Fifth Avenue and Forty-second Street, New York, NY 10018) houses an excellent collection of genealogical research material. The eighteen-volume catalog for its genealogical collection, Dictionary Catalog of the Local History and Genealogy Division, consists of duplications of the typed and handwritten, alphabetically arranged card catalog. Copies of this catalog are available at most major libraries in the United States. It includes approximately 300,000 references to the 100,000 volumes that were in the collection before 1972. Although most of the books are local histories, approximately 26,000 titles, and perhaps 75,000 references, are genealogies and family histories. The catalog indexes only the major surnames in each book, but it remains very useful. Like most published catalogs, this one has not been added to since publication. However, new acquisitions are identified in the annual Bibliographic Guide to North American History, published by G. K. Hall of Boston.

Other Published Library Catalogs

The catalogs discussed here probably identify more than ninety-five percent of the published genealogies and family histories of North American families. All, or most, of these catalogs are available in every major genealogical library, as well as on the Internet. There are, however, several other library catalogs that researchers should be aware of. These should be consulted if you have access to the library described or if more thorough research is needed.

Several library catalogs have been published by the G. K. Hall Company of Boston (in addition to the New York Public Library Catalog described above.) They include those of the Peabody Library (Baltimore), Boston Athenaeum, Los Angeles Public Library, American Antiquarian Society (Worcester, Massachusetts), and others. These can be found in most university and some public libraries.

Library Catalog Networks

Virtually all major public, private, and university libraries have embraced automation and regularly take advantage of the opportunities the computer age provides. These libraries subscribe to one or more computer networks that allow them to locate and catalog books faster by sharing information with other repositories that use the network.

Online Computer Library Center

One of the major networks is the Online Computer Library Center (OCLC). This network is an online catalog of more than 9,000 public, private, and some academic libraries that subscribe to the service. New books are then cataloged only once'by the library that enters the book in OCLC first. Other libraries flag the book as being in their collections and download the description for their catalogs. At libraries that have WorldCat, as the public interface is known, patrons can conduct searches themselves. Librarians also can search OCLC for specific requests. For example, if you know a specific title or an author's name, you can retrieve the full citation and locate the copy nearest to you, which you can then borrow through interlibrary loan.

Research Libraries Network

Several hundred major academic and research libraries belong to the Research Libraries Network (RLIN). While it operates cooperatively, much like OCLC, RLIN offers different search capabilities. In addition to author, title, and subject searches, key words and phrases can be found using sophisticated search techniques. Most major university libraries subscribe to RLIN and will help patrons make searches.

Catalogs of Manuscripts

Thousands of libraries across America have manuscript collections that include genealogies, family histories, and the research notes of professional and amateur genealogists on the many families they have researched. Any unpublished documents'journals, diaries, letters, business records, and church registers, among others'are manuscripts. A genealogy, pedigree chart, or a family history neatly typed or written in almost illegible, abbreviated notes is a manuscript as well. And a printed volume that has handwritten annotations can be a manuscript. In a genealogy or family history, these notes may be corrections to previously printed errors or new information, such as previously missing maiden surnames. In addition to the various library catalog networks, which can also help in locating manuscripts, two important tools are also available.

National Inventory of Documentary Sources (NIDS)

Many manuscript collections are too large to be fully described in the brief paragraph that appears in the National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections (discussed elsewhere in this chapter). Most repositories create inventories or finding aids for their large manuscript collections, so researchers can often determine if a manuscript collection has information of value by consulting such finding aids. Unfortunately, most such finding aids have very limited distribution'often only within the library or archive that houses the collection. Recognizing the value of these tools, Chadwyck-Healey, Inc. has begun publishing the finding aids for many research libraries on microfiche. The microfiche is accompanied by an index to the key subjects and persons mentioned in the finding aid. The National Inventory of Documentary Sources (NIDS) allows the researcher to get one step closer to the manuscript collection and to learn whether its contents will be of value. While most of these collections have little information of genealogical value, many that do include genealogical information are also described. NIDS is available at large research libraries, including government repository libraries. Beginning in 1993, the index to the various inventories was also published on CD-ROM. This valuable research collection is now also available online, as part of ArchivesUSA where researchers can access, print, and even download over 3,000 inventories of major manuscript collections.

For more information on locating manuscript collections using these sources, as well as online networks, see, 'Finding Manuscript Collections: NUCMC, NIDS, and RLIN,' by Mary McCampbell Bell, et al. in National Genealogical Society Quarterly.

National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections

Since 1959, the Library of Congress has solicited detailed descriptions of manuscript collections in public, private, and academic libraries. These indexed and cross-referenced descriptions are published in the National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections. Published annually in printed volumes from 1962 through 1993, and online since 1986, this catalog, often referred to as the NUCMC, provides brief descriptions of approximately 120,000 different collections at 2,000 different repositories. While most of these collections are not genealogical, many are biographical, and at least 15,000 of them include genealogical information.

A two-volume cumulative Index to Personal Names in the National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections, 1959'1984 , is an alphabetical arrangement of all the 'personal and family names appearing in the descriptions of manuscript collections cataloged from 1959 to 1984.'<ref>Index to Personal Names in the National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections, 1959-1984, ii.</ref> Many of the 200,000 names in the index are entries for family information, which is typically genealogical. It is an excellent place to start a search for research notes that someone else may have compiled on a specific family.

Check also for the specific locality where your ancestors lived, the churches and schools they attended, other families they were associated with, and so on. These entries sometimes disclose invaluable sources'the location of a family Bible, diaries, letters, and so forth.

These volumes are especially valuable for records taken to places not associated with your family by relatives or family friends who moved away. For example, the personal papers of Zachariah Johnston, a resident of Rockbridge County, Virginia, were found in Durham, North Carolina. Searches in Rockbridge County disclosed the location of some of his papers in the Virginia Historical Society in Richmond, but failed to disclose that a much larger collection had been deposited in Duke University at Durham, North Carolina, where one of the family members later settled. This collection was cataloged in the NUCMC.

Since the printed NUCMC volumes are typically only found in research libraries, and print copies have not been issued since 1993, the Internet is now the best way to access these descriptions of archive collections. The Library of Congress website includes the catalog entries from 1986 (when they began computerizing the entries) to the present. However, a subscription service called ArchivesUSA from Chadwyck-Healey (a ProQuest company) provides the NUCMC entries from the present all the way back to 1959. Look for this subscription service at major research libraries, typically affiliated with a university.



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