July 23rd, 2013

How to Research Genealogy at the Library of Congress

The Library of Congress maintains one of the world’s most comprehensive collections of national and foreign genealogical and local historical publications. Although the primary purpose of the Library of Congress is to serve Congress and help them to execute their Congressional responsibilities, the library also has many resources for researchers, both on-site and online.

The Library of Congress contains over 141 million items in its collections, including over 21 million catalogued books in its classification system, and over 100 million items in their special collections. Their special collections include over 62 million manuscripts, 16 million plus microforms, and over 14 million visual materials. Their 5 million plus maps can be of invaluable help to genealogical researchers. Of special significance are their more than 15 million files which are available to researchers online.

The Library’s genealogy collection was started in 1815 with the purchase of Thomas Jefferson’s personal library of between nine and ten thousand volumes. Jefferson’s library replaced much material that was destroyed or vandalized by the British, and he allowed Congress to pay whatever they thought was fair and affordable. Today family historians can best take advantage of these wonderful resources in the Local History and Genealogy Reading Room.

The Reading Room was opened in August of 1935, and is housed in what is appropriately named the Thomas Jefferson Building. The Reading Room was developed to make it simple and easy for genealogists to conduct research in what is literally a mountainous stockpile of genealogical and historical resources. You can familiarize yourself with their collections and procedures on the Reading Room Webpage. In addition to information about their own resources, the library also provides a wealth of links to other genealogy resources.

Library Genealogy Record Collection 

The genealogy record collection at the Library of congress is compiled of over 60,000 genealogies from around the world, and over 100,000 local histories. The collections are particularly strong in North American, British Isles, Irish, German, and Scandinavian sources. Keep in mind that the Library of Congress is not an archive, so does not house records such as census records or BDM certificates and such. The Local History and Genealogy Reading Room is one of nine such rooms throughout the Library of Congress, but it is a small, specialized room with a staff of around nine or ten.

The staff at the Library of congress are well-trained are happy to answer questions about Heraldry, Biography, Naval or Maritime History, and any other genealogy-related subject. Staff are not researchers, you should not expect them to do research for you, but they are well versed in instruction and are happy to oversee your efforts and to instruct you in strategies that will help you to find your family members.

The Library also offers a wealth of webcasts that are designed to guide you through your research and to familiarize you with accessing and using their resources.  One such example is their Amish Resources Webcast.

The Reading Room for genealogists also offers online Orientation classes, generally on every other Wednesday morning. The classes are taught by reference librarians and are designed to familiarize genealogical researchers with the Library of Congress collections. Each class includes an introduction to genealogical research and how to use the resources and facilities of the Local History and Genealogy Reading Room.

The sessions in the Genealogy reading Room are well organized and extremely comprehensive. They cover a huge amount of genealogical ground such as; compiled family histories, city directories, local histories, telephone books, how to search the Library’s online catalog, locating published census schedules and indexes, military lists and registers, military service and pension records, ship passenger lists, church records and registers, cemetery records, land records, court records, and registers of births.

The Library of congress is a goldmine of genealogical resources. If you are currently researching your family tree or thinking about doing so, it is well worth taking a trip to Washington D.C to avail yourself of their expertise. It’s a great way to begin your genealogical quest, and to take in a bit of the nation’s capitol at the same time.