How Public Libraries Help in Long-Distance Genealogy Research

Trying to find information about your ancestors is difficult enough, but when you live hundreds or thousands of miles from where they spent their lives, it sometimes feels impossible. Long-distance genealogy means that you have little or no access to the courthouse, state archives or local cemeteries. Sometimes even writing inquiries to these places can be nonproductive. Many courthouses are short-staffed and politely respond that they have no time to answer genealogical queries. If they do have time, it sometimes takes several months to get document copies. Historical archives are friendly to genealogists, but some have research fees which can be difficult to pay. Some cemeteries have no staff at all, and it is difficult or impossible to find out about your ancestor’s burial grounds.

However, there are several solutions to digging up information without needing a five-hundred-mile-long shovel. One of the best sources of information is the local public library where your ancestors lived. Libraries often take on the responsibility of housing old newspapers, family papers, local history books, funeral books, and school yearbooks. They are repositories of history.

Educated librarians are ready to answer queries regarding local history and genealogy. However, they are not often genealogists themselves, and cannot answer general questions about a family who used to live in that area. You must do some research into the library’s holdings and policies before submitting a query.

Almost every library has online catalogs. To find out if your ancestor’s homeland has a library, check out or Remember to search for libraries under county names as well as townships.

Find the website of your ancestor’s local library and search their online catalog for local newspapers. There you might find that the library holds the local newspaper from the year of your ancestor’s death. An obituary might be found. Also search family history books for your surname of interest. These books are rarely loaned out, but a librarian can check for a reference for your ancestors. Many libraries also have a specific section on their websites for genealogy. This might include a list of local resources; links to genealogy websites specific to the area; and best of all, genealogical databases that the library has compiled and put online.

Once you find a source that relates to your ancestor, find out what they policy is for genealogical queries. Does the library have an email address for directing questions of that nature? Do they prefer snail mail? Do they have a research fee? (Most libraries do not have research fees, and will simply charge you for copies and postage. But there are some that do charge fees.) Do they have a genealogy department to whom you should direct your query? If you can’t find these answers on their website, call the reference section of the library and ask directly.

You now have the source you want to search and know the policy for queries, and you are ready to write the email or letter. Cite the source you want searched (include call number), give names and dates for your ancestors, and include all your contact information. If it is snail-mail, include a self-addressed stamped envelope. With any luck, you may find some valuable genealogical information, thanks to a local public library.