It’s Academic

By Tami Osmer Glatz Premium

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Growing up, I found that all school libraries seemed pretty much the same: gum under the tables and something good to read on the shelves. As a genealogist, I frequent libraries of all kinds, and some of my favorites are still school libraries—particularly those on college and university campuses. Yep, there’s still gum under the tables, and definitely some amazing research treasures. We’ll help you access them with this guide.
Group Thinking
Interested in a particular topic or place? Look for websites that have pulled together digitized materials from many academic and other libraries into searchable online archives full of genealogical treasures. Examples of such sites include:

The old college try

You never quite know what you might find in your local college or university library. For example, the one at Marietta College, a small private college in southeast Ohio, has the original 1810 census for that part of the Buckeye State. It’s the only complete 1810 census known to exist for any part of the state. Another gem: A 1798 tax list for Waterford Township in Washington County, Ohio. Not only did this particular taxman list freemen, lodgers, servants, land and other taxable possessions, but if you flip to the back of the booklet, you’ll see he included the names of every person—even women and children—in each household.

College and university libraries tend to focus on academics and research, which, depending on the institution, might include excellent local history collections with genealogy-rich history books, maps and newspaper microfilm. You might find materials covering an ethnic community, business, fraternal organization or military unit originating nearby. The University of Washington Libraries have letters (digitized and transcribed at Pacific Northwest soldiers on the Civil War battlefields wrote to their parents and sweethearts. The Earlham School of Religion specializes in Quaker materials; its Digital Quaker Collection contains transcriptions and images of more than 500 Quaker works from the 17th and 18th centuries. Carnegie Mellon University Libraries turned three of its Pittsburgh-area historical Jewish newspaper titles into the online Pittsburgh Jewish Newspaper Project.
Consider also that historically, educational institutions were often the center points of their communities. They were, and still are in many cases, the first place that alumni, locals and descendants of locals would turn to archive family history and business documents. Heirs might end up with boxes of family papers they aren’t quite sure what to do with, so they donate them to the ancestor’s alma mater, or an academic library close to the person’s hometown.
Take the Truxton W. Boyce Genealogical Research and Family Papers at the University of Delaware. A native Delawarian, Boyce attended the University of Delaware, so it was fitting that his heirs donated his vast personal research collection to the university’s library for safekeeping. It amounted to 26 notebooks; nine folders of notes; family photographs; correspondence and other ephemera relating to Boyce’s family and ancestors; as well as nine autobiographical scrapbooks documenting his own life; his wife, Doris Jolls Boyce; and their family. These 10 boxes of genealogical gold are available for researchers to mine in the University of Delaware Library Special Collections Department.
Thousands of collections of this kind are at university and college libraries across the country. Often the collections relate to persons of some historical importance, but just as often, as in the case of Truxton W. Boyce, they are the papers, photographs and family history of the average citizen.

School zones

How do you find which of the zillion US academic libraries might hold treasures for your research? Start with institutions your ancestors attended or lived near, then look for schools whose collections cover topics—ethnicities, professions, military units, fraternal orders, religions or other affiliations— pertinent to your family history. Use Lib-Web-Cats, a directory of libraries throughout the world (though most listings are in North America). The Advanced Search lets you narrow your search to college or university libraries in any city or state. Results show the library’s address, phone number, website and a link to the online catalog. Google Maps also can help you find libraries in a given area; just search on college university library NEAR [address]. Google’s advanced web search also can turn up promising collections: Search for surnames, employers, organizations, ethnicities, churches, military units, etc., on domains ending in .edu.

Make a list of academic institutions to explore and peruse each library’s website for materials of genealogical interest. Look for the words special collections, historical, digitized and rare books. Search the site for the word genealogy to find resource guides such as West Virginia University’s

Search the library catalog, too (try adding the word genealogy to your searches). Librarians do their best to make materials accessible. Although some collections are indexed and entered into the catalog, others, because of time and budget limitations, might end up merely boxed, labeled and stored. Most libraries’ online catalogs offer fairly complete listings of holdings, but some items may end up cataloged under generalized headings such as “Brown Family Papers.” 

If you’re lucky, you’ll locate online finding aids for collections of interest so you can see whether they’ll be useful. A basic finding aid includes the collection title, its type of contents (manuscripts, photos, audio tapes) and size (such as “five linear feet”), location, accessibility and any restrictions on its use. You also might find an abstract of the contents, information about the people or organizations named in the records, and, if you’re really lucky, detailed descriptions of each item in the collection. 

For example, the Northwest Digital Archives is a website comprised mostly of finding aids for library collections in Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Alaska and Washington. The site also links to many digitized original documents from more than two dozen colleges and universities, plus museums and historical societies. (To view digitized collections, click the Contact Us link, choose an institution, then go to the Special Collections page.)

Print or save the catalog listing, finding aid and other pertinent details for collections you want to access. That way, you won’t waste valuable research time on collections that aren’t going to be productive.

Campus visit

Making a trip to the library is the best way to access its genealogical treasures. Before jumping in the car, though, you’ll need to do some planning. First, make sure you end up in the right place: Many campuses have more than one library, so verify the name and address of the library you need and print a campus or Google map. Mark the nearest public parking (and find out whether you’ll need a day permit) as well as where you can grab a bite to eat.

Next, make sure the library is open to the public, not just to students and professors. Most institutions’ main libraries are; though you may need to register. If you’ll want to borrow books, find out how to get a library card. 

Academic libraries, especially manuscript and special collections departments, often require an ID check or make you fill out a form before you can go in, so have a photo ID with you. Keep your belongings to a minimum, as your bags might be inspected. 

Keep in mind that educational libraries often change hours depending on whether school is in session. Call ahead to verify the hours when you plan to visit, especially if it’s during a weekend, holiday or school break. Ask specifically if the collections you’re interested in will be available. If your finding aids or catalog listings say an item is stored off-site, now’s the time to request it be delivered to the library for your visit. Find out whether a librarian will be around to answer questions.

Also find out about policies on using items such as personal scanners, cameras, laptops and cell phones. Call and ask if the information isn’t posted on the library’s website—no sense bringing a lot of equipment if you won’t be allowed to use it. Check into arrangements for photocopying items of interest: Will you need to bring lots of change, buy a prepaid copy card, or get staff to make your copies? As with any library research, bring plenty of notepaper and pencils. Pens, highlighters and sticky notes are forbidden in most research libraries.

Libraries are often minimally staffed, so be patient and don’t expect the librarian to do your research for you. Be prepared by knowing which collections you need. If you’re researching a local family, do ask the reference librarian about any related-but-not-yet-indexed collections. 

Commuter college

If you can’t make it to the university, you probably can accomplish a surprising amount of research from home. Most libraries have at least their catalogs online, and many are building digital collections. Look for links to digitized materials on library websites, or google the library’s name and digital collections. 

Columbia University Libraries has put together an Archives & Manuscript Collections list. Organized alphabetically, it includes links to websites of many college and university libraries’ online special collections. Many, although not all, have digitized materials. A similar list, the University of Idaho’s Repositories of Primary Sources, categorizes 5,000-plus websites by world region, then alphabetically. Again, not all contain digitized collections.

You’ll find varied and interesting digitized materials. The University of Florida Digital Collections, for example, provides free, well-organized, one-stop access to materials housed at the Barbados Museum and Historical Society Library, the Biblioteque Nationale Haiti (National Library of Haiti) and other locations. Search all 300 collections at once, or browse more than 7 million pages of manuscripts, letters, maps, newspapers, photographs and more. Particularly interesting to genealogists might be the Records of the Cunningham’s Funeral Home, of Ocala, Fla., dating from the 1950s through the 1970s and containing burial records, photos, financial transactions, oral histories, maps, letters and more.

Look for similar partnerships covering regions where your ancestors lived. One such collaboration, the South Carolina Digital Library, includes Clemson University, libraries of the University of South Carolina, College of Charleston Libraries and other state museums and archives. The resulting extensive collection has family papers, photographs, oral histories and more. Among the Wilkinson-Keith Family Papers, for example, are Willis Keith’s letters describe his experiences as a Confederate soldier. Or flip through a Ledger of United Spanish War Veterans, whose entries include dates and places of birth, dates of service, home addresses and relatives’ names.

Don’t pass up small colleges. Dickinson College, founded in 1773 in Carlisle, Pa., is one of the country’s oldest higher education institutions. Its website Their Own Words is a searchable collection of digitized books, letters and diaries by authors associated with the college. Even if your ancestors aren’t the writers, the personal flavor the works impart can help you to get a feeling for life during particular eras.

If the materials you need aren’t digitized, see whether you can access them through interlibrary loan. You may need to hire a local researcher to search manuscript collections for you; ask whether the library has a list or search the Association of Professional Genealogists directory Whether you visit online or in person sitting at the table with gum under it, be sure to include academic libraries in your genealogy research plan.


  • The Making of America collection has more than 1.5 million images of US primary sources from 1840 to 1877 focusing on education, history, sociology, religion and technology. It’s a partnership of Cornell University and the University of Michigan.  
  • Know what college your ancestor attended? Scour the library’s website for a link to the university archives. See our guide to finding records at

Online Research

Here’s a sampling of digital collections found at college and university libraries:




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From the February 2012 issue of Family Tree Magazine

More great genealogy resources from Family Tree Magazine: