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If you’ve spent any time at all researching your family tree, or looking into your last name origins, you probably already know just how valuable libraries can be in helping you get to the bottom of the riddle that is your family’s history. The problem, of course, is that finding the time to trek to the library that actually has the clues you need can be difficult, if not downright impossible.

But the good news is this: you can most likely get access to exactly what you need without ever leaving home. Thanks to the Internet and tried and true “snail mail,” the information in the world’s best libraries is right at your fingertips.

How to access the best library in the world? Before we get into the tips, ask yourself this question: what is the best library in the world for genealogy researchers? Before you start racking your brain, here’s the simple answer – it’s the one that has the info you’re looking for. Sounds simple, right? But the fact is, lots of people overlook this. If your ancestors came from Tumbleweed, Nowheresville, then that town’s library is going to be invaluable for your research. In this case, size definitely doesn’t matter.

Now let’s look at how to visit the library…without ever really having to visit the library (if you know what I mean).

You can access many library sites online and look through their catalogs. (A catalog is a database of the library’s holdings.).

Not only can you access the catalog of your local library online, but you can also access the catalogs of many libraries around the world. Start with LibWeb (http://www.lib-web.org), which gives you access  to libraries in 125 countries.

Also remember that most libraries have an inter-library loan program, which means that you can request a book in your local library that is held many miles away, and the book will be sent to your library so that you can borrow it. Not all books can be borrowed in this way. Older and valuable reference books may only be available to you if you visit the library itself. Here are a couple of sites to help get you started:

* Library of Congress Genealogy: The Local History and Genealogy Reading Room of the Library of Congress (http://www.loc.gov/rr/genealogy) is a great resource. You can access the catalog at this page: http://catalog.loc.gov/.

* The Allen County Public Library in Indiana: The Allen County Public Library has the second largest genealogical collection in the USA (http://www.genealogycenter.org/Home.aspx).

* Ask a Librarian: Don’t let the thought of working your way through a mass of books intimidate you. The librarians at any library will be pleased to help you, and that includes librarians at libraries you find online. Many libraries have an “ask the librarian” service. Look on the library’s home page to check whether your library offers it. Here’s the “Ask a Librarian” page at a library in Florida, with links to the same service in many other libraries: http://www.askalibrarian.org/.

4 tips for writing to libraries

If the Internet fails to turn up anything, you can still go the old-fashioned route and write to the librarian at the library in question with your requests. Here are four tips on how to contact librarians and get an almost guaranteed answer:

1. Keep your request brief. If you ask for a complete history of your family in that area, your letter is likely to be ignored. However, if you ask for a date of someone’s death, or the date they were married, most librarians will be happy to help.

2. Enclose a stamped, self-addressed envelope. And if you need copies of documents, enclose a donation to go toward the costs.

3. Check your letter carefully. Make sure you’ve spelled the names correctly, and that the dates are correct.

4. If you’re trying to track down a source for information, explain how you came by the information (for example, an interview with someone in the family, an old newspaper, or a letter).

About the Author
Chris Simeral is the creator of the 7 Day Family Tree Genealogy Research Toolkit.

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