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It is important to know the difference between a library and an archive. A library contains published material in the form of printed books, periodicals, magazines, journals, broadsides, newspapers, pamphlets, and brochures. Many items in a library can be borrowed through Interlibrary Loan. An archive contains unpublished, one-of-a-kind items that cannot be borrowed.

There are national, regional, state, special (including corporate and institutional), academic, local, and private libraries. The point of printing or publishing something is so there can be multiple copies. There may be a copy of the book you need in several libraries across the nation which gives you a better chance to borrow the book on Interlibrary Loan through your local library.

Our national library is the Library of Congress which does not loan books but will make photocopies of parts of books as a last resort if no other library has the item. The Library of Congress does not copy fragile items that could be damaged in the photocopying, filming, or scanning process. You may have to visit Washington, D.C. to view very rare items. It is sometimes possible for your state or university library to borrow books from the National Library of Canada and some of the Canadian provinces. Borrowing books from other national and foreign libraries is more difficult.

State and regional libraries often loan materials or photocopy pages, depending on the rarity of the item. There are 50 state libraries in the United States and many of them have genealogy collections specializing in their state. State libraries also have archival collections that hold unique documents pertaining to that state.

Special libraries such as corporate and business libraries may have employment information, lists, and biographies of board members that can help you in your genealogical research. Institutional libraries may have the history of a particular institution, such as a hospital, a museum, or a society. Special libraries usually have collections on a narrower scope than a public library. As an example of how you might use a special library, someone doing Native American genealogy may want to visit an anthropology library to research the movement of a particular tribal group that could help in locating records. Law libraries are considered special libraries unless they are part of a university or a state library.

Academic libraries do not usually have a genealogy collection as genealogy is normally not part of the university curriculum. They may, however, have an excellent collection of state and local histories and maps. State and university libraries are often repositories for material published by the government. If your ancestor was a government employee (postmaster, tax collector, census taker, or teacher, to name a few) or if your ancestor filed a patent for an invention, you might find some interesting information in a government repository.

Public libraries in the places of our ancestors’ residences are often a gold mine for genealogists especially if they collect their town’s local history. You may find unique publications that mention your family, your family’s business, or activities of your ancestors in local government, church, and civic organizations. This material may be unique and not available in any other library. Some large public libraries with genealogy collections include the Allen County Public Library in Fort Wayne, Indiana; the St. Louis County Library in Missouri, and the Houston Public Library in Texas. There are many others too numerous to name. Go to Cyndi’s List for a good selection.

Other libraries open to the public are some large genealogy and historical societies libraries include the Daughters of the American Revolution Library in Washington, D.C.; the New England Historic Genealogical Society Research Library in Boston, Massachusetts; and the largest genealogy library in the world the Family History Library of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Help Me!  Please give me the address of the public library in my ancestor’s hometown.

Help Me!  I am looking for diaries written by people who traveled the Oregon Trail. Can you tell me where I might find published or unpublished records?

Help Me!  Does the Kraft or Nabisco Company have a library or archive?

Help Me!  Does the Library of Congress have books about my ancestor?

Help Me!  Is there a rail road library in the Vermont (or some place else)?

Help Me!  My ancestor was an inventor, where can I find a record of his inventions?

To ask these or similar questions, click on Help Me!, fill out the form that comes up, and submit your questions.