Tyler Stahle | May 31, 2018

Finding Your Family in the Library of Congress

Have you hit a roadblock on your genealogical journey? Consider researching at the Library of Congress! While not necessarily a genealogical library, the Library of Congress is the largest library in the world—home to millions of books, audio recordings, newspapers, maps, and manuscripts.

“When I was a student at Brigham Young University as a genealogy major, we learned about the Library of Congress and all of the wonderful books that were there,” said Byron Holdiman, education specialist at Quincy University, in his RootsTech 2018 presentation. “So when I first went to Washington, D.C., I made sure that I made a stop at the Library of Congress. And I went to the Local History Genealogy Reading Room and was able to find all this great material. I looked for genealogies, and I found a genealogy on the Holdiman family. I found a genealogy on my Welks family.”

During Holdiman’s presentation at RootsTech, he outlined a number of different resources available on the Library of Congress website that can help family historians uncover documents and other sources related to their families. We’ll highlight some of his tips here.

Tips for Researching in the Library of Congress Collections

Before you dig too deep into the Library of Congress website, it’s important to remember that it’s not a genealogical database. Holdiman advised not searching the Library of Congress in the same way you’d search for family information on Ancestry, FamilySearch, MyHeritage, or Findmypast.

“The Library of Congress is not created for genealogy,” said Holdiman. “What we’re going to be searching for … is bibliographic details [for] each item.”

Search by Name

One of the best ways to get started is by simply searching for your family surname in the search bar located at the top of the Library of Congress webpage.

The more unique the last name you’re searching, the more likely you’ll find specific search results. If you don’t find anything simply by searching the surname, Holdiman recommends adding a location to the search query.

After searching unsuccessfully for the last name Barnes, Holdiman added Custer, Nebraska, to the search. “What it does then,” he said, “is it finds the bibliographic details; it looks for the words Barnes, Custer, and Nebraska. Then once I have all three words in it, … the most relevant material is going to be at the top of [the] list.”

Search by Location

Searching by the location of your ancestors is also a great way to find information on the Library of Congress site. In his presentation, Holdiman demonstrated this by searching for Will County, Illinois.

“I know from the census records that my family came from Wheatland Township in Will County,” he said. “What [I find when I search for that] is what’s called a plat map. It outlines everybody who owned property in Will County.”

Search Digital Collections

With more than 51 million items housed on the Library of Congress site, searching for your family can feel like searching for a needle in a haystack at times. One tip Holdiman suggested was to search the digital collections.

“You may want to go into the digital collections,” he said. “There are three hundred different digital collections. … One of them that’s common for genealogy is the Historic American Buildings Survey. People have gone all over the United States taking pictures of historic buildings—these could be famous buildings, local buildings, homes. … There are sketches of the buildings. There are blueprints of the layout of the buildings. There is historic information about the buildings.”

Another useful digital collection for genealogists is the Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project collection. “These authors … first started interviewing former slaves and catching their stories. … They just traveled the country,” explained Holdiman. “They would literally drive all day, stop, stay at somebody’s house, the next morning interview someone in that town, and then drive on and stop, interview someone in the next town. And they would just do this all the way across the country. So one of your ancestors may be in the Federal Writers’ Project.”

What tips do you have for researching the Library of Congress database? Tweet us @RootsTechConf.



Tyler Stahle

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