Genealogy 101: the librarians’ view

Alice KaneRecently, I had the pleasure of attending this year’s annual conference of the Massachusetts Library Association as a panelist for its Genealogy 101 discussion session. The goal of the session is to inform public librarians about how the staffs of genealogically-oriented libraries and organizations work with patrons to answer their reference questions. Assisting patrons with genealogical questions is increasingly frequent for public librarians, given the popularity of prime time shows such as Who Do You Think You Are? and Finding Your Roots. My fellow panelists were Joy Hennig, Worcester Public Library; Susan Aprill, Kingston Public Library; Barbara Burg, Jewish Genealogical Society of Greater Boston; and Marie Lamoureaux, American Antiquarian Society in Worcester.

Overall, public libraries are terrific resources for local information and collections, and it was great to see so many librarians interested in meeting the needs of family historians! Our discussion touched briefly on typical questions (“I’m looking for the parents of…” or “I know where they were, but not where they died”), and then turned to patron interactions and directing patrons to resources. We had panel consensus that patron interactions require active listening to determine research experience and the problem to be solved, and sometimes resource education may be needed along with resource recommendations.

Investigations on behalf of and reporting research results to patrons may in some instances require compassion and sensitivity, such as when a family story is discovered via the library’s records to be very different from the details passed down to the patron. Directing patrons to other repositories is an efficient way for connecting them to resources unavailable at the given public library (and likely beyond its collecting scope). Finally, encouragement of the patron’s research goals (at the most basic level, to discover and fully tell the story of his or her family) is as important as answering the reference question at hand.

Ultimately, it is the researcher who begins the genealogical journey, as pointed out by co-panelist Joy Hennig during our session. Most family history projects start at home with information compiled from personal knowledge, and later through interviews and review of available personal documents and family heirlooms. All library staff, knowledgeable about their collections and local resources, help and guide researchers to the details and full stories of their ancestors’ lives potentially waiting on the library’s shelves and through access to digital collections. Hurrah and thank you! to librarians everywhere!

About Alice Kane

Alice Kane worked with NEHGS constituents until 2020, orienting and facilitating research for first-time visitors to the NEHGS headquarters. Prior to joining the staff, she was a librarian at the Boston Public Library for 19 years. Alice is an expert in Chinese and Chinese-American genealogy and also has extensive experience with French-Canadian, Irish, and German research. She earned a bachelor’s degree in History from Harvard University.

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