Preface for Librarians

I have revised the 1983 edition of this reference guide in order to help both the genealogist and the librarian find materials in the University of Virginia Library. It is not a comprehensive guide, but contains only the most important and useful references.

The University Library contains one of the largest collections of materials in the state supporting research in the history of Virginia. Because of the bounty of its collections, the University Library attracts not only scholars from other universities, but also independent scholars, among them genealogists and family historians. It is especially important to be able to provide assistance to those doing family research, because these researchers are supporters of libraries in a time when libraries need public support.

I urge the user to always check the online catalog for the current status of a title. If you plan to visit the University Library to use its resources, please contact us ahead of time to verify hours and holdings:

Alderman Library
Information: (434) 924-3021
Alderman Library’s website
Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library
Information (no reference questions, please): (434) 243-1776
Reference Request Form
Small Library’s website

Many librarians have pondered the question of “What do genealogists want from us?” often accompanied by wild-eyed looks and the pulling of hair (their own hair, not the genealogist’s). What genealogists want is very simple. The genealogist is looking for recorded evidence of the existence of a person (related to them or not), and facts about the person and that person’s relationship(s) with others.

How can we help them as librarians?

Genealogical techniques and the format of genealogical resources have changed tremendously in the 32 years since the 1983 edition of this work was published. Not only is genealogy and family history an increasingly widespread interest among the public, but many genealogical resources are available in online formats and easier to get to for the typical researcher. For instance, images of the 1790 through 1940 U.S. Census documents, as well as indexes to them, are now available from several different vendors in online formats. (In many cases this is a noticeable improvement — the digital images are in better condition and more readable than the microfilms held by libraries that have been in constant use for many years.)

Many of the classic published resources have been improved by the digital age. It is easier to locate materials that will help the researcher. Difficult-to-find, out-of-print books are now available on Google Books, HathiTrust, Internet Archive, and other free resources. Printed book catalogs of genealogical materials in the Library of Congress (Washington, D.C.) and the Newberry Library (Chicago, IL) have been supplanted by direct access to the online catalogs of those libraries, along with many others. The catalog of the Family History Library (Salt Lake City, UT) is available online, along with the means to search the International Genealogical Indexes, the Pedigree Resource File, the Ancestral Files, and other unique resources held at that library. The catalog of the Allen County Public Library (Fort Wayne, IN) is also available remotely for the first time, in online format.

I should mention that some of the electronic databases listed in this guide are only available from a U.Va. location. I have noted these restrictions in this guide.

In spite of these changes in methods of access, the resources that a genealogist needs remain the same. Primary resources are of the utmost importance, such as:

  • Business records. Some business records, such as plantation journals, are vital to pre-1865 genealogical research.
  • Civil and religious vital records. Vital records include birth, marriage, divorce and death records.
  • Court records. Court records can offer a glimpse of the relationships of a person to the other people in his community.
  • Federal and state census schedules. Census schedules identify family members, their birth years, birth places, and other facts about their lives.
  • Immigration records. Immigration record give the date and place the person arrived in the United States, and those who accompanied her or him.
  • Land records. Land records often include the names and relationships of family members who buy and sell land to each other.
  • Military records. Both service records and pension applications, among other military records, are useful for genealogy and family history purposes.
  • Naturalization records. Naturalization records include the names of immigrants, their dates and places of arrival and country of origin.
  • Newspapers. Contemporary newspapers may announce births, deaths, and marriages, as well as other important events in a person’s life.
  • Personal papers. Diaries, letters, day-books, and other records can provide valuable, in-depth information.
  • Wills and probate records. Wills and probate records identify family members.

Secondary sources, such as indexes, bibliographies, lists, and other resources, are useful as guides on the trail of the primary resources. You will find both kinds of information here at the University Library.

A genealogical reference transaction is not always successful because it is unusual to find the information needed by a genealogist packaged neatly in a book. In many cases, the information cannot be found at all. In my opinion, the librarian involved perceives this inability to find information that does not exist (or does not exist in the form requested) as a failure. I believe that it is this perceived feeling of failure that makes the librarian look less than favorably on the idea of trying to help future genealogical patrons.

But rest easy! The genealogist is fully aware that his questions may not be answered soon — or ever! What the genealogist wants from the librarian is help locating materials that may hold the answer. A genealogist won’t hold you responsible if her question is not answered by a source — it will merely make her more determined to continue on her quest.

— Jean L. Cooper