What I Learned about Family History from Library Science

row of books in shelf

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I recently graduated with a degree in Library and Information Science. I’ve had about six months of free time to unwind, put away my school papers, and reflect on what I’ve learned the past three years. Although most of my courses were not directly related to genealogy or family history, I realized that much of the knowledge that I gained in the library field is also applicable to family history. I recently read an older post from Amy Coffin at The We Tree Genealogy Blog, and I was inspired to write this post. So, what did I learn about family history while in library school?

Recently, library science programs have shifted their focus from the institution (the library or the archive) to the broader concept of information management. In just the three years that I’ve been in library school, the name of my program shifted from Library and Information Science (GSLIS) to Information Science (iSchool). This shift makes sense in today’s world; libraries are major hubs of information, but they aren’t the only ones. Many other institutions are working with the organization and management of information, especially in the technology field. For genealogists, information is also the backbone of what we gather… dates, names, relationships, locations are all essential pieces of information for us!

Like Amy Coffin mentioned in her post, every library school student’s path is unique. I followed a path for special collections, which in itself has many courses to choose from. At the beginning of my library degree, I was undecided whether genealogy would be a central part of my librarian career. After realizing that course after course applied to both my library career and my interest in family history, the two passions have grown together. I have grown as a librarian and as a genealogist over the past few years. Some of the best genealogy-related lessons that I’ve learned in library school include:

Systems of organization 

books on shelf in library

Before library school, I was familiar with the Dewey Decimal system, and the Library of Congress organization system. I also knew that there were probably some home-grown or specialized organization systems, but I figured that most libraries and archives were more or less organized in a similar fashion. I have developed a much deeper understanding of how different systems of organization work, and why! Also, while many libraries use LoC or Dewey Decimals, each library has a slightly different way of organizing and cataloging. As a librarian, it is essential to intimately know your library’s organization system, including its little exceptions and quirks. As a family researcher visiting a library or archive for the first time, it’s essential to become a little familiar with their organization system before you visit, and to be sure to ask the librarians or archivists for help locating items!

Preservation and Access 

old photos

I took a few preservation-related courses, including digital preservation. Nearly all of the work that archivists and preservationists do in libraries can be translated in smaller scale to family history archives at home. Based on the recommendations and skills learned from the classes, I’ve developed plans for preserving both my physical and digital family history items. I’ve been scanning and describing the many photos, letters and other documents in our family. I have a plan for organizing these into archival-safe boxes and containers, and taking them out of the dusty boxes where they are now. I’m working on taking an inventory of all the photos and documents that we have. I’ve also developed a digital genealogy archive, organized by family surname, and backed up into two places. I’m saving and organizing the scans, standardizing the digital file formats, and adding metadata to my files. I’ve also backed up copies of my family trees, and I’m getting some of the old film and VHS digitized.

Libraries and archives are all about preservation and access. They preserve and organize materials so that others may access them, now and in the future. My efforts will hopefully have the same results! My detailed plans for preserving both the physical and digital copies will hopefully ensure that these items are preserved for future generations, and that future generations will continue to be able to access our family history! Once the bulk of the digital repository is completed, I’ll be able to share (and provide access) with family members. It’s a big job, but it will be worth it! I hope my descendants will appreciate my efforts.


In library school, I realized that the key to providing access is ultimately in the metadata. A brilliant and important document is useless if you can’t locate the document in your thousands of documents and photos on your computer. Adding metadata to your digital files or records makes them findable and accessible. I have started keeping track of the books in my library, my physical copies of documents, and my digital items. In my digital metadata, I always add the primary person of the record or item, the approximate date, the original source, the type of record, and the source of the image (if it’s downloaded from online). All records are stored in my digital archive in nested folders for each branch of my family tree, then divided by ancestor couple. This essential information and organization system helps me find digital items in a snap. I am also working on an inventory of some of the physical resources that I have, like the physical photos and documents that I haven’t scanned and books. Recording basic metadata about those items is also helping me to stay organized and find the things that I need quickly. (“My Library” and “My Digital Library” pages on my blog is an off-shoot of this project!) More metadata = more accessibility!


Storytelling in libraries goes way beyond children’s storytime. In my storytelling class, I learned about other ways that stories grow in libraries, including oral storytelling programs, recording oral histories and storytelling for social justice. I also practiced sharing my own stories. Family historians also tend to be great storytellers, although their audience is usually their own families. They gather, preserve, and share the stories from their own family histories. This is one area where I learned a lot, and was very inspired to share more stories, in and out of the library! My storytelling class helped me tell my grandmother’s WAVES story (as told in this video) and inspired me to help others find their family stories (as told in a presentation and in this blog series).

The Search (Research skills)

person touching open macbook on table

All librarians know that the answer is not always found on Google. We are experts at using all our available resources to help you find the information that you need. We use books, databases, the Internet, local archives, and more to help you locate what you need. We are also trained to analyze different kinds of sources for reliability and completeness.

Genealogists need the very same research skills. We use a huge variety of resources (books, databases, websites, local archives and more) to conduct our research. We know that not everything is on Ancestry.com. We have to analyze each piece of information about our ancestors to determine whether that information is reliable and true. While in library school, I’ve developed my research skills to include a wide variety of topics that could be asked at a public library. I’ve also strove to improve my genealogical research skills. I’ve learned about some amazing family history resources that I didn’t know about before, and I’ve been more diligent about keeping research logs so that my efforts aren’t duplicated! I’ve also been a little more critical of the information that I gather in my research.

Database structure and searching

Similarly, I’ve developed a greater understanding of electronic databases. Not every database is structured in a similar manner, and it’s important to understand how to search and use each individual databases. Many databases allow truncated or boolean searches, but not all. Other databases allow you to narrow the results with various filters, and others need you to define the filters before you search. It’s also important to understand the coverage of the database. If records in a database only allow searches by place, or only cover years 1900-1920, doing a name search for someone in 1930 will be unfruitful and frustrating. Understanding a database structure, searching methods, and coverage will lead to efficient and (hopefully) successful results!

The Research Question and the Reference Interview

One of the more practical things that I learned in library school was the all-important Reference Interview. When working at a reference desk, many people will come to you to ask for help. However, they don’t always ask for exactly what they need (for multiple reasons). They might not know exactly what they are looking for, or they may not know how to ask for what they are looking for. As a librarian, we should ask at least a couple questions to clarify their question. Especially if the question is related to genealogy or other in-depth research, this Reference Interview is very important, so that we can help the patron find exactly what they need. For some research projects, we may need to help the patron formulate a research question before we can help them find resources.

When conducting genealogical research, it’s always important to have a research question. It’s not helpful to go to a library or to Ancestry.com and just do a random surname search. We have to make a research plan, and formulate a research question. What do we want to accomplish? What piece of information do we want to find or prove? Who, what, where and when are we researching? My experiences at the reference desk, both as a librarian, and as a patron, reminds me to always have a plan and a specific question to ask. Sometimes we need to give the Reference Interview to ourselves to ask ourselves what we really want to find out.

batch books document education

Importance of citations

As I mentioned before, librarians can be counted upon to locate reliable information and resources. They look critically at each resource to determine its reliability. One quick and easy way to tell whether a book or article is credible is to look to see whether it has citations, and whether the citations themselves come from proven reliable sources. As a family historian, I want my family and anybody who reads my research to know that it’s reliable. While I always included citations in my family tree, now I make sure to include full and complete citations when writing blog posts or sending information to family members. Just like scholarly writing, I want my readers to clearly see where I got that information, and see that my writing is reliable! When writing citations for primary sources and genealogical documents, I found that the best resource is Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace by Elizabeth Shown Mills.

Importance of experts

As librarians, our jobs are literally to help you find the resources that you need to answer a question or fulfill an interest. Sometimes, the best resource is a referral to an expert. Librarians are experts in a lot of things, but we don’t have to know everything! Many of my classes talked about collaboration and drawing on the skills and knowledge of our colleagues. As a family historian, I’m very familiar with particular regions of the United States where my family lived, and I’m very familiar with my favorite resources and databases. However, there are times when I encounter a database, record type, or region in my family tree that I don’t know as much about. Luckily, I am easily able to locate other experts, librarians and family historians who may specialize in that area and refer myself to those experts. I don’t have to know everything, but I should be able to find a resource or expert to help me!

For anyone who is thinking of starting an information or library science program, I highly recommend it! As a family historian, it has made me aware of best practices for areas like preservation, organization, metadata, research, and access. I have also learned how to be a better storyteller and researcher. I entered my program expecting to be a confident and skilled librarian, and in the process of accomplishing that, I also am becoming a more confident and skilled family historian! Many thanks again to my talented and knowledgeable professors at University of Illinois!


5 thoughts on “What I Learned about Family History from Library Science

  1. The parallels between library science and family history research are amazing. This is a great post, especially because you gave so much detail about how you put your library sciences skills to use for your family history research. It almost makes me want to take library science courses again.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This is a fantastic post! I completed my MLS degree almost a decade ago, and use many of these skills in my work as a librarian. However, they are so very essential to our family history research! I have so much more to learn in the metadata and digital preservation areas, but I find that I use my researching, interviewing and citation skills all the time in my own research, and as I help patrons.

    In fact, just yesterday, I was helping a library patron use Ancestry Library Edition to try to find cousins. I asked her whom she wanted to search specifically, and her reply was “all of them”. I had to convince her to start with a known person (such as her mother, and maternal grandparents), and use census records to find the siblings’ names.

    Again, fantastic post!


    1. Thank you! I think all librarians can relate to that story (including me)! I’m so glad when someone is excited to start their genealogy, but it’s easy to get overwhelmed and confused when you do too much at once. One step at a time! I have to remind myself to just focus on one family at a time, too.

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply to Liz Gauffreau Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.