Researching in your pajamas

When I was a child, my library card was sturdy cardboard, inset with a metal tab, embossed with my ID number. Remember those?

Now my card has an electronic bar code, and libraries have certainly expanded their horizons.  As a kid, I’d never have imagined the riches I could uncover in the comfort of my home, 24/7. Here’s some of what I can access from my home computer, using my little old library card:

Genealogy collections: Of course, many libraries carry Ancestry.com, but you must physically be in the library to use it. But many libraries also offer online access to HeritageQuest, where you can search censuses, government document collections, genealogical journal articles and more.

Newspapers: Before you drag yourself outside on a cold and snowy day, consider how many newspaper databases are accessible online. The New York Times electronic database (1851-2005) is one of the most common. Other useful indexes your library may carry include the “America’s Obituaries and Death Notices” database and Newsbank (America’s Newspapers), which currently carries 350 newspapers.

Digital photo collections: Oh, my gosh, do I love these. More and more libraries (like my hometown library) are digitizing their collections of historical photos. I can lose myself in the New York Public Library’s digital collections for hours if I’m not careful. Not to mention the NYPL’s videos on historic topics, also viewable on the site.

Digital maps: Another secret vice.  Lately I’ve been rooting around in the Sanborn fire insurance maps for New Jersey, 1867-1970, finding out fascinating things about the neighborhood in which I grew up. To get an idea of how vast this concept is, the Library of Congress has catalogued fire insurance maps of some 12,000 cities and towns in the U.S., Canada and Mexico. Not only are they topographically detailed, but because they were intended to help insurers determine risk, they also go into incredible detail about building and street construction, down to the placement of windows and types of roofs. If your ancestors, like mine, were town folks, these maps are an amazing resource.

So pour yourself a cup of coffee and log into your library’s website. You’d be surprised how much you can get done in your pajamas.

Note: I started writing this before the first 52 Weeks to Better Genealogy challenge came up from Amy Coffin at WeTree, urging us to actually visit our local library and report back on their family history resources. Never fear – I don’t need much urging to physically enter my library, and I’ll be taking up the challenge in my next post.


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