Sunday, July 30, 2023

When Digging Below
the Tip of the Iceberg


Years ago, the California Genealogical Society created a poster featuring a drawing of an iceberg. The caption, in part, read, "Genealogy Research: Internet is just the tip of the iceberg." The poster continued by explaining that successful research also requires the willingness to check many other resources.

 When we are called upon to name some of those "other resources," some of us are able to think of courthouses where records are created and stored, or governmental archives. Sometimes, we remember to check our local libraries—and maybe the libraries of our ancestors' own hometown. But beyond that, many of us might be hard pressed to name any other likely resource for a given research question.

Having a finding aid to guide us in a new-to-us research location would be helpful. Thankfully, there are such aids, at least for places where volunteers have been resourceful enough to make available their secret stashes for other researchers. I sometimes found the old GenWeb sites—both American and international—to serve quite capably in that capacity. Though I seldom resort to it, Linkpendium also comes to mind as a way to ferret out those hidden local resources. But now, with so many resources online, I simply turn to a good ol' Google search to find material which I might otherwise have missed.

Sometimes, though, the resources we seek might be right under our noses—but we don't even realize it. I'm reminded of an experience this past month in helping a new member of our local genealogical society. This member, who joined online from quite a distance from our own city, inquired about finding a book for which she had received a photocopy from her now-gone grandmother. All she had was the book's title and author—and a convincing picture of a very blurry photocopied front page.

In receiving such a request, my first thoughts were to check the online catalog listing the books in the holdings of the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, or the genealogy center of the Allen County Public Library in Fort Wayne. Thankfully, instead of that, I made my first step a trip to the online collective of public libraries known as

There—perhaps you've guessed it—I discovered four libraries nearby which have that specific book in their holdings, including our own city library. There was a catch, however: the book was not in the stacks, nor in the reference section, but locked away in a special collection labeled simply, "Local History." Who would have known there was such a place? But knowing that now, I could go and ask the reference librarian how to gain access so I could see the book for myself.

How many other libraries have secret stashes like that? How many local residents are aware of such holdings—let alone those of us researching that community from miles away?

Sometimes, we may discover help in already-compiled finding aids. Sometimes, developing a deft hand at trawling the Internet with the help of search engines can make the difference. But there are other times when we simply need to follow our noses and learn to ask questions as we move along the research path.

Once we get there—that place where, finally, we discover the answer to our previously unanswerable question—the all-important next step is to write down what we were looking for and where we found it. Who knows? We may be retracing our steps to this very spot for another genealogy question in the future.


  1. WorldCat is a wonderful source for locating books in nearby libraries, but remember, not all libraries participate in it. The local libraries in our Contra Costa County system are not part of it. Nor is the library at our local historical society. So don't forget to check the online catalogs of local libraries, too.

    1. Thank you for bringing that up, Lisa. Not all library systems participate in WorldCat, which is why it is best to always contact local resources directly when you are researching an area. However, the interesting thing is that, despite what you just mentioned, if in looking up a title the WorldCat system, you click on "all libraries" instead of the default "featured libraries," you will see a broader listing of resources.

      In the case of this specific book I mentioned, doing so not only showed my local public library system (which told me they did not participate in WorldCat), but my alma mater University of the Pacific also has the book in their holdings.

      The down side--and you know there always is one--is that each of those mentioned institutions in this alternate WorldCat tab are not clickable links, like the libraries featured if you had gone the route of "featured libraries." But that is fine, since it is always best policy to contact the holding institution directly to ensure the item is actually in their collection when you plan to visit them.

      In fact, as I learned from fellow blogger Sheri Fenley, "The Educated Genealogist," if you call ahead, upon your arrival, you may find yourself getting the red carpet treatment. Archivists and reference librarians can be quite a lonely bunch, especially at the local level. A visit from a serious researcher can sometimes brighten their day.

  2. I looked all over for a book that was uncatalogued at our local historical society. You just never know.

    1. Wow, you are lucky that you actually found the book, Miss Merry! There is so much that is out there that we don't know about. Learning to conduct your own genealogical search and rescue mission can be a useful skill to have.


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