Ryan Taylor A visit to the Library of Congress
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By Ryan Taylor

The Library of Congress, the U.S. national library, receives 31,000 titles a week to add to its collections. It's a busy place.

I was in Washington recently and was given a tour of several departments at the Library of Congress. I was particularly interested in the kind of research genealogists might do.

The main reading room, whose dome is a little sister to the dome of the Capitol building in the next block, in an impressive place. Anyone past high school age is welcome to come in to work there, although enquiring at smaller institutions might be advisable ahead of time.

As well as its own catalogs, LC (as it's known) offers free access to many fee-based databases for workers within the library. It also teaches free classes in how to do research there, usually offered on Mondays. If you intend to do much work at LC, taking the class would be a good idea. They also publish a good, small research guide Doing Research at the Library of Congress (1994).

I found the map room very exciting. One problem that often stumps me in my job is locating ancestral villages in the former Soviet Union. The map people at LC have the same troubles, but they have many more resources to find the answers. They also accept questions from everywhere in the world, so if you have a place name that mystifies you, they might be able to help. They not only try to find eastern European names, but also British and Irish ones. The librarian I spoke to specialises in Italian place names and seemed eager for new challenges. (Canadian place names can be searched at a government website.)

All the various LC departments accept queries. The preferred method is via e-mail, so that misdirected questions can be transferred to the right department. Their policy is to provide an answer within five days, but Judith Roach, head of the Genealogy and Local History division, says, "We try to send something back within 24 hours."

To ask a question or use the LC catalog, go to the LC website. For e-queries, click on "Ask a Librarian." Everyone I spoke to emphasized their high level of public service.

I talked at length to Roach about genealogical services at LC. They have a small separate reading room, mostly stocked with general and state reference materials about the U.S. They have access to the whole of LC's collections, which include many genealogical resources also. Often, local history questions are best answered locally, she finds. "We often refer researchers to the library down the block from where they live," she says, because local expertise is often the best approach to local questions. "Local history is really not a discipline in this country," she concedes. In that way, Canada may be somewhat ahead of the U.S., since local history publishing has been a growth industry here ever since it started with a boom back in 1967, for the centennial of Confederation.

Although LC welcomes gifts, and has an active copyrighting program, it does not keep everything it is given, especially in the genealogy area. "We want two copies of every genealogy," Roach said, but she confirmed a rumor I had heard elsewhere. LC's acquisitions staff determine what constitutes a genealogy. It has to have somebody old in it, and cover several generations. A tale about your current family does not qualify. Potential donors may want to consider carefully before sending their books to Washington.

The National Library of Canada (soon to be the Library and Archives of Canada) welcomes self-published genealogies and local histories also. They confirm that all items published in Canada, or by Canadians or on Canadian subjects, are retained in Ottawa as part of their collections.

Posted April 5, 2003
Column copyright © 2003 Ryan Taylor

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