Family History Research and Your Library

A Source for Free Genealogical Databases

Access genealogy databases at the local library
Access genealogy databases at the local libary. Andersen Ross / Getty Images

Your library card could be the key that unlocks your family tree. Many libraries across the U.S. and elsewhere around the world subscribe to multiple databases for the use of their members. Dig through the list and you're likely to find some genealogical gems, such as the Biographical and Genealogy Master Index or Ancestry Library Edition.

Databases offered by your local library may include biographies, obituaries, census and immigration records, birth and marriage records, phone books and historical newspapers.

A particular library may subscribe to as few as one or two such databases, while others may offer a wide range of free databases. Some of the most useful library databases for genealogical research include:

  • Ancestry Library Edition - Ancestry Library Edition offers a wide and diverse variety of content allowing you to trace your family history. In the U.S., this includes the complete Federal Census Collection, 1790-1930; an Immigration Collection, including passenger lists and naturalization petitions; military records including World War I Draft Registration Cards and Civil War records, and other family and local history records. In the UK, you'll find many of these items, as well as the UK and Ireland census, the England & Wales civil registration index and the BT phone book archives. Many of the items you'll find on Ancestry.com, but free for participating library patrons accessing the database from library computers.
     
  • Heritage Quest Online - This library offering from ProQuest contains over 25,000 family and local history books, the entire US Federal Census, PERSI, Revolutionary War Pension and Bounty Land Warrant Application files, and other genealogical collections. Unlike Ancestry Library Edition, HeritageQuestOnline is available via remote access from libraries which choose to offer the feature.
     
  • Proquest Obituaries - More than 12 million obituaries and death notices appearing in top U.S. national newspapers dating back to 1851 appear in this library database, with full digital images from the actual paper. This database includes, among others, obituaries from The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Chicago Tribune, The Washington Post, The Atlanta Constitution, The Boston Globe and The Chicago Defender. 
     
  • Historical newspaper collections - A large number of libraries offer access to some type of historic newspaper collection. These may be local newspapers, national newspapers, or newspapers of more global interest. The ProQuest Historical Newspaper Collection, for example, includes full text and full image articles from the major American newspapers: Chicago Tribune (April 23, 1849-Dec. 31, 1985); The New York Times (Sept 18, 1851-Dec. 31, 2002);and The Wall Street Journal (July 8, 1889-Dec. 31, 1988). The Times Digital Archive database is a full-image online archive of every page published by The Times (London) from 1785-1985. NewspaperArchive also offers a library version, with convenient online access to full-page historical newspapers from across the US, along with papers in the United Kingdom, Canada, Jamaica and other countries dating from 1759-1977. Libraries may also offer individual access to a variety of newspapers.
     
  • Biographical and Genealogy Master Index - A master index to biographies published since the 1970s in a wide variety of collective biography volumes. In addition to providing the individual's name, birth, and death dates (where available), the source document is listed for further reference.
     
  • Digital Sanborn Maps, 1867-1970 - Yet another ProQuest offering, this database provides digital access to more than 660,000 large-scale maps of more than 12,000 American towns and cities. Created for insurance adjusters, Sanborn fire insurance maps provide a great deal of detail on the structures existing in larger towns and cities, along with street names, property boundaries and other useful information.
     

Many of these databases can be accessed remotely by library patrons with a valid library card and PIN.

Check with your local town, county or state library to find out what databases they offer, and apply for a library card if you don't already have one. Some states in the United States actually offer access to these databases for all residents of their state! If you can't find what you need locally, look around. Some libraries allow patrons who live outside of their coverage area to purchase a library card, although they may charge a fee for this service.