Using WorldCat to Find Genealogy Books

WorldCat is the world’s largest network of library content and services. It is an online library catalog that lets you look up items in libraries around the world. The items available include books, electronic documents, journals, microform, and audio and video recordings.

Best of all, WorldCat is available to everyone free of charge. WorldCat libraries provide access to their catalogs on the Web, where most people start their search for information. By using the WorldCat.org catalog, you can search the collections of libraries in your community and thousands more around the world.

Please keep in mind that these are catalogs of available books, not the text of the books. WorldCat is useful in at least three situations:

  1. You know which item you want, but you don’t know which libraries have it
  2. You want to know what items exist on a particular subject (or by a particular author)
  3. You need more information about an item (for instance, to get information for a proper citation in your bibliography)

WorldCat identifies the book’s title, author, publisher, and more and then shows the participating libraries where the book is available.

In addition to searching distant libraries, WorldCat also will let you search for books available at your local library, assuming that the library participates in WorldCat.

The Family History Library in Salt Lake City has its collections catalogued on WorldCat as well as on its own web site. In addition, many other genealogy libraries also have their catalogs available in WorldCat, including these:

  • the Allen County Public Library in Fort Wayne, Indiana
  • the Clayton Library, Center for Genealogical Research in Houston, Texas
  • the Newberry Library in Chicago
  • the New England Historic Genealogical Society in Boston, Massachusetts
  • the Albany Regional Family History Society Inc. in Albany, Western Australia
  • the Australind Family History Society Inc. Library in Australind, Western Australia
  • the Genealogy and History Room in Shelbyville, Indiana
  • the Caribbean Genealogy Library in St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands
  • the Carnegie Genealogy and Local History Library in Corydon, Indiana
  • the Harrison County Genealogy Library in Bethany, Missouri

…and dozens more local genealogy libraries. The above list is a sample extracted from the “Find A Library” link on WorldCat.

You can use WorldCat Mobile to search from your handheld device. WorldCat Mobile is not a separate application. Instead, it runs in most any handheld device’s web browser and is designed to display information on a small screen. It works well with iPhone, Android, and Blackberry devices. There is no software to download and install; simply point your handheld device’s web browser to http://www.worldcat.org/m/ and use it immediately.

Of course, I always start by searching for genealogy books of interest. However, anyone can also search for popular books, music CDs, downloadable audiobooks, and even videos. You may also find occasional article citations with links to their full text; authoritative research materials, such as documents and photos of local or historic significance; and digital versions of rare items that aren’t available to the public. In addition, WorldCat libraries’ resources are available in many languages.

Obtaining books from remote libraries will vary from one library to another. As stated on the WorldCat web site, “It depends on whether you have an active membership with a library that owns the item, and whether that library’s Web site permits remote checkout of an item. WorldCat.org lets you find an item of interest and then locate a library near you that owns it. Usually you will link directly to the item record on the library’s Web site. The actions available to you on that page will vary from one library to another. You may be able to join a waiting list, reserve the item, check it out or even have it shipped or delivered.”

If the book or other item is not available to you through WorldCat, I’d suggest you print out the information and then take it to your local library. Libraries often can obtain books via Interlibrary Loan, even when loans are not available to individuals.

Some libraries may also offer specialized reference databases on their Web sites to the library’s members, but such access usually is not available to non-members. In most cases, you will have to visit a local, participating library to use its online resources. Access policies will vary from one database to another.

Finding books or other items on WorldCat can be very simple: enter the book title and click on SEARCH EVERYTHING.

(Click on any of the images in this article to see a larger picture.)

In fact, you don’t even need a user name or password to search WorldCat. However, there are advantages to creating an optional account that I will describe shortly.

Of course, the more specific the search, the better the results. Here is a screenshot I took after searching for EASTMAN GENEALOGY:

Note that the searches work in much the same manner as Google: the first few “hits” are the most popular of the entries in the WorldCat database that match the search terms you specified.

I am most interested in the “Genealogy of the Harvey Eastman (1777-1829) branch of the Eastman family,” shown as #5 on the above list. I clicked on the title and the following was displayed:

Four participating libraries are shown as having the book available. Unfortunately, none of them are close to me. In fact, WorldCat even displays the distance from my location to each library, based upon my ZIP Code. In my case, the closest library is 309 miles away.

You may have noticed that one library, the Allen County Public Library, also shows a link labeled, “Ask a Librarian.” This is a help feature of a library’s Web site. Not all libraries offer this feature. In most cases, librarians will answer questions about the book but cannot look for specific information inside the book. That remains as your task.

Advanced Search

If Basic Search is not giving you the results you want, or if you are getting too many irrelevant results, you can fine tune your search using WorldCat’s Advanced Search. You can click on Advanced Search at any time to see a search screen that asks for keywords, title, author, year of publication, language, and more. See the screen shot below:

You do not need to fill in all the search items. Simply leave any unknown search item blank.

All the items mentioned so far are available to everyone, even without creating a user account. You can find books, ebooks, CDs, DVDs, and more without ever entering a user name and password. However, creating a free user account and then signing in with that account provides the user with even more functionality. Registered users can provide ratings and even write reviews of the books and other items under the “Reviews” tab. The reviews allow users to contribute factual notes or a book’s table of contents under the “Details” tab. Note that only you can modify or delete your own review, but other users can edit information that has been contributed under Details (similar to Wikipedia).

Summation

WorldCat doesn’t have everything, but it is the largest available online catalog of books from libraries around the world. As you become more and more experienced with WorldCat, you will find many new resources that perhaps you never knew existed.

WorldCat grows every day, thanks to the efforts of librarians and other information professionals.

A bookmark to WorldCat at http://www.worldcat.org belongs in your list of genealogy search tools.

6 Comments

I have used WorldCat for years now. I am usually able to locate most books fairly close to home as we have the largest genealogical collection in the state in our city and two universities. On two recent occasions, I found books in smaller town libraries in states nearby. I emailed the libraries and asked for copies, either scanned or hardcopy. Both libraries responded. The one that scanned did not charge me. There was a nominal charge from the other library. I usually try to overpay or send a donation to the libraries that don’t scan. Most libraries are struggling financially these days. Librarians are genealogy angels.

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For those who may not understand this. Sometimes a library in this system is able to borrow a book on interlibrary loan which patrons who want to receive it cannot take out of the building. In these cases you as a patron will need to schedule in-library time to study it when it arrives. In my experience with this situation, I was not able to remove the book from the library’s premises. With a very lengthy book and/or with a book I wanted to spend a great deal of time reading, it wasn’t convenient; but still it was much better than not viewing the book at all..

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I’ve found it very helpful to have the full citation and closest location from WorldCat when I call my library to order a book through InterLibrary Loan. The librarians always seem grateful that I’ve done that part of the work for them. I guess I’m lucky, because when the book (or whatever) arrives at my library, they either mail it to me or bring it with them the next time the bookmobile’s coming to my retirement home, if that’s within a few days. They come monthly. Then I have two weeks with the book! They send it in a sturdy canvas zipped envelope, which I also use to return it to them. They include a pre-paid address label. It only costs me the $5 fee for ILL. Since the library is in bad shape financially, I have absolutely no quarrel with that fee. The daily fines for late books are pretty steep, so I’m careful to get them back on time.

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I don’t know about other states, but in Connecticut, only one public library is a member of WorldCat – Greenwich Public Library. For a searcher, this gives a distorted idea of which libraries may hold a desired genealogy book – a number of public libraries here do have good area collections. The state library and many university libraries do participate in WorldCat but may not allow interlibrary loans to non-students or out-of-state-residents.
One work-around for Connecticut residents is to use http://www.iconn.org, which searches the complete cataloged collections of all of the state’s libraries, but to search it requires a library card from an in-state library. You can check online library catalogs directly for free, but it is hit-or-miss which library may have a title you desire – perhaps one of these, if contacted, would check their “iconn” link on your behalf.

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WorldCat can also be used to find out if there is a digital copy available on the web. If you check to see all editions, it will indicate if there is a digital copy on the web and at which address you can view it. Also, it will indicate if there are microfilm/microfiche copies available.

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I also use WorldCat but sometimes when I don’t find the book I am looking for at libraries in a reasonable distance from my home I try and confirm if the library subscribes to WorldCat ($$$). I can confirm if a library subscribes (has their catalog entered) by doing a search on popular current book say something by Stephen King or other current best seller of a couple years back. If the library in the area of interest doesn’t show up it is a reasonable assumption that their catalog isn’t part of WorldCat. In that case I try and lof into the specific libraries on-line “card catalog” and do a search. Here in Ohio there are a few large libraries with good size Genealogical holdings that are not part of World cat so I have developed my own list of links to those libraries relatively close by.
Just as we know everything isn’t on the Internet a lot less is on WorldCat.

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