WorldCat and Online Special Collections

Every third Thursday I give a presentation in SecondLife. December’s discussion was part two of Finding Your Family Stories Online, with an emphasis on using Special Collections that are available online. While last month’s topic focused on digitized texts, part two focused on finding all sorts of other treasures – photographs, letters, oral histories, sound recordings, videos… the kinds of things that can add color and life to your family history.

Special collections can be found in libraries, universities, museums, historical societies – any place that might have an interest in collecting local ephemera. The collections are generally primary materials based on a specific subject, or location, and may include just about anything that’s been either donated or acquired that falls into the subject area for the collection.

Its such a score to find any of these collections online, too – giving you instant access to old photos, or even audio files of personal interviews. You just never know what you’ll find.

Right now I’m just going to mention my favorite website for finding these online special collections, which is now, surprisingly enough, WorldCat ( WorldCat was initially designed to be a place where libraries could post their holdings, so that anyone could find particular items in libraries near them and across the country, and world for that matter. There are thousands of participating libraries, and more constantly coming onboard. Their ‘about’ page states that they are “the world’s largest network of library content and services.”

I use WorldCat regularly to locate books and journals and other text sources, but I didn’t realize until recently that they have included the databases in their catalog as well! Let me explain why this is so wonderful.

OAIster was a project developed at the University of Michigan in 2002 with the purpose of establishing, ““A retrieval service for publicly available digital library resources provided by the research library community.” Basically, it’s a network of digitized Special Collections, indexed, with hyperlinks housed at WorldCat now. The world at your fingertips!! Woohoo!

So to access all these great and wonderful goodies, simply go to the WorldCat main page, and type your search into the search bar. For example, I used a surname and a state that I knew the family had lived in – Mork Minnesota. The list of search results that comes up includes all of the resources available in the WorldCat catalog, which is definitely worth perusing. From here you can easily locate any of these resources in a library by clicking on the resource and entering your zip code. The results will list all participating libraries that have that item, and their distance in miles from your own home. Several times I have found books or other resources that I hadn’t known even existed.

But for now, I want to know what I can find ONLINE… right now… from home, in my jammies! So over on the left side of the page, under the heading “Refine Your Search”, and then under “Format”, cross your fingers and hope you see the sub-heading “Internet Resources”. If its there, the number in parenthesis is how many items are available online.. The more the better, of course!

If there are resources available, click on that heading “Internet Resources”, which will bring up the list of your search results that are available online. You can then choose the item that interests you and after clicking on it, you’ll be redirected to the website hosting the original image, or whatever the item is.

Each item’s description will tell you what type of media the item is – a 2D photograph, postcard, maps, e-books, downloadable computer files, etc. Once you’ve chosen the specific item you want to find out more about, you can then either scroll down under its description just a bit to “Find A Copy Online” which will have the direct URL address for that specific item – click that and you’re at the original online image.

Or, you can click on the item’s highlighted title or author to be led to the entire collection from which it came. This is always worth doing too, since there may very well be more than one item in that collection that may interest you. Consider looking for other surnames – friends, neighbors, in-laws, that might also have been in the area. As always, you never know what you might find.

Again, not all every library is participating in WorldCat, but more and more are joining the site all the time. It is definitely a major resource for genealogists, and worth spending some time checking out.

(If you’re using my toolbar, WorldCat is under the “In Print” tab, under Libraries. If you’re not, it’s a free download at

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