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Genealogy Research at Wilson Special Collections Library: Getting Started

Resources Available from UNC Libraries

These books are useful starting points for beginning a genealogy search, with the caveat that many other titles also exist. They may be available at your local library. If they are not available from your local library, circulating copies could be loaned to you from UNC via Interlibrary Loan. Contact your local library for more information on the Interlibrary Loan process.

To search our catalog by subject or keyword, North Carolina -- Genealogy is a good starting point.

Manuscripts vs. Public Records

Manuscripts are the private papers of individuals and families or the records of organizations collected primarily for historical research. Private papers are in most cases not as comprehensive or as useful as public records are for genealogists. Public records, including birth and death notices, marriage licenses, tax records, deeds and wills, and census records can be found at state historical societies and archives. Before performing genealogical research in Wilson Library's archival collections, we recommend contacting the state archival institution best suited to the geography of your ancestors' lives. Click here to see a list of state archives and historical societies. 

The U.S. National Archives has compiled two subject research guides for genealogists seeking to research their family history using public records. These guides can be accessed at the links below.

The Library of Congress has a page dedicated to researching North Carolina genealogy. The State Library of North Carolina's Government and Heritage Library has a page of steps for getting started with genealogy research.

While we are happy to search our indices and catalogs at Wilson Library for specific names, we do not have trained genealogists on staff, and due to time constraints and volume of requests received, we are limited in the amount of research we can do for patrons. Most state libraries, archives, and historical societies, however, do have genealogy sections and staff trained to assist genealogical researchers.  

Searching for Family History in Wilson Library

When searching for family history in Wilson Library's collections, we recommend using two search engines:

The library’s online catalog is a great place to start your search for family records. In addition to describing our book, serial, and recording holdings, the catalog contains the texts of finding aids for every manuscript collection and archival record group held by Wilson Library. The catalog’s great utility resides in its ability to quickly sort and re-sort description of our holdings in accordance with specific criteria, such as location, format, Library of Congress Subject Headings, and keywords.

For example, doing a keyword search on the term Cameron Family  results in 472 records. You can use the facets listed under the heading Refine Your Search on the left-hand side of the results display (click on Show more… to see the entire list for each category) to narrow your results by different categories, for example:

  • Location: Each of the five UNC special collections will be listed here if there are relevant search results.
  • Format: Books, Newspapers, Archival Materials, and so forth.
  • Subjects: From the Library of Congress Subject Headings that are included as part of all UNC Library Online Catalog records.
  • Publication Year: The century in which the resources were published or created.

Catalog records for archival and manuscript collections contain a link to the collection's finding aid:

Finding aid link in catalog record

In addition to the catalog search, our finding aids are available online, and the text of these finding aids is collectively key word searchable through an online Google search engine. 

Once you have navigated to the relevant finding aid, one of the most effective tools for locating relevant materials is to keyword search within the finding aid using the “Find” (Ctrl + F) function. In all keyword searching (in online catalogs, finding aids, newspaper databases, and so forth) you should consider likely synonyms and alternative spellings when applicable. 

We recommend searching both of the above search engines for known family names or family members' names in various combinations, to see if these names appear anywhere in our catalog records or finding aids. Sometimes encasing these names in quotation marks can help generate a more relevant list of results. For instance, if you were searching for information on Paul Cameron, you might try any or all of the following keyword searches in the library catalog and finding aids search engine:

  • "Paul Cameron"
  • Paul Cameron [no quotation marks]
  • "Cameron, Paul"
  • Cameron, Paul [no quotation marks]
  • Cameron Family

If your ancestors lived in North Carolina, you can also search for their names in the North Carolina Collection's Biographical Index. This index contains citations to biographical sketches about North Carolinians. Over five hundred volumes, primarily from the North Carolina Collection and other libraries at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, have been indexed to date. The collection also includes hundreds of newspaper clippings, including obituaries.

If you are unable to find your ancestor's name mentioned in our finding aids or catalog records, you can write to our reference staff at wilsonlibrary@unc.edu. Although we do not keep trained genealogists on staff, we do have older indexes and card catalogs, which are often more comprehensive than our online tools, that we can check for known individuals.

UNC Catalog Search

Online Resources

There are a variety of resources for searching for genealogical information on the web. One of the largest online databases of genealogical information is Ancestry.com. Researchers can create their own personal account on Ancestry.com for a fee, which will allow them to create their own family trees and access all of the site's features, or search the site's collection of vital records for free using UNC's institutional membership with Ancestry.com. To access Ancesty.com via UNC Libraries, one must be on campus.

Additionally, researchers may find the following resources useful. Please note that some of these resources can only be accessed from a computer on UNC's campus or with a UNC Onyen.

Other Collections

The Government and Heritage Library, part of the State Library of North Carolina, holds extensive materials related to genealogy. Their site lists other ideas for databases and online resources for genealogy research. Contacting the State Library is an excellent way to make sure that all resources and options are exhausted.

The State Archives in Raleigh holds government records of state, county, city and state university officials.

The David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Duke University has holdings of print and archival materials related to the history and people of North Carolina.

  • Last Updated: Nov 16, 2021 11:39 AM
  • URL: https://guides.lib.unc.edu/WilsonGenealogy