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Discover Your Family History at NYPL’s Genealogy Division

Two recent TV programs, "Who Do You Think You Are?" on NBC and "Faces of
America" on PBS, piqued our interest about the library’s genealogy
collection. We talked to Maira Liriano, Manager of the Milstein Division of United States History, Local History & Genealogy, to learn about genealogy research and how NYPL can help you find out more about your own family history.

Prior to joining the NYPL staff in 2002, Maira worked in leading positions at the Chicago Public Library and the main library of the George Washington University in Washington, D.C. A New Jersey native, Maira is one of five daughters from immigrant parents from the Dominican Republic.

Which years does the Milstein Division cover and what are some of the highlights of the collection?

We have records and family histories that go back to the 17th century all the way through the 21th century.  Our strength is U.S. genealogy and especially that of New York, but we have books and online resources that help people trace their immigrant ancestors back to their place of origin.  The main advantage to researching here is that we have such a wide variety of sources all in one place and all for free.  We also offer personable and professional assistance for all researchers at all levels.

Are most patrons professional researchers or hobby genealogists?

We see both groups in the Milstein Division.  We have many regulars who come in almost every day or every week, and then we have many people who visit us from all over the world to do research, who may only have an afternoon to find a key piece of information.  We also see many other types of researchers who use genealogical sources not for family research but to learn more about an individual for a biography, or a building or neighborhood for social history, or to learn the provenance of a painting.

What do you recommend to patrons when they want to start a genealogy research project?

I always tell them that the best way to start is to start talking to your family.  You need to collect as much information as possible that may exist within your family’s memory and closets.  Start with the members of your family that are the oldest.  Ask them for as much detail as possible about the names, places and dates of your ancestors.  I also recommend starting with one particular line in your family that either interests you the most or you think may be the easiest.  Once people come to the Milstein Division, we usually start them off by searching the U.S. Federal Census records.  They are available online from 1790-1930 and are searchable by name.  The Census, which is taken every ten years as I’m sure our readers know since we’re in a census year right now, has lots of details that help people fill in gaps that will ultimately help take them back another generation.

Is the entire collection of the Milstein Division digitized and what resources beyond the NYPL collection do you offer?

The Milstein collection is quite large (over 400,000 volumes) and has gotten even bigger with the donation of the New York Genealogical & Biographical Society’s library last year.  Selected parts of our collection are digitized.  Some family histories that are out of copyright (pre-1923) are in Google Books. Many Federal records, like censuses, passenger lists, and military records, which we have on microfilm, are now online mostly through databases we subscribe to for free public use in the library such as Ancestry, Footnote and HeritageQuest.  Through the online resources, we can offer access to lots of collections that reside in repositories all over the world.  If the actual records are not digitized we often have access to indexes.  And if we don’t have something and it’s not online, the librarians here help people find where to go.

PBS recently presented a program about family history and the Milstein Division will be featured in an upcoming episode of NBC's "Who do you think you are?" Have you noticed an increase in visits or inquiries resulting from these shows?

We are definitely seeing an impact and are getting many more questions especially from people who are just getting started.  This is not the first time television has sparked an interest in genealogy.  In 1977, the television miniseries Roots, based on the book by Alex Haley, also made researching your family history very popular.  But since then, the Internet and DNA have transformed the process and has made this activity much more accessible and addictive.

How does the Milstein Division use social media?

We are always looking for new ways to connect to our users and potential users. You can follow us on Facebook and Twitter.  We have a Milstein blog where you will find wonderful stories about the past told by our librarians through the varied and unique collections held here in the Milstein Division.

We have some of our terrific New York City historical images on Flickr Commons, and of course, a much bigger collection on the NYPL Digital Gallery.

Thanks for taking the time to talk to us.

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