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A Genealogist In The Archives

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Archived Records That Are Off The Beaten Path......

Court records, deeds records, scrapbooks, photographs... these are some of the more well known record groups that most researchers access when they visit an archive, historical society or library.  

But did you know that there are numerous other record groups and types that are housed in these repositories that are almost never requested to be viewed by researchers. Why is that?  Maybe it's because the researcher doesn't know these wonderful collections exist.

                          Newspaper clipping from "Wisdom Lodge #300 Records Collection" 
                                         located at Houston County, TN. Archives

Here are 5 tips for genealogy researchers to learn about and view unique records in the repositories where their ancestors lived:

1. Plan, plan, plan!  Every genealogist who visits an archives, historical society or library to do research needs to have a research plan in place before they step foot in the door of the repository.  

2. Ask the archivist or librarian what record collections they have that are unique or unknown to the general public.  Possibly there is an index of what is in the collection or better yet a Finding Aid.

3. Ask the archivist or librarian to allow you to view all of their records indexes or all of their Finding Aids. Most repositories will have these printed and in notebooks or they will be available on patron computers in the facility.

                                           Election worker's payroll request  from 
                     "Houston County, TN. Election Commission Records Collection"                                                                       located at Houston County, TN. Archives

4. Specifically ask to view the Vertical File collection index.  This index will be alphabetical and will include surnames as well as subjects such as "Erin United Methodist Church".  Each file could contain just about anything. Remember...Vertical Files are like a box of chocolates, you never know what your going to get!

5. Specifically ask to view the index to the Manuscript Collection.  Again, this listing will be alphabetical. The titles could be named anything, some of the more familiar titles will look something like this: "John Doe's Family Papers 1812-1900", "Erin Methodist Church 1848-1920".  These collections could be contained in one box or in multiple boxes, the Finding Aid for the collection will help you decipher what is in the collection.

The next time you visit an archives, historical society or library to dig up those records on your ancestors, try these 5 tips to help you find those unique records, the ones that will tell more of your ancestor's story, the ones that will put "meat on your ancestors's bones"!

And always remember:  It's not all online, so visit an archives!


  1. Good to know, I recently went to a county archive (will be unnamed) and asked if they had a card catalog of their books. The answer was no. Shocked me, what library/depository of books does not have one, even if it is not computerized??
    Also, another county, does not even have their records in a proper place, stored in a storage room, and not in any logical order just how they were placed there or by ones that do get access, and put them back on shelves/cabinets whichever way.
    How do you spread awareness of the need?

    1. One unfortunately thing about archives is that they are all different and are handled differently. While some archives are funded well by their county or state government or by donations, still others are run on shoestring budgets and by volunteers. Seems each year budgets are being cut and the archives has to deal with that. With that said, archivists and their volunteers do what they can with what they have. Most, if not all, archives have records on their shelves that have not even been touched or processed and that could mean that even the archivist doesn't know what is contained in those collections, although there should be an accession record that was produced when the collection was donated. Spreading awareness of the needs of archives starts locally with county or city governments, historical societies, genealogical societies and anyone interested in saving local history. Sadly, not everyone is interested in saving history and we as archivist have the difficult task of convincing these people who are usually on the county commission that our local history is worth saving and budgeting for.