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A Genealogist In The Archives: September 2015

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

October Is American Archives Month!

It's that time of year again!  October is American Archives Month!  

Archives, libraries, historical societies, genealogical societies and any other repositories that hold archived records and artifacts should be celebrated in the month of October.  While I believe these places should be celebrated all year round for the hard work they do to save, preserve and archive our historical records, October is normally set aside to put a spotlight on these repositories.

                                     Tools of the trade used at the Houston County, Tennessee Archives

Since 2006, American Archives Month has given the profession an opportunity to remind the general public the items that are important to our collective history are being preserved, cataloged, indexed and made accessible to the general public.  This event also gives us all the opportunity to champion all of our archivists across the United States.  And let's not forget our many dedicated volunteers that give of their time to help us get our work done.

So, you might be asking yourself, "What can I do to show my appreciate during American Archives Month?" 

I would like to suggest that you visit your local archives, historical society, genealogical society or library, wherever the records are kept in your city, county or state during the month of October.  Let the archivists and volunteers know that you appreciate the work they do. 

Another way everyone can can help is to volunteer your time to help your local repository.  Archives are always needing volunteers to help process records, index completed records and other duties that the archivist needs help with on a daily basis.  

If everyone volunteered one day a month at their local repository, just imagine how much help that would be?!

                              Collection of  family memorabilia for the Lyle and Rye family donated to the 
                                                                          Houston County,Tennessee Archives

If you are on Twitter, the Society of American Archivists is having a one day event on October 1st called #AskAnArchivistDay.  On this one day, archivist from around the world will take to Twitter to respond to tweeted questions from the public. Their website is:  

So, join in the fun!


Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Vertical Files Are Like A Box of Chocolates

In the movie Forrest Gump, actor Tom Hanks playing Forrest Gump says "Life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what your going to get".

In the archives world it can be said "Vertical files are like a box of chocolates, you never know what your going to get".

Vertical files or Subject files as they are sometimes called can be located in most state and local archives, historical society collections, genealogical society collections, libraries and in some museum collections.  What exactly are vertical files? 

Vertical files are a collection of documents and ephemera that are put in file folders which are then put in filing cabinets cataloged by surname or subject.  These files could contain just about anything that can fit into a file folder.  Most repositories will create an index by the title on each folder but most of the time what is inside of each folder is not cataloged.  Vertical files are sometimes seen as a "catch all" for all those documents that don't really go anywhere else but should not be discarded.

                                Vertical file drawer in the Houston County, Tennessee Archives

Genealogists should be encouraged to ask the archive they are visiting if they have vertical files.  These collections of records could be very valuable to your research and could contain that piece of information you have been searching for all these years.  Some archives don't always advertise that they have such a collection of vertical files so it's important that the researcher ask the archivist about this collection specifically. 

Usually you will have to request the files that you would like to look at and the archivist will retrieve them and bring them to you, sometimes only one or two files at a time.  Then you will be allowed to go through what is contained in the file and make copies of what is important to you.  Once you have finished with the file you give it back to the archivist who will then bring you any other files you have requested one or two at a time.

            Contents of the Parker Surname vertical file in the Houston County, Tennessee Archives

Please do not think that the archivist doesn't trust you in this process, they are required to carry out this process for everyone.  Sadly, document theft is very prevalent in our archives, libraries and other repositories and so they are forced to institute rules on how records are to be handled by the patron.

Next time you are at your local archives or records repository, ask if they have vertical files "you never know what you are going to get".   

Saturday, September 12, 2015

A Deed of Gift: What Is It?

One of the most exciting aspects of being an archivist is when a person walks in the archives with a box of records they wish to donate.  Every archivist will admit that their heart skips a beat when they see someone walk into their archives with records to donate.  

 Houston County, Tennessee Retired Teachers Scrapbooks Donation

A lot of archives would not be an archive without donors and the records they bring to us.  We depend on people to help us save our history by donating family records that are not wanted, finds at garage sales and purchasing records at estate sales.  A lot of small archives like the Houston County, Tennessee Archives does not have the budget to go out and purchase records, photographs and memorabilia at auctions or anywhere else. 

When someone donates anything to an archive, the archivist should present the donor with a document that is called “A Deed of Gift”.  This document is a legally binding document between the donor and the archive that transfers ownership and legal rights of the records from the donor to the archive. 

Houston County, Tennessee Lions Club Records and Memorabilia Donation

Once the archivist has examined the records being donated and determines that the donated material will be a good addition to their collections, the archivist should produce “A Deed of Gift” document to complete the donation process.

Most archives will not accept a records donation without a signed deed of gift. 

Information included in the deed of gift can be:

          -name of the donor and archive

          -description of the materials being donated

          -terms of the transfer of ownership

          -any restrictions imposed by the donor

          -signatures of both the donor and the archivist

For more detailed information on a deed of gift, see the Society of American Archivists “A Guide to Deeds of Gift”

While a lot of genealogists prefer to keep their documents, photographs and artifacts and pass them down to their descendants, it might be that they don’t have any interested descendants to pass them down to.  If you find yourself in this predicament, consider making preparations as to where you would like your records to be donated. You have worked very hard, for many years gathering and researching your family, don’t let it get thrown away.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

This is the first post of “A Genealogist In The Archives” blog.  My goal with this blog is to educate genealogists about the importance of archives and all that they have to offer.  There are thousands of archives in the United States that are full of documents, photographs, artifacts and other ephemera that is just waiting to be discovered by YOU the genealogy researcher!

What Is A Finding Aid?

If you have ever been to a local or state archives doing research in a Manuscript Collection you most likely have come across a “Finding Aid” within a specific collection.  Or maybe you have come across a Finding Aid within an online collection.

              MSS-2, Marie Stockard Estate Collection, Box #1, located in the Houston County, Tennessee Archives Manuscript Collection

A finding aid is a document containing detailed information about a specific collection of papers or records within an archive.  Finding Aids are used by researchers and genealogists to determine whether information within the collection is relevant to their research.  The Finding Aid for a collection is usually compiled by the archivist or librarian during the archival process.

The information found in a Finding Aid may be different depending on the type of material it is describing.  Included in a Finding Aid is a description of the scope of the collection, biographical and historical information related to the collection and restrictions on the use of the materials if there are any.

Finding Aids also contain a list or inventory of the contents in the collection, these inventories can be vague or they can be very detailed.

The Finding Aid is a research tool that genealogist should pay attention to when researching in Manuscript Collections at an archives.  The Finding Aid should give you information such as how large the collection is, who originally created the collection, the processing history of the collection, the collection citation that should be used, the scope and content of the collection and most importantly an inventory of what is in the collection.

Genealogists should be aware that not all Finding Aids list everything in a collection and we should not depend on them to tell us the whole truth of what is in a collection.  It might still be necessary to view all documents in a collection to make sure something was not missed.

Manuscript Collections housed at local and state archives, genealogical societies, historical societies and other repositories are a gold mine of genealogical information.  But like real gold mines, a genealogist has to sometimes dig through the collections to find those nuggets of genealogy gold.

So, why not visit an archives where your ancestors lived and ask about their Manuscript Collections, you might just be surprised at what you find!