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A Genealogist In The Archives: January 2017

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Archives Need Genealogists, Be A Statistic!

Last week Amy Johnson Crow wrote a wonderful blog post entitled The Real Reason You Shouldn't Reshelve Genealogy Books (

Also, yesterday Judy G. Russell's blog post Records Access Alert: LVA Records ( tells us about the Library of Virginia's budgetary woes.

After reading Amy and Judy's posts, I knew that I had to write a blog post of my own to further explain the statistics that many of our archives and libraries keep on a daily basis and why we need genealogists to use our facilities now more than ever!

Archivists keep statistics on a daily basis, weekly basis, monthly basis and yearly basis. These numbers are used by archives to show how much the records are being accessed and used. Some statistics give us hard numbers of how many visitors, emails and phone calls we have received and answered.

Why are these statistics important, you might wonder?

Many times these statistics are used by budget committees, county governments and other governing bodies to determine the next years budget. They are also used to justify the amount of days and hours a facility should be open. Most importantly, these statistics also determine if the staff that is currently employed is needed or costing too much money.

So, how can a genealogist help?

Books

When you visit an archive of any kind be sure to sign the guest book, registry book or whatever sign-in book that is available. If you are not asked to sign-in, ask the archivist or librarian if they have such a book for patrons to sign. Sometimes we get so excited about helping people that come in the door that we sometimes forget about the sign-in book. The numbers counted from the sign-in book shows those in charge of budgeting how many people have visited and been to the archive.

Do Not Reshelve Books

As Amy Johnson Crow's post explains, if you see signs posted that say "Do Not Reshelve Books", please follow those directions. If there is no sign, ask the archivist or librarian if you should reshelve the books or leave them on the table. The statistics that are gathered from counting the amount of books used on a daily basis is very helpful in showing the facilities usage. I know that we all try to be nice and help out the staff by reshelving the books but don't do it. You may be hindering the statistics they need.

Can't Travel, You Can Still Help 

Many of us are not able to travel to the archives that hold the records of our ancestors. Don't let this deter you from accessing these records.

Email Our archives have email address and we encourage patrons to email us with your records requests. Please be patient for a reply as our archivist have a lot to do on a daily basis. Archives keep statistics of how many people have emailed them and what records they have requested.

Call Calling an archives on the phone is also an option. Be prepared to leave a message or to be told that they may have to call you back if they are a small archives with a small staff. When making your records request, be as specific as possible. Archives keep statistics of how many people call and what records they have requested.

Write a Letter! I know that seems very old fashioned but it really does work. Type up a letter with your genealogical records requests, be as specific as you can be. Also, include a self-addressed stamped envelope (SASE). Archives keep statistics of how many mail requests they receive and what records were requested.

So, Be A Statistic! Help keep our archives, libraries, historical societies, genealogical societies, university libraries/archives and museums OPEN AND FULLY STAFFED! 



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Friday, January 27, 2017

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 archives 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.

Wisdom Lodge #300 Newspaper Clipping, Houston County, TN. Archives

Here are 5 tips for genealogy researchers to learn about and view unique records in the archives 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 facility.  

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, 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"!



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Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Preserving Your Ancestor's Textiles

Some of the most interesting items we have in our own family genealogy collections as well as in our many archives are items made of some sort of fabric. Things such as a christening gown, quilts, high school sweaters and doilies are just a few of the items some of us have as part of our family archive.

Preserving and storing these items can be a challenge and if not done properly could result in the destruction of these precious heirlooms.

        Hand embroidered handkerchief. Houston County, TN. Archives

For most fabric items you will need archival tissue paper and the correct size archival box for storage. First, put a layer of tissue paper in the bottom of the box. Then put your fabric item on the tissue paper. If the item is large such as a quilt or a piece of clothing, it is okay to fold it but put layers of tissue paper between the folds making sure that none of the fabric touches itself. I also like to put extra tissue paper as a filler in the box so that the item doesn't move around. I just ball the tissue paper up and put it around the item and that will keep it still in the box.

Place the box in a dark, cool and dry storage place. With fabric items I like to take the archival box and place it in another box such as a plastic tote which can be sealed, this is to deter moths and insects which can destroy fabrics.

Be sure to put documentation in the box to explain in detail all pertinent information about the item.  If it was handmade, include the name of the person who made it. Also, if applicable, include the chain of ownership of the item and how it has been passed down in the family and which ancestors owned it before it was passed down to you. The more information you include in your description, the better!

             Handmade christening gown. Houston County, TN. Archives

Finding fabric items in an archives can be a challenge but they do exist in collections housed in many of the our wonderful repositories. Most items of this kind will be found in families records collections which are normally part of the archives larger Manuscript Collection or Special Collections. When a families records have been donated to an archive, the collection could include fabric items and they would be processed right along with the documents and should be listed in the finding aid.

Another way a fabric item could be cataloged in an archive is in a group collection such as a "Quilt Collection" which could include many quilts by different makers and are housed in one collection. Or maybe these items are cataloged in a local high school collection, such as the lettermen sweater in the photo below.

         Letterman sweater from Erin High School. Houston County, TN. Archives

As genealogists we are always searching for that next important document to help tell our ancestor's story. Don't forget our ancestors are also trying to tell us their story through things they made, things they wore and things they used on a daily basis. The story behind a handmade quilt can be just as interesting as the story behind a document.

Preserving the textiles of our ancestors and the stories that go with them should be part of every genealogists journey to document our families.



Vertical Files! What Are They?

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Friday, January 20, 2017

To Remove or Not Remove Tape on Documents

Do you have documents, photographs or ephemera that have been mended with sticky cellophane tape?

Original Land Grant, Houston County, TN. Archives

Many of our ancestors used tape to fix torn documents, ripped photographs and damaged ephemera. Cellophane tape is not archival. It contains damaging chemicals that can damage documents, photographs and ephemera.

So, what is a person to do, remove the tape or leave it alone?

As Judy G. Russell of The Legal Genealogist ( likes to say:

"It Depends"

Many of us want to rip that tape right off our documents and get that sticky stuff off of our precious records. BUT WAIT! How much more damage will you do by ripping off that tape? Probably a lot!

In an archives setting, archivist approach tape on documents with much caution. If the tape has deteriorated itself into brittle pieces, sometimes the pieces will come off when the edge of the tape is lifted up. That would be ideal but not always the case.

In most cases, if the tape is stuck very strongly to the document and if it is deliberately pulled off, damage could be done to the document. In many cases in the archives, we leave the tape on the document. The damage the tape is doing to the document is not near as bad as the damage that could be done if it was ripped off.

Newspaper Clipping with Tape, Houston County, TN. Archives

If the archives is a large enough to have a Conservator on staff, the document would be sent to the Conservator to have the tape removed using techniques that they have been trained to use. In most small county archives, like the Houston County, TN. Archives, there is no Conservator on staff and we usually choose to leave the tape on the document to keep from any damage.

Now, let's say you have a document that has a piece of tape that extends off the page, like this:

Houston County, TN. Archives

The best practice is to cut the excess tape off and leave the remaining tape on the document. Any home archivist can do this procedure with confidence that they will not harm the document.

Houston County, TN. Archives

Houston County, TN. Archives

My advice to any genealogist/home archivist is to leave the tape alone and on the document. If you really want to get the tape off the documents, seek out a conservator in your area to help with that process. Many state archives have conservators on staff or they can give you a name and contact information of one that they use for their records.

Our genealogical documents are very precious and keeping them preserved and protected so that we can pass them down to the next generation should be our top priority!




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Wednesday, January 18, 2017

The Tennessee State Library and Archives

One of the things I wanted to do in 2017 was shine a light on many of our wonderful archives across the United States. While I can't talk about them all, I hope that the ones I do highlight in my blog in 2017 will inspire each and everyone of you to contact these archives and use the mountains of resources they painstakingly process and make available to the researching public.

I am starting with an archive that is dear to my heart and in my own backyard:

The Tennessee State Library and Archives (TSLA) which is located in our state's capital, Nashville, Tennessee.

If you have Tennessee ancestors, the TSLA is the place to go!

The whole state of Tennessee was originally part of the state of North Carolina until it became its own state on June 1, 1796.

The TSLA is a treasure trove for genealogists researching Tennessee and North Carolina ancestors. This state library and archives takes great pains to collect and preserve records from all 95 counties in Tennessee and has most of the counties records on microfilm and available for researching in one location. Because North Carolina played a huge part in Tennessee history, the TSLA also has a great collection of North Carolina records.

The TSLA website is a wonderful resource:

Some of the major collections that the TSLA has online are:

-Maps at the Tennessee State Library and Archives
-Tennessee Supreme Court Records Index
-Tennessee State Library and Archives Photograph Collection
-Looking Back: The Civil War in Tennessee

Just to name a few....

The TSLA also has a section where they list all the local county archives and their contact information. There is a clickable map and directory where you can search by county:

At the present time there are 71 active local county archives out of the 95 counties in Tennessee. The goal of the TSLA is to have an active county archive in each and every county. I am pleased to say that Houston County, Tennessee Archives is one of those very active archives.

The "History and Genealogy" page has a whole list of genealogical records for the genealogist to explore:

Clicking on ""County & Municipal" will give you a drop down menu of great resources to explore for each county in Tennessee.

But don't just use the TSLA website!

If you can travel, I would encourage you to visit the TSLA. They have a wonderful Vertical File Collection, Manuscript Collection, extensive Microfilm Collection of all 95 Tennessee county records and a fantastic reading room with historical and genealogical publications from all 95 Tennessee counties.

Old Card Catalog in the Lobby of the TSLA

If you can not travel, you can still use the resources at the TSLA! Do not let the fact that you are unable to travel deter you from contacting archives and working with them to obtain the records you are seeking.

The staff at TSLA are wonderful and they can be contacted by telephone or email:

Telephone Number: 615-741-2764


One of the reasons I am highlighting archives in 2017 is because many of them could be facing budget cuts this year and as genealogists we need to USE ARCHIVES! When I say "Archives" I mean, county archives, state archives, libraries, historical societies, genealogical societies, university libraries/archives and museums. Any place where historical or genealogical records are being stored, preserved and made available to the public is an archive.

If we don't use these wonderful archives, they could cut staff, cut budgets, cut hours they are open which would effect all genealogists.

So, as I always say at the end of all my blog posts.....



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Monday, January 16, 2017

Autograph Books in the Archives

Many of us enjoy Facebook or Twitter everyday to keep up with our family members, connect with others researching the same surnames we are and to keep up with the latest news and events.

Autograph books at the Houston County, Tennessee Archives

Our ancestors used different mediums to connect with friends and family. One of those mediums were autograph books. Many of our ancestors had these types of books and filled them with signatures of friends, family, schoolmates and other people they came in contact with on a daily basis. Sometimes there was just a signature and other times there was a short message of encouragement, a poem or just a pleasant greeting.

Inside of Autograph books at the Houston County, Tennessee Archives

These autograph books come in all shapes and sizes. Some were leather bound and others had different colored pages. These books were a type of "social media" back in the day and were very popular.

Autograph book page for Ruth McAuley dated 1893 at the Houston County, Tennessee Archives

These books were very popular with school children, especially graduating seniors to capture their final year of school and to record memories from their school friends.

Autograph book page for Shirley (Unknown) dated 1938 at the Houston County, Tennessee Archives 

Some of you may have an autograph book that belonged to your ancestor in your own personal genealogy collection. If you don't, it's possible there could be one located in a local archive collection, historical society or genealogical society collection.

Autograph book page for Ludelia Marable, Senior at Erin High School 1934-1935 at Houston County, Tennessee Archives

Autograph books will be located in the Manuscript Collection of a repository. They will probably be part of a larger collection of records. You will need to check the Finding Aid to the individual collection to see if an autograph book is listed as being in the collection.

Next time you are researching in an archives, ask if they have autograph books and maybe they will have one for your ancestor. Or maybe they will have one for someone your ancestor knew and your ancestor signed it. Autograph books are a great genealogical resource to find information or just a signature to document your ancestor's life story.



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Thursday, January 12, 2017

Preserving that Old Black Paper Photo Album


I love family photographs!

Looking into the faces of my ancestors in photographs and wondering what they were like, how they lived and what they did on a daily basis is a huge part of my genealogy research journey.

One obstacle that we might face with our photographs are those old black paper photo albums that look like this:

Price Family Photo Album, Houston County, TN. Archives

These were extremely popular back in the late 1800's and throughout the 1900's. The photographs were either pasted onto the pages or they were inserted with photo corners that are pasted into the album.

We have several of these types of black paper photo albums in the Houston County, TN. Archives. It is very important that these types of photo albums be handled with care and preserved properly. Any home archivist can preserve their own black paper photo albums. But I always like to say that if you don't feel comfortable doing this preservation project yourself, then I highly recommend you consult with an archivist or conservator in your area to help you.

First and foremost, the black paper in these albums is not archival. They are not acid free and are full of chemicals. The paste that was used to adhere the photographs is also not archival and can be damaging to photographs.

The first thought would be to remove the photographs from these albums. STOP!!

I would caution you about removing the photos from these types of black paper albums. I will say that if the paste has worn away or deteriorated enough that the photos come off the pages easy, then removing the photographs would be okay. Otherwise, DO NOT REMOVE THE PHOTOS! Dismantling a photograph album like this should be your last resort.

We know that the pages are not archival but you could do much more damage to the photographs trying to remove them than the paper is doing.

Price Family Photograph, Houston County, TN. Archives

Before you even start, put on GLOVES! When working with photographs, archivist always use gloves to keep the oils and dirt from their hands from getting on the photographs and causing damage. You can use white cotton gloves or regular latex gloves. Do not handle any photographs without wearing gloves.

I would suggest that you first digitize the pages in the photo album. Use a flat bed scanner, digital camera or some other device that allows you to lay the pages flat. Do not use any device that requires you to feed the pages through the device, that could cause damage.

Digitizing and documenting each and every photograph from the album is a great archiving tool. If something were to happen to the album, you will still have the digital images.

Use archival tissue paper and interweave the tissue paper between each and every page. This will create a bearer between the photographs and the adjacent black paper pages.

Interweaving Tissue Paper, Houston County, TN. Archives

Place the entire photograph album in an archival box. You will want to purchase a box that fits the album as perfectly as possible. If the album is moving around in the box, crumple up tissue paper and put around the album so it doesn't move. Do not cram the photo album in too small of a box. You want the album to fit snuggly so it doesn't move at all.

Store the box with the album in a cool, dark and dry place. Never store documents, photographs or artifacts in an attic, basement or someplace where it is humid. Always keep out of the sunlight.

If you are fortunate enough to have these wonderful old black paper photo albums with your ancestor's photographs in them, you have a treasure! So, let's preserve and archive that album so that future generations can enjoy those photographs!



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Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Storing 3-Ring Binders

We are in the second week of January and for those of you who have made a commitment to "Get Organized" in 2017, I hope you are still going strong!

One aspect of organizing that I would like to address is how to store 3-ring binders. Now, this may seem like a very simple idea and you might be thinking "Everyone knows how to store 3-ring binders", but do you?

Family Genealogy Binders, Houston County, TN. Archives

If you use 3-ring binders to organize your genealogical records, do you store them upright on the shelf or do you lay them down on their side? Most of you will say that you store them upright because it takes up less room and that is the conventional way to store 3-ring binders.

However, the best way to store them so that the records that are contained in them do not get damaged is to store them laying on their side.

When you store 3-ring binders upright or on their end, it puts pressure on the binding and weakens the strength of that binding. Over time, those binders will become weak and will start to sag and eventually will start to break down. Also, when 3-ring binders are stored upright, the pages that are stored inside will sag. This means that if you have put your genealogy documents into these 3-ring binders, they will also sag and could get damaged by being put in this position for a prolonged period of time.

The best way to store 3-ring binders is on their side, making sure all the pages are laying flat and not folded or bent in anyway.

Storing 3-ring binders in this manner will take up more room but in the long run it will keep your family genealogical records safe.



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Thursday, January 5, 2017

How to Handle a "Dry County", Tips from an Archivist

Usually when you hear the term "Dry County" it involves the absence of alcohol, not in this blog post.

Today, I want to talk about "Dry Counties" as it relates to absence of genealogical records.

Have you ever been researching in a county and it seems like there are just no genealogical records to be found. Maybe you've been told that the courthouse burned and no records survived or that records have been thrown away and no longer exist. Or maybe you have gotten the run-a-round from different officials in the county as to where the records are located, if they even exist.

This can be very frustrating to us as genealogists but I encourage you to not give up on that
"Dry County"!

Here are some tips that might help you unearth records that seemingly don't exist:

Be Sure to Talk to the Right People:

When making inquiries about genealogical records in a particular county, make sure to seek out people who should know if those records exist or not. Contacting employees at the county courthouse may not be your best answer. While these employees are doing a great job with the records they are producing today and taking care of patrons that walk through their door, many times they have no knowledge of older records that have been transferred to an archives or other facility. Try to talk to the local archivist, librarian, historical/genealogical society officers and members to get the information about records that survive and where they can be located.

Stewart County, TN. Archives

Ask "Who is the Local County Historian":

In just about any county, there is a county historian. Whether or not they have been given that official title or not, there is that one person that "knows everything" about that county. You want to talk to that person. They will know what records survive and where they are located. Many times, these local county historians know about most of the surnames that were in the county and can give you information that may not even be written down on a record which we would call oral history or local folklore. That local county historian's name and contact information may not be listed on any website. You may have to make some phone calls to track down that county historian. Try contacting the local library, Chamber of Commerce, historical or genealogical society or any county office. These people live and work in that county, they will know who the county historian is and should be able to help you get in touch with them. Ask "Who in the county knows about the history of the county, the history of the people and where to find old records?" I bet you will get a name and phone number!

Check with the State Archives: 

Many times local county records are available either on microfilm or in original form at the state archives. It is quite possible that the local county officials don't even know that those records exist and are at the state archives. So, if you get a "Those records don't exist" answer from someone at the county level, contact the state archives in the state where that county is and ask them what they have for that particular county. Many times the old county records have been sent to the state archives and not very many people in the county know where they are or that they were transferred to the state archives. Also, many times genealogists or individuals will donate their family papers to the state archives because there is nowhere in the county to donate them.

Tennessee State Library and Archives

So, don't get stopped in your genealogy tracks when you feel like you have hit a "Dry County". Try these tips and hopefully you can dig up the records you are needing.



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Wednesday, January 4, 2017

What's the Difference Between Preservation and Conservation?

These two words, "Preservation" and "Conservation" can be confusing. Many people use them interchangeably but truthfully they are not the same.

Let's Talk About It!

First, let's look at some definitions:

Preservation: n. ~ 1. The professional discipline of protecting materials by minimizing chemical and physical deterioration and damage to minimize the loss of information and to extend the life of cultural property. - 2. The act of keeping from harm, injury, decay, or destruction, especially through noninvasive treatment. - 3. Law · The obligation to protect records and other materials potentially relevant to litigation and subject to discovery.

Preserved Letters, Houston County, TN. Archives

Conservation: n. ~ 1. The repair or stabilization of materials through chemical or physical treatment to ensure that they survive in their original form as long as possible. - 2. The profession devoted to the preservation of cultural property for the future through examination, documentation, treatment, and preventive care, supported by research and education.

Letter in Pieces, Houston County, TN. Archives

Letter Conserved, Houston County, TN. Archives

(Source: Society of American Archivists Glossary Terms

My easy definition and explanation I like to give to genealogists for these two terms is "To Preserve something is to protect it, to Conserve something is to fix it".

Right now, many genealogists have made commitments at the beginning of the new year to organize their genealogical records. This could mean filing piles of paper, putting photos in archival sleeves and putting everything in an archival box or filing cabinet.

This is "Preservation" at it's best! You are "keeping from harm, injury, decay, or destruction" all those wonderful genealogical records that you have in your care. Preserving those records, photographs, memorabilia and family heirlooms for future generations. I encourage all genealogists to actively preserve all the family records and artifacts and use archival materials to achieve that preservation.

Removing Metal Staples is Preservation, Houston County, TN. Archives

Now, let's say you have a photograph that is damaged and you want to "repair or stabilize it's original form", then you would need to Conserve this photograph. Most likely, you will want to seek out a Professional Conservator that specializes in repairing and fixing photographs. Most genealogists don't feel comfortable doing these types of repairs and if you don't have the knowledge of the materials and methods of Conservation, then you need to leave it to the professionals.

But where to find a Conservator?

I suggest contacting the state archive in your state. They will either have an conservator on staff or they will have a name and contact information for one that they use for their archived materials. There could be different conservators for different mediums such as one for only photographs, one for only documents, etc.

I would also suggest going to the website American Institute for Conservation (, they have a section entitled "Find a Conservator" where you can find someone in your area to help you with your conservation problem.

So, hopefully now you know more about the different between Preservation and Conservation.

I encourage all genealogists to actively preserve your genealogy research, documents, photographs and family heirlooms.

If you have any questions about researching in archives or about records preservation, please E-MAIL ME!



Scrapbooks! How to find scrapbooks in archives and how to preserve the ones you have!

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Scrapbooks: A Genealogist's Gold Mine