Genealogy: Part 2—Strategy for searching societies and libraries

Part 2—Strategy for searching societies and libraries By Barry J. Ewell

As outlined, societies and libraries collect books, manuscripts, reference files, maps, newspapers, photographs and all other items of historical value.  The following is an outline of steps you might consider to unlock and find your family’s history and genealogy.

Step 1. Consult Handbooks on Genealogical Research
Handbooks on genealogical research offer instruction, advice, and information useful to both beginning and advanced genealogists. Topics covered by these books include getting started; types of records to consult; research in other states and foreign countries; and record keeping. Of particular value are those reference books that are focused on research in the locale of your interest. Look under the headings such as “Genealogy-Handbooks, Manuals, etc.”

Step 2. Check Genealogy Surname Card Files
This physical and/or online card file is arranged alphabetically by surname and contains references to births, baptisms, marriages, and deaths. These cards were compiled over the years from newspapers printed before 1850, books, journals, church records, and other sources.

Step 3. Search Family History Files and Published Biographies and Genealogies
The Family History Files contain unpublished notes and charts on lineages specific to the state, region, local and compiled by other genealogists.

Published genealogies are part of the library’s book collection and are listed by author, title, and family name in the book catalog. Books giving information on more than one family are cross-referenced under all the important surnames.

Biographical encyclopedias, often published during the nineteenth century to flatter prominent businessmen and politicians, contain valuable genealogical information.

Step 4. Check Books on State and Local History
A wealth of genealogical information is contained in books on state and local history.

Step 5. Search Journals and Periodicals
Often bits and pieces of family history can be found in articles in historical and genealogical journals. A name index often appears at the end of each volume. These are in bound volumes on the library shelves which are sometimes microfilmed and/or put on-line.

Step 6. Search Original Source Material
Collections include books, manuscripts, reference files, maps, newspapers, and photographs on all aspects of history and people. Not all of their collections are indexed or reproduced online. Contact them for research assistance if you don’t find what you are looking for. A detailed overview of the type of source material you can expect to find in your discovery of societies and libraries follows.

A Few Definitions.  As you begin working with societies and libraries, you will hear vocabulary used to discuss and describe the type of material you will be researching.   The following are a few definitions.

  • Archives.  Archives has two meanings:   1.Archives is the maintaining collections of documents (e.g., books, journals, newspapers, and music) and facilitating the use of such documents (recorded information regardless of its physical form and characteristics) as are required to meet the informational, research, educational, or recreational needs of their user.  2. Archives are usually an unpublished, primary source material that documents the activities of an individual or organization. These unique materials are preserved in an archival setting because the information contained therein has enduring value and /or because they provide evidence of the role and activities of the individual or organization that created them. Archival materials that document the activities of an individual are often referred to as manuscripts.
  • Archivist.  Archivistisatitlethatis used to describeapersonwhomayberesponsibleforthe management of archival and manuscript collections. An archivist’s job may include activities such as appraising, acquiring, arranging, describing, preserving, and providing access to primary sources. By carrying out these activities, archivists serve to protect the authenticity and context of the materials in their care.
    • An archivist is often the best person to approach for in-depth information about the collections he or she oversees.
    • The terms archivist and curator are often used interchangeably. Archivists may also have additional descriptors in their titles to explain specific areas of responsibility. For example, the University Archivist is the person who cares for the permanent records of the university. A project archivist has been hired to work in a concentrated area, such as a subject area, or on a specific collection.
  • Finding Aids.  Finding aids are tools that assist researchers in locating items in a special collection. A finding aid can be as simple as a listing of folders (often called an inventory or preliminary inventory). A finding aid can also be a complex document that places special collections materials in context by consolidating information about the collection, such as a history or biographical note and a description of the arrangement of the collection.
  •  Manuscripts.  Manuscripts are usually an unpublished, primary source material that documents theactivitiesofanindividual.Theseuniquematerialsare preserved in an archival setting becausetheinformationcontainedtherein has enduring value and /orbecausetheyprovide evidence of the role and activitiesoftheindividual. In modern usage, the term archives can also refer to the papers of an individual.
    • Personal Papers is another term used to describe manuscript material. In the broad sense, a manuscript can refer to any unpublished document. MSS is a common abbreviation for manuscript.
  • Primary Sources. Primary sources are usually defined as accounts or artifacts generated by an eyewitness or participant in past events. Interpretation and evaluation of these primary sources becomes the basis for historical narrative.Evaluatingwhethersomethingcan be used as a primary source depends on two things:
    • Proximity to the source. Ideally the best type of source material comes from a person or process that is closest in time or proximity to the event, person or place under study. Usually the creator of this type of primary source is an eyewitness who left a record for personal or procedural purposes. Reliability of sources declines as one gets farther away in time and proximity.
    • Questions asked. Determining whether a source is a primary source often depends on the questions asked of it by the researcher.
  • Rare Books.  Rare Books are usually books that are either old, or are unusual and considered valuable due to unique qualities. A book that is old is not necessarily considered a rare book.
  • Secondary Sources.  Secondary sources are completely removed in proximity from the original event, person or place but seek to provide an interpretation based on primary sources. There is a continuum from primary to secondary sources, and many sources show elements of both.
  • Special Collections.  Special collections have characteristics that set them apart from other types of collections in libraries. These special aspects may include:
    • Rarity: books, manuscripts and other materials that are old, scarce or unique.
    • Format: photographs, slides, films, audio recordings, maps, artworks, artifacts and other objects that need special handling.
    • Comprehensiveness: accumulation of materials that are individually not unique, but collectively make up an important resource because of their relevance to a particular topic or individual.
  • These characteristics also mean that special collections are not readily replaceable and require a higher level of security and special preservation environments to insure their survival. In contrast to museum collections assembled for visual display, special collections focus on research as their primary mission. Thus, they complement general research collections and are often located in institutions that house both kinds of collections.

Step 7.  Research Other Libraries
Become aware of all the resources in the state, regional, and local that might have collections for you to research.  Simply by asking the Library and society reference staff, you will be able to secure a list of resources to consult for your research.

Step 8. Make Your Research Available to Others
Societies and libraries are glad to accept gifts of published books as well as notes and charts relating to research on families from their locale. You can help future researchers by donating copies of your work.