Genealogy: Part 3—Resources available at societies, university and state libraries, archives and special collections

Genealogy: Part 3—Resources available at societies, university and state libraries, archives and special collectionsBy Barry J. Ewell

The following is a brief overview of the type of resources and collections you can expect to find at societies and libraries.  Items that are secured and managed are very specific to a community, county, region, and state.  While some items may be duplicated across collections, many items are unique and can only be found in specific locations.  It then becomes very important that you gain a comprehensive understanding of all the resources that are available to you collectively.

Audio-visual recordings are often valued for the authenticity and sense of closeness they bring to the speeches, sporting events, interviews, newscasts, and performances they document. One example you’re probably familiar with is, Ken Burns’s Baseball or Civil War documentaries. In many cases the media has been digitized and are made available to researchers.

Audio Recordings
Commonly encountered recording media include wax cylinder recordings, recordable disk records, recording wire, open reel-to-reel, cassettes and digital disks.  Many of these recordings have been digitized and available for review.  Subject matter ranges from music to speeches and presentations.

Bible Records
Bible Records are usually located in Manuscript Collections and include data such as birth, marriage, and death records, most of which were never recorded in official vital records and unavailable elsewhere.

Cemetery Records
Cemetery Records often come in the form of tombstone inscriptions which can often supply exact dates of birth and death, maiden names of women, and family relationships.

Census Records
A government sponsored enumeration of the population in a particular area; and contains a variety of information from names, heads of household or all household members, their ages, citizenship status, and ethnic background, etc.

Non-population Census Records
Agriculture, mortality, and social statistics schedules are available for the census years of 1850, 1860, 1870, and 1880. Manufacturing schedules are available for 1820, 1850, 1860, 1870, and 1880. They are arranged by state, then by county, and then by political subdivision (township, city, etc.). These schedules can add “flesh” to the bones of ancestors and provide information about the communities in which they lived.

Church Records
Church registers are often the only way to determine birth and death dates in the years before states started to keep vital records. Most churches keep their own records, but libraries usually have a number of books, copies of church records, a few manuscript volumes of original records, and microfilmed church records. You can request a current list of the churches for which records are available.

Civil Vital Records (Birth, Death, Marriages, Divorcees)
Civil vital records—for births, deaths, and marriages—mark the milestones of our lives, and are the foundation of family history research. Chronicling the personal moments of our lives through the objective perspective of the public record, vital records can offer details often found through no other genealogical resource.

Diaries and Journals
Diaries and journals are used interchangeably today.   No matter what you call them, these accounts are the autobiographies of ordinary people like your ancestors, and these may be the only existing records of their personal lives. Along with genealogical data, diaries give you a wonderful glimpse into someone’s daily life, thoughts, and attitudes. A diarist may also record feelings on national events, such as a war or its impact on family, and the community. The following is an attempt to define meanings as used over the last several centuries.

Directories and member lists are the predecessors of the modern-day phone book. They listed the inhabitants of a locality, with their addresses and occupation (and sometimes business address).

Electronic Discussion Groups
Many societies and libraries sponsor electronic discussion groups.  For example, Virginia History and Virginia Genealogy, that are open to interested researchers worldwide.

  • VA-HIST (Virginia History)
  • VA-HIST Monthly Archives
  • VA-ROOTS (Virginia Genealogy)
  • VA-ROOTS Monthly Archives

Electronic Recordings
Although the majority of archival materials are still paper-based, the amount of electronic records entering archives is increasing. Whether the electronic records are in the form of e-mail, databases, text documents, spreadsheets, digital images, or web pages, archives look for metadata, or information about the records, to help them better understand the content and context of the materials they have received. Since electronic records are, in most cases, simply an alternate format of evidence traditionally created in paper form, they can be either a primary or secondary source depending on when, how, and why they were created.

Ephemera are materials created for a specific, temporary purpose. Although these items are often saved by individuals for sentimental reasons or by chance, they can contain valuable information concerning people, places, and dates associated with events and the culture and economy of the time.

Genealogical Notes
Some researchers have donated research notes to libraries, which are often cataloged with Manuscript Collections.

Immigration Records
Naturalization Records.  Naturalization is the legal procedure by which an alien becomes a citizen of a state or country. Records of naturalization were not required to be reported to the U.S. Government until the Basic Naturalization Act of 1906, naturalization forms became standardized and were sent to the U.S. Bureau of Immigration (later the Immigration and Naturalization Service [INS]). Prior to that, federal, state and local courts could naturalize citizens. The records are kept by each court, or, in some cases, sent to be stored elsewhere. Immigrants often filed their first application for naturalization as soon as they came off the boat or other places on their journey to their final destination.

The formalized process required that a prospective citizen file a declaration of intention in which he or she renounced allegiance to foreign sovereignties. Following a waiting period of five years, an immigrant could then petition a federal court for formal citizenship.

Land Records
There are many types of land records-title abstracts, land purchases, grant, and more. Land records are typically one of the records kept from the very early days of settlement in an area and may be available when other records are not. These records provide information on relationships between individuals, approximate relocation dates, and the financial state of a family.  The types of land records you will find include:

  • Tax Records.  Tax records include assessment lists, which give the names of property owners and the value of each property; and tax lists, which record the taxes actually due and/or paid.
  • Deeds.  Deed books record the ownership and transfer of property, usually real estate.
  • Bounty-land Records.  The federal government offered land to those who would serve in the military during the Revolutionary War. Some states also offered their land as an enticement for military service. The federal government reserved tracts in the public lands, and most of the original thirteen states set aside tracts of bounty land in their western holdings.
  • Donation Land Records.  In 1850, in an attempt to lure settlers to the new western lands, the government gave lands to would-be settlers in Florida, New Mexico, and Oregon and Washington Territories, known as Donation Lands.
  • Homestead Records. The first Homestead law was enacted in 1862 and was also intended to encourage settlement in the West. As with the Donation Lands, the only requirement was to live on and improve the land through cultivation. Only a small filing fee was required.
  • Bureau of Land Management.  The Bureau of Land Management-Eastern States Office supervises the public land states east of the Mississippi River and the states that border the western side of the river.

Local and Family Histories
The historical society is usually a great source for finding local and family histories which are invaluable as you discover the roots of your ancestors.

  • Family History.  A family history is a book or document that gives facts and information about one or more generations of a family.
  • Local History. The overwhelming majority of local histories address how a particular region and its citizens handled and reacted to every major state and national happening.
  • Biography. A biographical sketch can include almost any aspect of a person’s life, but generally contains information about the individual’s family, education, and occupation.
  • Institutional Histories. Look for histories of the institutions that may have relevance to your family: churches, orphanages, charitable institutions, schools, hospitals and dispensaries, cultural institutions, cemeteries, businesses.
  • Important:  Look in the Notes. As a genealogist, the family and personal histories will provide clear documentation for statements made; footnotes and bibliographies can truly provide key data if one engages in a process known as citation analysis. This process involves taking a critical look at all notes and bibliographic references with an eye toward analyzing them for evidence of heretofore unknown record groups, publications, court records, and other papers which might document the life of an ancestor.

Maps & Gazetteers
The use of maps, gazetteers, atlases and related resources provide by the genealogist essential information about family and  provides direction of where to continue your research. For example: You are looking for vital records of particular city.  These records are usually kept in the county courthouse. Over time many counties have changed and subdivided.  In most cases records have remained with the original courthouse. Maps can help you define what county your ancestor lived in at a specific time period.   If the city was in multiple counties over time, you will gain clues of which courthouses to search given the original courthouse does not have the records you seek.

It also pays to study the area around that of your forebears. What was the region like? If there was a mountain, river, or some other topographical feature between them and the county seat, they may have chosen to take an easier route and create records in the next county. This is also true of areas with differing regulations. In states with less stringent marriage laws, “marriage mills” sprung up. Lake County, Indiana is a well-known example of this. Many couples from the Chicago area crossed the border into Indiana to get married.

Memorabilia are objects containing historical value that do not fit into any of the standard categories of special collections. These items often commemorate events or the achievements of an individual or group. Memorabilia collections frequently include badges, plaques, paintings, trophies, and coins but may also include items such as pens, name tags, office equipment, clothing, and even hair. In many cases, memorabilia are materials that would likely be found on display in a museum and thus are often used by archivists and curators for exhibits.

Military Records
Military records kept by the U.S. Government about soldiers and sailors who served their country are a major source of information about individuals. The four major wars of interest to genealogists are:

  • American Revolution (1775-1783). Approximately one out of every seven Americans fought in the American Revolution.
  • Civil War (1861-1865). Approximately one out of every ten Americans fought in the Civil War.
  • World War I (1918-1919). Over 4.8 million served in World War I
  • World War II (1942-1945). Over 16 million in World War II.

Newspapers and Periodicals

Newspapers can contain a multitude of genealogical information-obituaries; notices of births, marriages, and deaths; legal notices; estate transactions; biographies, military, immigration.

Through periodicals, the researcher can begin to gain access to data contained in vital records, court records, plat maps, family Bibles and day books, declarations of intention and naturalization certificates, local census and tax lists, church records and cemetery inscriptions, as well as the dozens of few-of-a-kind local items.

  • Genealogical Society Publications. City, county, regional and state genealogy societies write and publish journals, newsletters, and quarterlies that focus on the area interest to the genealogical organization.  They are published monthly, quarterly and annually.  These range from a few pages to hundreds of pages. These publications tend to index, abstract, and transcribe the records of the region where they are published.
  • Historical Society Publications. Society publications can be a significant aspect of immigrant research. Any local record may be the subject of publication by a local society. Whenever you contact a genealogical or ethnic society, be certain to inquire about their publications. Even when such publications do not identify an immigrant’s home town, they may provide further identification about your immigrant, or may instruct you on additional sources specific to a locality or ethnic group.
  • How to Locate Newspapers and Periodicals. There are thousands of local, county, regional, state, and national periodicals currently being published or having been published.  The task of finding specific geographic and surname data may, at first, appear daunting. The following are several good and reliable sources.
  • Worldcat .WorldCat, is a catalog of the holdings of thousands of libraries worldwide. Many of these libraries have cataloged their periodical holdingsandWorldCatcan be searched by family name or geographic location.
    • Search many libraries at once for an item and then locate it in a library nearby
    • Find books, music, and videos to check out
    • Find research articles and digital items (like audio books) that can be directly viewed or downloaded
    • Link to “Ask a Librarian” and other services at your library
    • Post your review of an item, or contribute factual information about it
  • PERSI and The Periodical Source Index, or PERSI, is the largest subject index to genealogical and historical periodical articles in the world. Created by the foundation and department staff of the Genealogy Center of the library in Fort Wayne, Indiana, PERSI is widely recognized as being a vital source for genealogical researchers. With more than 1.1 million entries, genealogists can search for articles about the United States, Canada, and overseas locations, about surnames, and about research methodology topics.

Oral Histories
Oral histories are recordings of people’s memories. It is the living history of everyone’s unique life experiences.   They record people’s experiences on sound and video tape. Oral histories enable people who have been hidden from history to be heard, and for those interested in their past to record personal experiences and those of their families and communities. It is a vital tool for our understanding of the recent past. Many societies and libraries have begun such projects in recent years.

Photo Collections
Photograph archives consist of collections which can range from a few to several million images.  Depending on the collection, images will date back to the 1860’s and track the expansion of the community, county, region, and state.  You will see contributions of various ethnic groups, people and organizations to the geographical formations of the region. Decade after decade commercial, journalistic or family photographers have focused on familiar neighborhoods, geography, and buildings.

Photograph collections are important from a regional, national and international significance. From a national perspective it’s a collection of what became of an area as it was settled. Issues relating to water in arid climates, Native Americans, air and automobile transportation, suburbanization, agriculture, and recreation are addressed and presented through the work of many late nineteenth and twentieth century photographers.

Probate Records
Probate Records are generated by county courts. Societies and libraries will have probate records for some counties; others can be obtained by contacting the county clerk in the county where the will was probated.

Rare Books
Although a common misconception holds that rare books are always old and that scarce books are always rare, there are in fact many factors that contribute to a book’s rarity. In the broadest sense, a book is rare if its demand exceeds its supply. Demand for certain books is based on a number of intrinsic and extrinsic characteristics, such as the book’s age, scarcity, association, condition, physical features, and popularity of author or subject.

Reference Guides/Brochures/Leaflets
Many state organizations provide reference guides, brochures or leaflets in print and on-line that discuss specific aspects of their collections and how to use or how to conduct research in a particular state, region, or locale.  Look for guides such as:

  • A Guide to Genealogical Research at the (State) Historical Society
  • Population Census Records at the (State) Historical Society
  • ndex to Naturalizations in (State)
  • List of Basic Sources on (State) History

The scrapbook is one of the few types of archival materials created for the purpose of preserving the memory of an individual, organization, or event. Often comprised of photographs, newspaper clippings, and annotations, scrapbooks can offer valuable information about the past but are also susceptible to a loss of material caused by inadequate adhesive or items sticking together.

Subject Based Collections
Although archival materials often make up a large part of an institution’s special collections, many published special collection materials are maintained together not only because of their rarity but also based on their subject matter, author, or some other unifying theme. Most subject-based collections consist of secondary materials that, brought together in one place, constitute a valuable and unique research collection. Subject-based collections attempt to collect exhaustively in their subject area and will often include primary source material in the form of official documents and archival and manuscript materials that has been published for wider dissemination.