The Archive Lady: Finding Family Histories in an Archive
Mary from Tennessee asks: “I have been doing genealogy for a few years now and I feel like it’s time for me to start contacting and visiting local archives for information that I know is not online. Can you tell me if archives have family histories in their collections and, if so, how would I find them?”
As an archivist, I am asked all the time if we have family histories or family genealogies in our record collections. I am always pleased to be able to say “YES.” Many of the archives across the United States, and in other countries, have compiled family histories in their collections.
Family histories that have been compiled by genealogy researchers are a great research tool for other genealogists and family historians. While they may not be 100% accurate, they can be used as a guide to help the researcher find more documents or to get an idea of where to look next for their ancestors. These family histories could come in many forms. Some researchers have actually had their research published into a book, similar to any other book, which incorporates the research work they have done on that one family. Sometimes these family histories contain several pages that are stapled together much like a narrative story and are not hardbound or professionally published.
An oral history is also a valuable family history document that can often be found in archived collections. Whether produced by family members or the local historical society, using oral histories is a great way to glean genealogical information from family members that may have passed on but left this wonderful record. These oral histories could be in an electronic format or they could be typed transcripts. Another type of family history that can be found in archived record collections are family group sheets. These can be a great asset to the genealogist and can also be a great way to connect with other genealogists.
So, how do genealogists find these types of records in an archive? Almost all family histories are donated by genealogy researchers. Many times genealogists who donate their family histories to archives are doing it as a form of “cousin bait.” They are hoping that other genealogists come along that are researching the same surnames and make a connection.
Recently, the Houston County, Tennessee Archives received a records donation of genealogy research that included several 3-ring binders filled with information and compiled family histories. This records donation represents a lifetime of genealogy research and we were so fortunate the records were donated to our archives.
When you visit an archive, you will find these family histories located in one of two places. First, you will often find them in the vertical file collections. Ask the archivist if they have an index to their vertical file collections. This index will have surnames listed and if you find a surname you are interested in, ask for that file to be brought to you; hopefully there will be a family history or a family group sheet in the file.
The other location to look for family histories is in the manuscript collections. When working with manuscript collections, be sure to consult the finding aid or ask the archivist for assistance. The finding aid contains a box-by-box, folder-by-folder listing of what is in the collection. Family histories should be indicated and listed in the finding aid.
Unfortunately, many vertical file collections and manuscript collections are not online and can only be accessed by visiting an archive or contacting the archive by email, snail mail or by phone.
So, the next time you think to yourself, “”Do archives have family histories?” you now know the answer is YES!
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Melissa Barker lives in Tennessee Ridge, Tennessee. She is the Houston County (TN) Archivist and a Professional Genealogist. She writes the blog, A Genealogist in the Archives, and has been researching her own family for over 26 years. She lectures, teaches and writes about researching in archives and records preservation.
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