The Archive Lady: Vertical Files: What Are They?

Let's Get Vertical! Melissa Barker, aka The Archive Lady, shares her tips and tricks on using Vertical Files!

Let’s Get Vertical! Melissa Barker, aka The Archive Lady, shares her tips and tricks on using Vertical Files!

Sue from Oklahoma asks: “I was listening to a recent webinar for my local historical society where you were speaking and you mentioned vertical files and what a treasure trove they can be for genealogists. Can you tell me more about vertical files and what types of records can be found in them?”

Sue asks a wonderful question about a set of records that every genealogist should be accessing to find records for their ancestors. In the movie Forrest Gump, actor Tom Hanks playing Forrest Gump says, “Life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re going to get.” In the archives world it can be said “Vertical files are like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re going to get!”

Let's Get Vertical! Melissa Barker, aka The Archive Lady, shares her tips and tricks on using Vertical Files!

Vertical Files, Houston County, Tennessee Archives

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 archived in file folders which are then put in filing cabinets and 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” or a “hodgepodge” for all those documents that don’t really go anywhere else but should not be discarded. When an archive has received a donation of records that is not large enough to create a manuscript collection, they may be relegated to the Vertical File Collection.

Genealogists should be encouraged to ask the archive if they have vertical files. These collections of records could be very valuable for genealogy research. Some archives don’t always advertise that they have a collection of vertical files, so it’s important that the researcher ask the archivist specifically about this collection. The archive should have an index that can be accessed on the archives website, on an in-house computer or handed to you by the archivist.

Let's Get Vertical! Melissa Barker, aka The Archive Lady, shares her tips and tricks on using Vertical Files!

Vertical Files, Houston County, Tennessee Archives

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.  Once you have finished with the file, give it back to the archivist who will then bring other files that have been requested one or two at a time.

So, what kind of records can be found in Vertical Files? There is not enough room in this column to talk about everything but here are some of my favorites:

Newspaper Clippings

Vertical Files could have newspaper clippings of obituaries, marriage engagements, wedding announcements, birth announcements and anything else that may have made it into the newspaper. I have found newspaper clippings in Vertical Files that were from newspapers that were not preserved as a whole and not available online or microfilmed.

Let's Get Vertical! Melissa Barker, aka The Archive Lady, shares her tips and tricks on using Vertical Files!

Newspaper Clipping, Undated, Houston County, Tennessee Archives

Family Histories/Group Sheets

Whenever genealogists donate their compiled family histories or family group sheets, they are normally placed in Vertical Files. This is a great way to connect with cousins that you may not even know you had.

Let's Get Vertical! Melissa Barker, aka The Archive Lady, shares her tips and tricks on using Vertical Files!

Ephemera

Vertical Files are a great place to find those one-of-a-kind records that would have normally been thrown away which are called ephemera. Items like invoices, receipts, business letterheads, church bulletins and even old family letters.

Let's Get Vertical! Melissa Barker, aka The Archive Lady, shares her tips and tricks on using Vertical Files!

Myrtle Bateman Dairy Sales Envelope, Houston County, Tennessee Archives

Photographs

Many archives put the photographs that have been donated to them in Vertical Files. This is why it’s important to look in the files for each of the surnames that you are researching; you may just find a photograph of your one of your ancestors.

Let's Get Vertical! Melissa Barker, aka The Archive Lady, shares her tips and tricks on using Vertical Files!

W.L. Cary Motor Co., Houston County, Tennessee Archives

So, the next time you are at an archive, ask if they have Vertical Files “you never know what you are going to get.”

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Vertical Files: What Are They and How To Use Them

Vertical Files: What Are They and How To Use Them

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If you have a question about researching in archives or records preservation for The Archive Lady, send an email with your question to: melissabarker20@hotmail.com

Melissa Barker - The Archive Lady

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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About the Author

Melissa Barker
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.