Melissa Barker, aka The Archive Lady, explains why an “archive” is more than meets the eye when it comes to genealogical research!
[Editor’s Note: The Archive Lady is on vacation this week so we’ve decided to run her very first article What Is an Archive? first published on September 25th, 2016!]
Recently, I was asked “What is an archive?”and I was a bit surprised by this question since it came from a genealogist. I thought all genealogists knew about archives!
An archive is defined by the Society of American Archivists as: An organization that collects the records of individuals, families, or other organizations (http://www2.archivists.org/glossary/terms). This “organization” could be any organization. It doesn’t only have to be an archive like the Houston County, Tennessee Archive or the Tennessee State Library and Archives. A historical society that collects and preserves local records is also considered an archive. A genealogical society that accepts donations of family records is an archive. A museum that has exhibits and displays may also have records collections and would be considered an archive. Local public libraries that have genealogy rooms with records in them are archives.
The term “archive” is not solely used to represent a county or state archive; any organization that accepts, collects and preserves historical and genealogical documents, records, memorabilia and artifacts is considered an archive even if they don’t have the word “archive” in their title.
There are many different kinds of archives that can be accessed by genealogists. I always say, “There is an archive for everything”. Just because the building doesn’t have the word “archive” on it, don’t discount the fact that there is a “place” where there are historical and genealogical records being preserved or at the very least stored.
There have been many times when I had arrived at the place where I was told the records were located. I was then shown a closet, the attic or basement and I was left to my own research devices to go through boxes and shelves of records. You have to ask the questions and you may even have to do some sleuthing in the local areas your researching in to locate the records.
Ask around in the community, call the local library or the local Chamber of Commerce and ask “Who is the local historian, who is the one knows about the families and history of the area?” I guarantee that you will be given a name. There is always someone in the local area that knows the local history and knows many of the local families and most importantly; these people usually know where to find the records! This person may even be able to tell you about the family you are researching.
So, the next time you are doing research on your ancestor in the area where they lived, ask for the name of the local historian and contact them. Ask where the records are stored or archived. Contact the local historical and/or genealogical society. Don’t leave any stone unturned. The records you are looking for could be sitting in boxes, archives or not, just waiting for you to find them.
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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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