Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Finding Business Records -- A Real Challenge

If the only genealogical records you have ever researched have been available in digital format online, then you will have to wake up to the real world of hard-to-find records. I am reminded of the Wizard of Oz movie (and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) where the movie starts out in black and white and then turns to full color. Genealogy is sort-of like that. You usually begin by searching easily available records, such as the U.S. Census records online, but ultimately you end up in county courthouses and smaller libraries and museums around the country. One of the comments to my recent blog post on business records suggested the following:
An article on how to search/obtain these records would be helpful. In my experience, most times library/archive-held collections need to be researched in person rather than via request for information correspondence or online, which limits several people, including myself from using these sources.
Yes, the commentator is correct. These valuable records must be "researched in person." This means that if you are disabled or otherwise limited in your ability to visit libraries and other archives, you have a double challenge.

If you want to get a sample of what gaining access to these collections entails, you can look at the instructions for the following institutions:
An alternative to personal visits to these and many other libraries and research facilities around the country is to hire some one else to do the research. There is no sure-fire way to choose a competent researcher, but in the United States there is the Association of Professional Genealogists, the Board for Certification of Genealogists and the International Commission for the Accreditation of Professional Genealogists. Each of these organizations has lists of qualified professionals. Some of the repositories involved may also have their own lists of qualified researchers. But the reality of doing onsite research is that there may be no other way to find the records other than going and doing the research yourself.

Long before you plan a trip, you should be very well assured that you have exhausted your online prospects. It can be discouraging to arrive at a potential research facility only to find out the records are only available online because they have been digitized. I have also heard first-hand stories about people arriving in foreign repositories, only to learn that all the records have been microfilmed and are in the Family History Library. Travel is not always the answer. 

The key to doing onsite research is to be throughly prepared before you begin your travels. Gather all the information you can about your family from the sources available to you. I might point out that traveling to the place where your ancestors lived may be fulfilling in itself, but there may be very limited research opportunities for pertinent records in the exact location where they lived. Before getting in your car or taking a plane, train or bus, you should be well prepared with knowledge of the locality and requirements for access to the record repository. A simple example will suffice. The Family History Library has a huge onsite collection of microfilm that is readily available. However, many of the films from the entire collection are only available from the Granite Vault. It may take two or three days from the time the film is requested to obtain a copy. It is extremely important to know this before you visit the library and request that the films be brought to the main library before your visit. Here is what the Library has to say about their microfilm collection:
Before visiting the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, you can request the microfilms you need. Go to and use the online Family History Library Catalog to determine if the films you need are immediately available in the Family History Library in Salt Lake City. Films listed in the catalog as "Vault" films need to be requested and may take up to three days to retrieve. For larger vault film requests of 15 or more films, please give at least one week notice. Visiting groups requesting 30 or more films need to give at least two weeks notice. The films may then be picked up in the Library corresponding to their collection designation. For example, an international film can be located on the B1 International Floor of the Library.
This type of requirement is very likely to be common in almost any repository. You must also remember that the films in the Family History Library can be rented and sent to a Family History Center nearer to you than Salt Lake City, Utah. I do have to admit that doing research in Salt Lake City is far superior that sitting in a small Family History Center and looking at microfilm. But I must also point out that just being in a Library does not solve your research problems. You cannot rely on receiving any help from the staff or volunteers at the library in Salt Lake City or anywhere else for that matter. Unless you know how to find the materials you are looking for yourself, your experience may be very frustrating.

Where do you find records, such as the business records I have been writing about? Where ever. Yes, literally, where ever. You can start at the top and go to the bottom or from the bottom to the top. I suggest that the most efficient way of doing research is to start with the largest repositories, such as state archives, state libraries, university libraries etc. and work your way down to the local level. You may find most or all of the local records are in the larger repositories. This process will not necessarily be free. There is an expense in traveling to the locations, but there may also be substantial charges for access to the records.

It is not infrequent that researchers in a repository are told that the records they are looking for are not in the facility or not available, when this is simply not true. This even happens from time to time at the Family History Library. One of the patrons I was helping at the Family History Library recently, was told more than once that the records she was looking for were not available at the Library. In every case, I was able to find the records with very little effort. It pays to know what you are looking for and how to find it without relying on the staff.

Business records in particular may be kept in special collections repositories around the country. Many occupations have trade organizations and their records may be in their own special library. For an example, see the Research Wiki article on United States Occupations Finding Railroad Records (National Institute).

I was talking to another researcher who related a story about a traveling to look for cemetery records. When they arrived at the cemetery, the whole plot was covered with weeds and the grave markers were hardly visible. She and her husband were simply not prepared to face weeds and did not find the markers they were looking for. Another relative, more prepared, visited the cemetery shortly thereafter and found the markers. In this case, the added preparation included praying for help.

A few last comments on this topic: there is no greater teacher than experience. The more you take the opportunity to visit libraries and other institutions, the easier the process becomes. I am constantly amazed that people come to the huge Brigham Young University Harold B. Lee Library and sit and use the computers and never look at the books and other materials sitting right there in view. Don't be blinded by the Internet. There is a rich experience in looking for records and finding the originals.

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