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

Monday, June 22, 2015

Have you thought about researching business records?

I have been writing about business records lately for several reasons. Most importantly because business records are generally ignored by genealogists when researching their ancestors. I come to this conclusion because over the years of supporting researchers, I almost never have questions about finding different types of business records. I have a very long source checklist prepared for assisting researchers with over a hundred categories of records to search, but "business records" are mentioned near the end of the list in a single, unexpanded category called "Collections."

The Research Wiki has an article entitled "United States Business Records" that breaks the general category down into separate topics:
  • Mortuary records
  • Farming and agricultural records
  • Slaves, Apprentices and Indentured Servants
  • Insurance records
  • Newspapers
  • Union records
  • Mining records
  • Business formation records
  • Churches
  • Railroads
  • Shipping and other transportation records
  • Business licenses and bonds
  • Professional licenses
  • Medical and Dental office records
  • Photography businesses
  • Business and other types of directories
  • Utility records
There are probably additional topics that could also be addressed. Another indication of the lack of interest and knowledge about business records is the fact that almost all the states in the Research Wiki, even important commercial states, such as Pennsylvania and New York, are lacking "Business Records" even as a category of records to search. This lack of awareness of the importance of business records extends to many instructional manuals and reference books about genealogical research. 

Not surprisingly because of its detailed and complete contents, The Source, (Szucs, Loretto Dennis, and Sandra Hargreaves Luebking. The Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy. Salt Lake City: Ancestry, 1997.) contains a chapter of 46 pages on Research in Business, Employment and Institutional Records. Many of the categories listed above, but not all, are generally discussed but there is a relatively extensive list of reference books at the end of the chapter. 

If a popular book such as The Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy, has a chapter on business records, why is the subject so infrequently addressed? I would guess that if I proposed a presentation about "mining records in Utah" or "railroad records in Arizona" at a conference, the subject, even if accepted by the organizers, would attract almost no interest. 

In thinking about this subject, I have come to several conclusions that touch on basic issues concerning genealogy and research in general. I look at the online family tree programs and the database programs developed to record genealogical data. There is an obvious concern with vital record information; births, deaths, marriages. All of this type of information is easily recorded. In many instances source categories are also provided by these programs (or as they are called today "apps"). However, the categories of events or facts about a person's life focus primarily on recording these events. Occupation, for example, is just a label to be attached. The idea that the person's occupation is a source of further records is not acknowledged. Of course, you could use the notes and other places in the programs to record additional information, but the whole idea of doing genealogy seems to be a process of recording dates and categories rather than the details of someone's life. The lack of source citations in online family trees highlights this fact. 

In other words, genealogy is mainly conducted as an activity of labeling ancestors. If your ancestor worked in a factory or on a farm, they are labeled as such and that is the end of the inquiry. Almost all researchers fail to recognize that the label is actually a category of records about that ancestor. Once we have our organized set of labels (like specimens in a museum) we are finished with our genealogy. We sometimes go beyond this level when we decided to compile a biography, but generally, except for some notable ancestors, those summaries focus on topics other than what that person did most of their life. 

The biggest challenge to using business records (and many other categories of records) is locating and accessing them. If your ancestor worked for a railroad, would you know where to start looking for his or her employment records? Even if you found the records' location, do you think you could gain access to them to do research? Despite these issues, it turns out that many of these records have found their way into accessible, public archives and repositories. For example, here is a search I made in the BYU Harold B. Lee Library, L. Tom Perry Special Collections Library:

You can see that this list of resources contains 253 results, some of which seem obviously interesting to genealogists looking for an ancestor employed by one of these railroads. I suggest that any major college or university in the state where your ancestor lived may have such records on a variety of topics. You should also consider state archives, historical societies and specialize collections of records from a particular business or industry. For example, continuing on the topic of railroads, here is a reference document from the U.S. National Archives:

Pfeiffer, David. Records Relating to North American Railroads. Washington, DC: National Archives and Records Administration, 2001.

I could continue writing about this topic indefinitely. There are so many records available.

1 comment:

  1. There's always "New" records to search but I can't imagine ignoring occupation or business records. My interest in family history would have ceased years ago if I'd only been labelling my boring! I guess it's one of the reasons I find genealogy programs so frustrating.