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Thursday, November 29, 2018

How do we find records in an archive?

Maryland State Archives Interior
Every state in the United States of America has some kind of archive or similar repository for state historical records. Of course, the United States has the U.S. National Archives system that includes branch archive locations around the country. For genealogists, these stores of records are a rich source of information about individuals and families. Some of the facilities are modern and well organized, others are more difficult to access. Although there are a number of different names applied to the various state archives, in this post, I will generalize and refer to all such repositories as "archives." I do need to mention that some or all of the functions of an archive may also be included in a state library. For example, in Washington, D.C. you could do research in the National Archives but you would be missing an opportunity if you failed to do research in the Library of Congress.

The Archives Library Information Center (ALIC) of the U.S. National Archives has a list of earch of the state archives with links to their websites. There are also many private and even some commercial archives. Harvard University has a web page entitled, "Library Research Guide for Finding Manuscripts and Archival Collections," that will be a help in locating other archival repositories. The Society of American Archivists also has a web page entitled, "Directory of Corporate Archives in the United States and Canada - Introduction," that has links to privately maintained archives. It is also a good idea to search for archives on the local and state level. For example, I found some important records in the Philadelphia City Archives. You may also be familiar with, if not, you should be. Also, its companion website, Here is a quote from the website.
ArchiveGrid includes over 5 million records describing archival materials, bringing together information about historical documents, personal papers, family histories, and more. With over 1,000 different archival institutions represented, ArchiveGrid helps researchers looking for primary source materials held in archives, libraries, museums and historical societies.
Archives differ from your local public library or even a large university library in certain important ways. Depending on your experience when you go to a library, you might expect to see books and other resources on shelves and you might decided to browse around and look for something intersting. If you go to an archive, and are prepared to do research, you might find an office with few evident resources visible and be lost. There is a real need before going to an archive to find out as much as you can about the facility.

There are some basic methods of approaching an archive that will help in doing research almost anywhere. This post is not a guide to doing research in any particular archive or repository but a general guide to beginning research in any such institution.

Although I often extol the huge amounts of genealogical information online, the reality of almost all the archives in the United States is that only very small percentages of their available records have been digitized and are available online. However, to repeat, it is very important to do your initial research online before taking the time and the money to travel to an archive and spending time onsite. Many archives have ongoing digitization projects and the availability of any given type of record will change over time so you may need to revisit the archive online from time to time.

The obvious first step in finding family records in an archive is to search through the online resources. This can be a difficult task but fortunately some archives have posted online guides including videos that assist in your research. Here is one example from the Maryland State Archives:

How to Use the Maryland State Archives Homepage

You should search in or on the websites of the individual archives to see if there are any similar tools to help with your research. Do not expect to just walk in and do research.

The reality of searching in an archive is that your experience in other archives, while generally helpful, is not going to be specfically helpful. Each archive will have its own procedures, rules, and regulations for access. Also, some archives, particularly private ones, may require a researcher to apply for and obtain a license and even be associated with an academic institution to obtain permission to do research. Some, like the Library of Congress and National Archives, require training before you can even gain access to start to do research. If you would like to see what kind of requirements may be necessary, an example is The Huntington Library guide to Using the Library. Other archives and libraries, such as the Library of the General Society of Mayflower Descendants may require a fee or membership in the Society to do research. Another example is the New England Historic Genealogical Society Library. In this case, you will need to be a member of the Society to have access to all of the records online. Here is a video from the Library explaining how to prepare for a visit. It is also a good example of the kind of preparation you might want to make for any other archive.

Preparing for Your Visit to NEHGS

After you have carefully studied all of the information online about your target archive and searched all of their online resources, you may still want to visit the facility. The web page from the New England Historic Genealogical Society has some excellent guidelines. You may also need to note that not all archives have the same rules about computers, cameras, scanners, and other devices. You need to be very specific in your review of the restrictions and do not rely on a brief phone call to the archive about these restrictions. If you are visiting a government archive, you may also realize you or anything you carry with you may be searched before you are allowed entry.

To practice, you may wish to visit a local library or travel to a nearby university library for the experience of doing research onsite. Many genealogists think about visiting the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah for research and we find that certain percentage of first time visitors are frustrated with the experience because of lack of preparation. The most common situations involve finding out that the records you need are stored offsite and not available for days or longer.

For any visit to a library or archive, you need to develop specific research goals. In fact, you have to know exactly what information you need to discover and also whether the particular archive you are planning to visit has records that might help to answer your specific research questions. Granted, I do go to libraries and archives and simply browse through available records but I do this with a purpose in mind. For example, I went through the entire paper card catalog at the Maryland State Archives, section by section, to determine what kinds of records the archive might have that I was interested in researching.

I hope that if you do decided to raise the intensity level of your research that you will consider working your way through libraries, archives, historical societies, museums, and any other repository of valuable historical and genealogical records. You will absolutely find a whole new world openned to you. If you happen to be in the area of Provo, Utah, please feel free to contact me so I can help you do some research in the Brigham Young University Family History Library, the second largest genealogy library in the world.

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