By Patricia Hartley
Ever-growing access to online records means that many family history researchers aren’t taking advantage of physical repositories like they used to. But, as we discuss in this article about the important of offline records, a great deal of what we need to really understand our ancestors still cannot be found digitally.
That’s why taking advantage of libraries and record archives, in person, is still so critically important to building a successful family tree. And now that it is becoming safer and safer to travel in the covid era, most of these locations are again open to the public.
So, whether you’re doing research in your own town, making a trip to the home of an ancestor for records you can’t find (or order) online, or requesting a lookup and mailed copy of a record (this is a common service and usually not terribly expensive) make the most of the libraries and archives in the areas you are researching. This guide shares five different ways they can help you solve your family history mysteries.
And, when you’re done reading, don’t forget to find out how your local library can help you gain free access to genealogy resources online.
First and foremost, do your homework before you visit!
These days, most historical archives and libraries with local history and/or genealogy sections have websites, and if you’re lucky, these pages will list what resources are available onsite in addition to the facility’s hours of operations. Trust me, this information is imperative when you’re planning a research trip!
Most libraries and archives aren’t open 24/7, or even 10/5. In fact, many are run by volunteers, so the days and hours they are open to the public could change from day to day; it’s worth a phone call the day before or day of your visit to confirm the times.
Also, keep in mind that with limited hours (and the possible closure) it’s important to have a plan for who and what you want to research while you’re there so you can go from one task to another without wasting any time.
Use the library’s website and your phone call or email to the repository to find out what resources are held there and if they have any restrictions on devices you can bring or use (some do). Then pack your genealogy research travel kit and get ready to have fun — family history style!
Once you arrive at your destination (or when requesting a lookup) here are five different ways you can utilize these treasure troves toward solving your family history mysteries.
1. Dig Into Vertical Files
One of the most often-overlooked gems in local libraries or archives are the facility’s vertical files. Vertical files, which are sometimes called family files, are exactly what the name implies: File cabinets filled with file folders, each of which represents a family surname or a local place or topic.
These files can contain a wide variety of information, contributed by visiting researchers as well as library or archive staff. I’ve found detailed family group sheets, original photographs, hand-drawn maps, high school and college research papers, playbills, newspaper clippings, obituaries, funeral programs, and so much more. Often, family contributors will leave their contact information here as well, which is handy if you’d like to reach out to your newfound distant cousin.
Sometimes the cabinets themselves are separated into different areas based on what they contain; for example, family files might be in the main research area, while other files of local interest might be in a different location.
It definitely pays to check the website or ask the librarian what types vertical files they hold so you’re sure to check out the contents of files for all of your local surnames, any location where your ancestors might have lived, churches where they may have worshiped, businesses in which they were involved, etc. You never know where you might stumble upon a clue within these random files that could be a brick wall breaker!
2. Make the Most of Microfilm
Although technology has advanced significantly since microfilm emerged for public use in the 1920s, these reliable little rolls of goodness are often the only means of accessing historic records like local newspapers, courthouse images, private collections, and other local records.
Some repositories have fewer microfilm reading machines these days; some are no longer functional and others have been moved to make room for more records. However, the newest readers allow you to save microfilm images to your own flash drive device (yes, these devices can still be useful). The older versions, of course, are usually attached to printers, and copies are available for a nominal fee. Bring cash with you in case the library does not accept credit card.
If you feel intimidated by these old machines, don’t, a library or archive attendant is usually more than happy to help you figure out how to make use of it. And it’s a skill worth developing if you plan to continue to research your ancestors.
3. Search City Directories
Many city directories have been digitized, but often libraries or archives have local directories in their collections that aren’t available anywhere online, so be sure and take the opportunity while you’re onsite to peruse every section of these books.
What can you find in a city directory? The answer is, all kinds of specific details about your family members who lived in a particular place at a particular time. Unlike census records, which pinpoint a person’s location at 10-year intervals, city directories let you track someone’s addresses, occupations, and employers from year to year.
In addition, some city directories will list other information, such as a spouse’s name (often they will also list the name of a deceased spouse with a notation such as “w. of”), cross streets, street name changes, maps, and more!
Unfortunately, city directory data is limited to locations within the city limits and doesn’t include rural areas. So unless a member of your farming family also held a position with a company in town, they probably won’t show up within these valuable books. However, some municipalities also created county directories with similar data, so keep an eye out for those volumes as well. And don’t forget local phone books, too!
4. Don’t Miss the Family History Books
A local library or archive is the very best place to find the largest collection of books written about that area’s families and its local history — and many of those are written by local authors. Some have never even been published!
You should know that not every family history book will be properly researched or sourced; you may even find “books” that are handwritten or typed and crudely bound. Even so, these books can be valuable resources for narratives and offer clues that you can track down and verify with traditional sources.
In addition to books about families and places, you might also find published collections of cemetery records, obituaries or obituary indexes, abstracts of newspaper articles and county records, funeral home ledgers, and more.
If your time at a library or archive is limited, make the most of it by checking the index of a book first for relevant content, copy (either digitally or using a photocopier, based on the rules of the repository) the cover of the book, the title page (including publication information), the applicable content, and the index, if possible. This will be extremely helpful for notation and sourcing purposes later.
5. Ask the Experts
Never underestimate the knowledge of a local librarian or archivist! These individuals are nearly always a wealth of information about historical families and current ones as well. They can refer you to other local researchers and repositories, help you find items in their own collections you might otherwise overlook, and point you in the right direction for your next research trip.
And always get the name and contact information for the person who helps you within a repository, whether it’s a librarian, archivist, or volunteer. You’ll definitely want to recognize their help (a thank you note is always a welcome surprise!) and it will be handy to have their details in case you have follow-up questions later.
Patricia Hartley has been researching family history for over 30 years and has an M.A. in Public Relations/Mass Communications from Kent State University.