This isn’t a mess—it’s a pile of unprocessed records at an archive, and buried within may be clues about your family history. Eventually, these items may be filed away neatly for you to find. But how can you access them in the meantime?

As an archivist who works in an archive every day, I get very excited when someone walks through the door with a records donation in hand. Many of our archives would not have the genealogical and historical records they have without the generosity of others. Archives receive donations of documents, photographs, ephemera and artifacts—almost on a daily basis.

Unprocessed records at archives

Many archives have back rooms full of unprocessed and uncatalogued records collections. Sometimes they are even sitting in the original boxes they were donated. These records collections have not been microfilmed. They are not online anywhere. But they exist and the genealogist needs to seek them out.

If you have made a research trip to an archive, it wouldn’t hurt to ask about any new record donations or collections. There could very well be records in those boxes about your ancestors. The archivist should know what they have in those collections and should be able to help you decide if a particular collection will be of help to you and your genealogy research. The archivist might even let you look through a specific collection. (Be prepared: sometimes the answer will be no. But it doesn’t hurt to ask.)

If you are emailing or talking to the archives by phone, be sure and ask about any new records collections that have been processed or that have recently been donated and are waiting to be processed. Most likely, you will have to travel to the facility to see the records but you can get an idea of what is available. 

Remember, the answer to your genealogical question could be sitting in a box of unprocessed records. I like to always encourage genealogists to put “unprocessed records” on their to-do list. As genealogists, we should leave no stone (or box of records) unturned.

Try these 3 steps for searching for unprocessed records at an archive

  1. Make a quick list of your ancestral surnames, time periods and places that might be mentioned in records a particular local or regional archive. Then add the names of local organizations with which your family may have been affiliated (schools, industries or businesses, churches, local militia units). Finally, jot down a few kinds of original records you’d love to find, such as photos, maps, news clippings, business or church records, militia rosters and the like.
  2. With this “wish list” in hand, look first for any processed records. Start at ArchiveGrid.org, an online catalog of collections at thousands of archives. Enter different combinations of your search terms as keywords. If you have a specific archive in mind that’s not coming up at ArchiveGrid, go to that archive’s website. Search any online catalog or digital finding aids (collection descriptions) with different combinations of your search terms. Or use Google site search to let Google help you look for your keywords across the entire site.
  3. If you don’t find what you’re looking for, call or email the archive. Mention that you’ve already searched online for items relating to your family. Ask whether they may have any additional items pertaining to your wish list (people, places, organizations, record types) that haven’t yet been processed or may not be on their website or in Archive Grid. Ask whether or when access might be available.

Tell us about your discoveries!

We love hearing about the “genealogy gems” you find, especially in original old manuscript records! Will you write in and let us know about them? Meanwhile, let these two success stories inspire your own search:

“I found 130 letters by my ancestor!”

Railroad retirement record discovery prompts a “happy dance”

About the Author: Melissa Barker

About the Author: Melissa Barker

The Archive Lady

Melissa is a Certified Archives Records Manager, the Houston County, Tennessee Archivist and author of the popular blog A Genealogist in the Archives and an advice columnist. She has been researching her own family history for the past 27 years.

Images courtesy of Melissa Barker and Houston County, TN Archives.

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