August 16, 2017

Is an Archive Really What You Think It Is?

A lot of the best information about our ancestors’ lives is buried in an archive–NOT indexed online! Melissa Barker explains what an archive is and how to find one that might reveal secrets from your family history.

International Archives Day is Friday, June 9! Genealogy Gems contributing archivist Melissa Barker tells us what an archive IS and how to find one.

Recently, I was asked “What is an archive?” I was a bit surprised by this question since it came from a genealogist. I thought all genealogists knew about archives!

What exactly is an archive?

An archive is defined by the Society of American Archivists as: An organization that collects the records of individuals, families, or other organizations. The “organization” they are talking about could be any organization. It doesn’t have to be only a county archive, such as the Houston County, Tennessee Archive, or a state archives, like the California State Library and Archives. Archives include:

  • A historical society that collects and preserves local records is also considered an archive.
  • A genealogical society that accepts donations of family records is an archive.
  • A museum that has exhibits and displays may also have records collections and would be considered an archive.
  • Local public libraries that have genealogy rooms with records in them are archives.

The term “archive” is not solely used to represent a county or state archive. Any organization that accepts, collects and preserves historical and genealogical documents, records, memorabilia and artifacts is considered an archive, even if they don’t have the word “archive” in their title.

There are many different kinds of archives that can be accessed by genealogists. I always say, “There is an archive for everything.” Just because the building doesn’t have the word “archive” on it, don’t discount the fact that there is a “place” where there are historical and genealogical records being preserved or at the very least stored.

Tips for finding and visiting archives

The next time you are doing research on your ancestor in the area where they lived…

Ask around: There is always someone in the local area that knows the local history and knows many of the local families and most importantly; these people usually know where to find the records! This person may even be able to tell you about the family you are researching.

Ask around in the community, call the local library or the local Chamber of Commerce and ask, “Who is the local historian, who is the one knows about the families and history of the area?” I guarantee that you will be given a name. Ask where the records are stored or archived. Contact the local historical and/or genealogical society.

Be prepared to get dusty: There have been many times when I had arrived at the place where I was told the records were located. I was then shown a closet, the attic or basement and I was left to my own research devices to go through boxes and shelves of records. You have to ask the questions and you may even have to do some sleuthing in the local areas your researching in to locate the records.

Don’t leave any stone unturned. The records you are looking for could be sitting in boxes, archived or not, just waiting for you to find them. Remember: It’s not all online, contact or visit and archive today!

The Archive Lady, Melissa Barker shares a short archiving segment in the Genealogy Gems Premium Podcast, available to Genealogy Gems Premium website members. Premium website members have access to the entire Premium Podcast archive of more than 200 episodes AND more than two dozen video classes by internationally-known genealogy educator Lisa Louise Cooke. Genealogy Gems Premium Membership offers so many fun and innovative ways to do genealogy! Click here and start enjoying it today.