Bust Brick Walls & Go Deeper with ArchiveGrid

Bust Brick Walls & Go Deeper with ArchiveGrid

Elevenses with Lisa LIVE show exclusively for Premium Members: Have you hit a brick wall? Or do you want a deeper understanding of the ancestors you have found? If so, it’s time to expand your search into archival materials. But how can you find them? ArchiveGrid is the answer and I’ll show you how!

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When you’re stuck, when you just can’t go any further up the family tree, that’s a great time to pursue lesser-known primary sources and manuscripts. But where do you look for them? That’s where ArchiveGrid comes in. ArchiveGrid is a website that helps you find these archived sources that don’t show up in your average search on genealogy websites like Ancestry, FamilySearch or MyHeritage.

In fact, ArchiveGrid is a bit of a different animal that the big popular genealogy websites, so we need to approach it in a unique way. It reminds me a bit of going to WorldCat or the National Archives website. It’s easy to feel a bit lost without a clear path of how this website is going to actually be able to help you really find new material.

Rather than throwing up our hands and going back to standard genealogy online databases, let’s dig in and open up this world of invaluable sources that ArchiveGrid can reveal for free.

Archival materials

Archival materials include primary source documents. These are original records or objects created by people who participated in or observed historical events when it happened. They are really the evidence of history. They may also be memoirs and oral histories that were documented much later.

Many helpful and intriguing items like this are held at archives around the country. We’re talking about things like letters, manuscripts, old diaries, journals, personal papers, store registers, newspapers, maps, recorded speeches, interviews with people, documents produced by government agencies, photographs, audio or video recordings, and objects or artifacts. In more recent times they can be things like emails and research data. We’re talking about the raw materials historians use to interpret and analyze what’s happened in the past.

Unlike census records, these types of items might not yet be digitized or included as a collection on a genealogy website. In fact, there’s a ton of material that will likely never make it onto a genealogy website but could hold the key to a genealogical brick wall that you’re hitting.

Finding these kinds of items can be really challenging. If they’re held in an archive, which one? It’s not always going to be an archive near where your ancestors lived. And if it is an archive, how can you access it?

What is ArchiveGrid?

ArchiveGrid can help you find these unique sources and manuscripts held in an archive. It’s a little-known free website that is very much like WorldCat. If you’re not familiar with WorldCat, and really every genealogist should be, then check out my video on that. Essentially, WorldCat is an online catalog of content held at libraries around the world. We don’t usually access records themselves at WorldCat, although sometimes there are links directly to records held on other websites. Typically, though we search WorldCat looking for items we need, like books to find out where they are held. It can even tell us which library is closest to where we live and how to possibly borrow the item through interlibrary loan.

ArchiveGrid does essentially the same thing but for archives. In fact, it’s a companion website to WorldCat. Both are creations of the OCLC. It’s a catalog of information about items archived in over 1,500 archival collections. It’s not the records themselves, but information on who has the items and how to access them. And it includes close to 7 million archival item entries.

Don’t be discouraged at the idea that it’s not going to give you the instant gratification of clicking at looking at the records themselves. You’ve done that, and if you’re at a brick wall, you’re going to have to move beyond that into these lesser-known, closely held archival collections. ArchiveGrid can be invaluable to help you identify them and find them. ArchiveGrid focuses not on published items but (generally speaking) on unpublished ones and provide Finding Aid documents that are invaluable to locating a collection and understanding the scope of what it has to offer.

So, let’s be sure we are on the same page about what an archive is before we go looking for them.

What is an Archive?

Archives have been described as “an accumulation of historical records or materials – in any medium – or the physical facility in which they are located.

Archives contain primary source documents that have accumulated over the course of an individual or organization’s lifetime and are kept to show the function of that person or organization.”

When we hear the word archive, we may commonly think of a state archive. But an archived collection can also be held at a library, museum or historical society. Although it’s free for an archive to participate and include information about its collections, not all do. But this is the best place to start your search for archived items. If you don’t find it here, you can dig further online.

Searching at ArchiveGrid

There are two main types of searches: Location and Keyword.

Location Search

When you first arrive at the website the map really stands out. You can enter an ancestral location in the map search and ArchiveGrid will pin archives in that area.

These archives may hold materials related to your ancestors’ communities. Hover over the red markers to see the names of institutions. Click on them to find contact information and search their collections.

You can click a location link below the map and drill down from that. Notice that the archives aren’t limited to the U.S. This is a great way to see what’s in the area, and the kind of materials they have, which is perfect for preparing for a visit.

However, it’s very possible that an archived collection may not be held in an archive near an ancestor’s birthplace. It might be near where they died. Or it might be somewhere completely different. Collections land in archives in many different ways. That’s why keyword searches are often the better way to go.

Keyword Searches

The search box at the top of the screen allows you to search using keywords and Boolean search logic such as AND, OR, NOT, and parentheses. You can also use specific indexes for your search terms.

Consider what you want to learn. Do you want to find targeted records to answer a specific question? Do you want to locate materials that provide a deeper understanding of people, places, events, and organizations? Or perhaps you simply want to explore and browser. Here are some ideas to help you get started formulating your queries:

  • full name of a prominent ancestor
  • a surname along with a location (city, county, or state)
  • surname along with the words family, history, or genealogy
  • A place such as a city and state and the word history to learn more about the history of the area, or map
  • The name of a company, society, group, or organization and a location. Try entering a partial title or description with a place. (Example: Dunkards North Carolina)
  • A location and a type of records (ex: berks county PA marriage records)
Search ArchiveGrid

Finding and Exploring Search Results

  1. In the search box in the upper right part of the ArchiveGrid home page, enter search terms related to the manuscript items you hope to find, such as berks county pennsylvania marriage records. Then click Search. You’ll see a list of search results, such as these:
  2. Browse the search results. If you need to narrow or broaden your results, you can scroll to the bottom of the search results page and click the options you want.
  3. Click on items of interest to read more about them. Here’s what a typical ArchiveGrid catalog entry looks like:

The entry tells you more about the individual item. You may see:

  • when it was created,
  • a physical description of it
  • who or what organization created it
  • and even brief historical background
  • what repository holds it–and you can click under the name of that repository for its contact information.

Take your time to compare this information with your research question to determine if indeed the scope of this collection includes what you need. If it does, click the Contact Information button. This will take typically take you to the archive’s website.

From there you can determine if you can order copies, make a visit and view the item in person, or hire a local researcher to do that for you.

In this example, we very quickly found the archives address, phone number, email (to inquire for more specifics), and online appointment booking options.

If it’s not possible to make the visit in person, or the fees are high for research and copies, try turning to volunteer groups like the Random Acts of Genealogical Kindness Facebook groups. Often times you can find someone who lives close to the archives or even regularly researches there who would be happy to help.

Related Resources

Sometimes you’ll see Related Resources under the Details section. Here you might find a link to a WorldCat entry for the item, as in this case.

Click the link to discover more about the item. You may learn that other archives also have the item, and you can click the Borrow button to see if there are additional borrowing options available.

The Side Bar

As you can see, a sidebar to the right of this catalog entry offers several options. Let’s take a closer look.

More Like This includes categories such as people, places, groups, or topics. These links point to additional catalog items that are related in some way to the one you’re looking at. Think of it like browsing the stacks by topic at a library.

You can also sort all your search results this way from the main list of search results by clicking on Summary View.

Topics helps you better understand how ArchiveGrid organizes its material and the main topic they’ve identified for this collection. Click the topic listed to see more results in the category. It’s a good idea to right-click on the link and open it in a new web browser tab so that you retain the original entry without having to repeatedly click the Back button.

Genres also helps define the type of collection it is. It may say Genealogy indicating that, as in this case, birth records are open of interest to genealogy research. Or it may list the type of item it is such as Register Lists. Clicking Genre can lead to more records, although generally it’s not as productive as clicking related Topics.

Organizations can be very helpful in leading you to more relevant records. If you are reviewing a collection created by a specific organization (such as the Stroudsburgh Monthly Meeting of Friends) you likely may benefit from reviewing other types of collections created by that same organization. Even if they don’t directly relate to your ancestors, a quick review can help you better understand much more about the organization’s activities.

Places identify the area headings that these types of records can be found under. In this example, we see Berks County (PA) and Pennsylvania – Berks County. They are the same thing, but these places make us aware that there may be variations in the way the location is expressed in the catalog.

Clicking one of these places could lead to a large number of results, many of which will not be applicable to your research.  However, you can then go to the bottom of the page to further refine and narrow your search.

What is a Finding Aid?

In addition to Viewing the Catalog Record, the result may have a button called View the Finding Aid.

A finding aid is a sort of “road map” to a manuscript collection. The finding aid lists what is usually contained in the collection and is arranged in a folder-by-folder, box-by-box listing. When accessing manuscript collections at any archives, the finding aid will help the genealogist know what is in the collection.

The finding aid may be a print resource that you can access at the archive, or it may be online and searchable. At ArchiveGrid some finding aids will be on ArchiveGrid and others will take you to the Finding Aid on the archive’s website.

A finding aid often includes:

    • Title Page
    • Summary
    • Access and Use Section
    • Background info (history of the collection)
    • Scope, Content & Arrangement

Here’s an example of a finding aid at Lane Medical Archives at Stanford University.

Views: List and Summary

Your initial results will typically view in List View. Try clicking the Summary View tab to see your results grouped by name, topic, location and even repository. 

Search Strategies and Tools

Fewer Matches – Broaden or narrow your search by scrolling to the bottom of the page and click Fewer Matches. This will require your search terms to appear nearer to each other in the result.

Exact Matches – only results containing the exact phrase you searched for will appear in the results list.

More Matches  – You’ll get records that include one of your search terms but not necessarily all of them.

Boolean Operators typed into the search box in all caps will accomplish the following:

AND  – all words must appear in your results

OR – either word must appear in your results (example: Chas OR Charles Moore)

NOT – excludes results that contain the specified word (example: Lincoln Lumber Company NOT Abraham).

Quotes around a phrase – all results must include that exact phrase. Example: “Dameron Hospital”

Parentheses around a group of words – all results must include those words. Example: (Burkett family Ohio).

Tilde ~ and a number between 1 and 4  – the words within the specified phrase must appear within that number of words. For example: “dust bowl”~4 retrieves records that include the words dust and bowl within 4 words of each other. This is very helpful in situations where there might be a middle name or initial.

Combinations – These operators can also be used in combination such as “Lincoln Lumber Co” NOT Abraham.

Perhaps you’ve already exhausted the resources at the archive in your state and you want to find out if there are other repositories around the country that have related materials. You wouldn’t want to lose time combing through entries from your state archive. The answer is to search in such a way as to explain that to ArchiveGrid. Here’s an example of a search that will match descriptions of materials that include the phrase Mark Twain or Samuel Clemens, and archived anywhere except Virginia:

(“mark twain” OR “samuel clemens”) NOT location:virginia 

Searching Data Fields – It’s also possible to search within a particular repository. You can do this by specifying certain data fields to search. Example: archive:“library of virginia”.

More Specific Ways to Search

(Note that these operators are case-sensitive.)

title:oral history
archive:Atlanta Lumber MN war

Content with Links:

Some collection descriptions include links to images, sound recordings, or other online materials.

Search for items that have links to digital content by adding “has_links:1” to your search.

For example: 1918 influenza has_links:1

Search by Type:



Type:Marc (for MARC bibliographic records from WorldCat)


The world of available primary source documents just got bigger now that you can use ArchiveGrid to track them down. Wishing you many Genealogy Gems!


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How Tech Can Wreak Havoc with Genealogy (Audio Premium Podcast Episode 202)

How Tech Can Wreak Havoc with Genealogy (Audio Premium Podcast Episode 202)

Premium Podcast Show Notes: (Audio Version) A candid look at some of the ways technology has already wreaked havoc on genealogy. We’ll explore the example of the use of technology and “Artificial Intelligence” in the indexing of the 1950 US Federal Census. Then we’ll talk about how you can apply those learnings to your searches so you can enjoy the benefits of tech while side-stepping the pitfalls.

Premium Podcast episode 202

Listen to the Episode


Show Notes

Click here to read the full show notes online. You can also download the show notes PDF below in the Resources section. 


5 Family history things to do over the holidays

5 Family history things to do over the holidays

SHOW NOTES: Weave more family history into your holidays and get the whole family involved in capturing stories and finding joy in genealogy. Here are 5 ideas that will enrich your family gatherings. 

Family History Christmas Ideas

Video and Show Notes

Watch the Video

Show Notes

The show notes follow below. Premium Members can download the ad-free Show Notes handout .

#1 Stimulate conversation about family history during gatherings.

Christmas wreath

Watch the 4-part series Family History Christmas Wreath, part of the Family History Craft and Displays YouTube playlist.  It’s an old video series but you’ll get the step-by-step instructions you need to create a family history Christmas wreath.

Christmas Stocking

Watch Family History Crazy Quilt Christmas Stocking

Christmas candy

Check out the Premium video Inspiring Ways to Captivate the Non-Genealogists in Your Life which includes the template to create the candy bar lable.

Table Conversation Prompts

Suggested prompts:

  • Who is the oldest relative you remember meeting? Around what year were they born?
  • What was your favorite toy as a child?
  • Tell us about your most memorable Christmas.

#2. Record conversations

With permission of course! Use the Voice Memo app on your phone. 

#3. Mention your interest in family history in your cards to relatives

Even just a brief mention of your continued interest and genealogical activity might cause a relative to share a family photo, story or document.

#4. Have Family History Fun!

Family history and genealogy are fun and there are lots of ways to help your relatives see that.

Old Catalogs

Look up old catalogs and share memories of favorite toys, clothing and more. Here are three great places to find them:

Google Books: Sears Wish book results U.S., Historic Catalogs of Sears, Roebuck and Co., 1896-1993

Google search: Search for Sears Wish Book 1960…1970 (substitute the desired years)

Yearbooks & Photos

Look up high school photos in old yearbooks online. Screencast your phone to your TV screen so everyone can join in the fun. Here are two great sources for yearbooks:

MyHeritage AI Time Machine

Offer to run photos (adults only) through MyHeritage’s AI Time Machine

#5. Select one research project for the New Year.

Learn more about developing research questions by watching Avoid Rabbit Holes and Find More Genealogy

Watch Research Methodology videos and get the downloadable handouts (included with Genealogy Gems Premium Membership.)

Watch Using Evernote to Create a Research Plan (Premium)

Genealogy Gems Premium Membership

Click to learn more about Genealogy Gems Premium Membership.

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