Vertical files in archives are like Forrest Gump’s proverbial box of chocolates: you never know what you’re going to get. The Archive Lady Melissa Barker shows us the fabulous genealogy finds that may be awaiting you in an archive somewhere. The family history you may find may be even sweeter than your favorite truffles.
In the movie Forrest Gump, the character Forrest Gump says: “Life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re going to get.” In an archive, it can be said: “Vertical files are like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re going to get.” So, what are vertical files?
Vertical files in archives
Vertical files (or subject files as they are sometimes called) can be found in most state and local archives, historical societies, genealogical societies, libraries and even in some museum collections.
Vertical files are a collection of documents and ephemera that are put in file folders which are then put in filing cabinets and cataloged by surname or subject. These files could contain just about anything that can fit into a file folder. Most archives will create an index by the title on each folder but most of the time what is inside of each folder is not cataloged. Vertical files are sometimes seen as a “catch-all” or a “hodgepodge” for all those documents that don’t really go anywhere else but should not be discarded.
Images courtesy of Melissa Barker and Houston County, TN Archives.
Most archivists file family group sheets and genealogical information that has been donated to the archives in vertical files. Other wonderful items found in vertical files could be compiled family histories, photographs, and even receipts like the one shown here for E.E. Collison Jr’s Portrait and Landscape Photography studio.
Images courtesy of Melissa Barker and Houston County, TN Archives.
One of the most popular genealogical items to find in vertical files is newspaper clippings. These clippings could be an obituary, a marriage announcement, a birth announcement or just about anything that has been clipped from the newspaper. Above is an example: an advertisement for Skelton’s Super Market.
Accessing and using vertical files in archives
When doing genealogy research in an archive, ask the archivist if they have vertical files. These collections of records could be very valuable for genealogy research. Some archives don’t always advertise that they have a collection of vertical files, so it’s important that the researcher ask the archivist specifically about this collection. Vertical files are usually stored in back rooms of the archives but the index is available at the archivist’s front desk or they could be on the in-house computer.
Once you have found what interests you in the index, you can request the files that you would like to investigate further. The archivist will retrieve them and bring them to you, sometimes only one or two files at a time. Once you have received the files, you can look at each item and make copies of what is of interest to you and your genealogy research. When you have finished with the file, give it back to the archivist who will then bring other files you have requested.
So next time you are researching at an archive, ask if they have vertical files! Like that box of chocolates,”you never know what you are going to get.”
My motto is, “It’s not all online, contact or visit an archive today!” Read more articles about uncovering genealogy gems in original manuscript repositories–you may soon find yourself visiting one.
Melissa is a Certified Archives Records Manager, the Houston County, Tennessee Archivist and author of the popular blogA Genealogist in the Archivesand an advice columnist. She has been researching her own family history for the past 27 years.
You may be doing some “home archiving” without even realizing it, if you’re the keeper of any family photos, documents, heirlooms, or artifacts. Professional archivist and genealogist Melissa Barker offers these tips for the family historian and keeper of the family archive.
I have always said that “home archiving” is something genealogists do, perhaps without ever calling it that. So family historians can definitely benefit from learning how archivists work. Here are five ways to think like an archivist.
5 Home Archiving Tips for Family Historians
1. Learn to preserve family artifacts.
Archivists are always educating themselves on how to preserve certain items that have come to their archives. Genealogists inherit family heirlooms all the time. Learning how to preserve them is thinking like an archivist.
Tip: Preserving an item means keeping it from further deterioration. This may mean putting it in special storage materials, keeping it out of strong light, and storing it in a place that isn’t too hot, cold, or humid. Click here to read an article on humidity and your family archive.
2. Organize your “collection.”
A very important job for archivists is keeping their records collections organized so they know what they have and can pull them efficiently. Genealogists, as home archivists, would also benefit from keeping their genealogical records organized.
Archivists are always careful to use special materials such as archival file folders and boxes to put records and artifacts into for preservation. Genealogists should use archival materials to preserve and store their records just like archivists do.
Tip: Click here to read my article on how to archive family history documents. It’s packed with great tips and recommended products to store your items safely.
4. Keep the stories that go with your artifacts.
Telling the stories of the people that have come before us is also something that archivist try to do with the records they have in their care. Archivists do this by sharing their records collections with the public through displays, exhibits, and open houses. Genealogists should tell their ancestor’s stories by sharing their family histories with their families and passing down their ancestor’s stories to the next generation.
Tip: Create a meaningful display of artifacts in your own home. Group together items that tell a story, preferably unique, eye-catching items. Add framed copies of documents and photos (keep originals safely tucked away). Click here for some fantastic ideas from Lisa Louise Cooke on sharing your family history with the non-genealogists in your family.
5. Archive your own mementos.
Archivists collect today for tomorrow! Many archivists collect documents and artifacts that are produced today so they can be preserved for tomorrow. They collect items such as the high school graduation program, digitizing the local newspaper, and that local diner menu.
Genealogists do the same thing in their “home archiving” by collecting and preserving a funeral card, digital photographs they took at the grandbaby’s birthday, and the marriage invitation you received for your niece’s wedding.
Home Archiving, National Archiving: It’s all in the Genealogy Gems Podcast
Did you know I’m on Lisa Louise Cooke’s Genealogy Gems Podcast now? I chime in frequently with that “offline” archival perspective that’s so important in our research. Click here to see the list of recent episodes. In Episode 211, publishing this week, I report on a fascinating way you can help make collections from the National Archives more accessible to everyone. Why not listen in? It’s free!
New archival collections at your favorite repository may be the long-awaited key to solving your family history mysteries! But how can you keep up with what’s new at archives and libraries? Professional archivist Melissa Barker shares her favorite tips.
Many of us can say that our ancestors were living in a certain area and their records should be located at certain local archives, libraries, or genealogical or historical societies. Maybe we have even done research there in the past, either by visiting the facility, contacting them by phone or email, or using their records online. Records, photographs, ephemera, and artifacts are constantly being discovered and made available in all of our wonderful archives. Many of these records may not make it to microfilm or online, but they are so rich with family information. (Don’t know where to look? Click here to learn how to find archives and libraries near your ancestor’s locale.)
But trying to keep up with all the new records that are being processed in archives, libraries, and genealogical societies can make your head spin! So how are genealogists supposed to stay current?
3 Ways to Keep Up with New Archival Collections
1. Check the archives website. See if they have announced new records collections that are available for research (many archives do). The archives may even have a blog or newsletter that you can subscribe to, which will give you the latest news right at your fingertips. Not only will the archives announce new records that are available but they will even let their patrons know what has been recently donated to the archives and which records are currently being processed.
2. See if the archive has a social media presence. Archives like to post photos of new discoveries and records collections that are ready for the researcher. I know at the Houston County, TN. Archives I like to scan and post images of great documents or artifacts to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest. (Like the post pictured here that I shared recently.)
LISA’S TIP: Remember to use Google search terms to find your favorite archive’s website and social media homes! A quick search such as National Archives Pinterest might be faster than trying to find it on the actual social media site. That search brings up tempting boards for National Archives in both the US and the UK:
3. When visiting an archive, ask: “What’s new?” Talk to archivists about records collections that have recently been processed and made available for research. This is a great way to find more information and records about your ancestors. As an archivist who processes records on a daily basis that are not online or even microfilmed, I get excited about sharing what I find with the genealogy community.
Until next time, this is The Archive Lady, remember it’s not all online, so contact or visit an archive today!
Learn More about Using Archival Collections
Listen to me on the free Genealogy Gems Podcast! This year the podcast is celebrating its 10th-year anniversary. Tune in to hear more inspiring stories and tips to help your family history research. Listen on your computer or on your mobile device through the Genealogy Gems app. Click here to learn more.
Betty has at least 130 good reasons to use Google Books for genealogy! She used this powerful Google tool to find her ancestor’s name in a book–which led to a treasure trove of his original letters in an archive. Here’s what happened–and how to try this with your own family history research.
You’ve heard me say that Google Books is the tool I turn to every day. Now, you may be thinking, “But my ancestors wouldn’t be in history books!” Resist the temptation to make assumptions about sources, and about your ancestors. With over 25 million books, Google Books is more likely to have something pertinent to your genealogy research than you think. And as I often tell my audiences, those books can include source citations, providing a trail to even more treasures.
Why to Use Google Books for Genealogy: Success Story!
At the National Genealogical Society conference this past spring, Betty attended my class and then stopped by the Genealogy Gems booth to share her story. I recorded it, and here’s a transcription:
Betty: I was stuck on my Duncan Mackenzie ancestor, so I put his name in Google Books, because when you’re stuck, that’s what you do!
Lisa: Yes, I do!
Betty: So, up popped this history of Mississippi, it was sort of a specific history, and it said Duncan Mackenzie had written a letter to his brother-in-law in North Carolina from Covington County, Mississippi. And of course I already had my tax records and my census records that placed him in Covington County. This was in the 1840s. I thought, this just couldn’t be him! Why would any of my relatives be in a book? [Sound familiar?]
So, finally, weeks later, it occurred to me to go back and look at the footnotes in the book, and I found that the letters could be found in the Duncan McLarin papers at Duke University. So, I didn’t even think to even borrow the microfilm. I just told my husband, “next time you go East for work, we need to go by Duke University.” So I set up a time, and I went, and it WAS my great-great-grandfather who wrote those letters! I have now transcribed 130 letters from that collection. They let me scan them all, and I’ve been back again to scan the rest of the legal papers.
Lisa: So, an online search into Google Books not only help you find something online, but it led you to the offline gems!
Betty: And it just changed my life! Because I spend all my time on these letters. It’s distracted me from other lines! [LOL! I get that!]
How to Use Google Books for Genealogy
Are you ready to put Google Books to work in your own research and discover some genealogy gems of your own? Here, I re-create Betty’s search for you, so you can see how to get started:
1. Go to Google Books (books.google.com). Enter search terms that would pertain to your ancestor, like a name and a place.
2. Browse the search results. The first three that show up here all look promising. Click on the first one.
3. Review the text that comes up in the text screen. As you can see here, Duncan McKenzie of Covington County is mentioned–and the source note at the bottom of the page tells you that the original letter cited in the book is at Duke University.
Learn More about Using Google Books for Genealogy
Learn more by watching my free Google Books video series at the Genealogy Gems YouTube Channel. Click the video below to watch the first one. (And be sure to subscribe while you’re there, because there are more videos to come!)
Then, watch the video below for a quick preview of my full one hour video class (and downloadable handout) called Google Books: The Tool You Need Every Day!, available to all Genealogy Gems Premium Members.
Original manuscript records may reveal genealogical gems about your ancestors. Find these old records in archives around the country using this little-known, free online tool: ArchiveGrid.
Manuscript records such as old diaries, letters, vital record collections, military documents, church registers, store ledgers, school and even business records can be genealogical gems. But finding original manuscript collections in archives and libraries can be difficult. Which archive has it? What’s the collection called? How can you access it?
ArchiveGrid can help
A little-known free website can help you locate old documents and manuscript items available in over 1,500 different archival collections. It’s called ArchiveGrid, and it currently includes close to 5 million archival item entries!
ArchiveGrid is a companion website to WorldCat, the free online catalog of millions of library items from thousands of libraries. The difference is that ArchiveGrid focuses not on published items but (generally-speaking) on unpublished ones.
Use the map view, shown above on the left side, to identify archival collections that are near your ancestors’ home. 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.
Search for specific manuscript items in ArchiveGrid
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 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. You’ll see what repository holds it–and you can click under the name of that repository for its contact information. You may be able to order copies, visit to view the item in person, or hire a local researcher to do that for you.
As you can see, a sidebar to the right of this catalog entry says More Like This, with categories like 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—it’s something 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.)
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.