Family history can be found in many places. We turn to steadfast repositories such as libraries, archives and historical societies. And these days we can also search online at free genealogy websites like FamilySearch, and subscription websites like MyHeritage and Ancestry. All have something unique to offer.
Most importantly, we start our search at home, talking to our oldest relatives and combing through old family papers. We then turn our attention to the family photo albums and scrapbook on the bookshelf, and old home movies if we are lucky enough to have them.
The great news is that the closets in your home are not the only place where you can potentially find old film footage pertaining to your family’s past. The largest online video repository in the world is YouTube (which is owned by Google), and it is the perfect place to look for film. That’s why I’m so excited to share some of my YouTube search strategies from my new book The Genealogist’s Google Toolbox, 3rd Edition. These strategies can help you find old home movies (from your family or someone else’s family that came in contact with your family), news and newsreel films, documentaries, amateur and professional film footage, and countless other subjects that can shed more light on your family’s history.
How to Find Family History on YouTube in 5 Steps
Does finding your family history on YouTube sound unlikely? Believe me, it’s not. YouTube is a treasure trove if you know how to search it. Here are 5 steps from my Google Search Methodology for Genealogy and how to apply them specifically to YouTube.
Step #1. Create a Search Plan
Just like genealogy research, successful Googling, even on YouTube, requires a plan. Rather than searching willy-nilly, take a few moments to determine what it is you hope to find. Having a search plan will save you a lot of time and frustration!
The key to a good research question and plan is to be specific. This means that instead of just searching for family names or places, you have a specific event, place, and / or time frame in mind.
Below is a great example of searching with a specific plan in mind that I received from one of my Genealogy Gems Podcast listeners a while back. I have bolded the keywords that she incorporated into her YouTube search.
From Carol K.: “I really enjoyed (Genealogy Gems) Podcast (episode) #223, particularly the segment with David Haas MD. (Editor’s note: that episode covers Dr. Haas’ vast collection of old home movies and his quest to upload them all to YouTube.)
I had tried researching YouTube for something about my family, including where they settled in Connecticut. I had not come up with much when I decide to search my dad’s ship, The USS Tuscaloosa (Image 1).
Image 1: Carol’s father, Mario Ponte, served on the USS Tuscaloosa
My dad, Mario Ponte, served in the Navy from 1936-1939 (Image 2).
Image 2: Mario DaRin Ponte beside the USS Tuscaloosa – July 27, 1937
I knew he had been on a Goodwill South American Cruisein1939 (Image 3) as he talked about it often and I even have the Cruise Book from that voyage.
image 3: U.S.S. Tuscaloosa South American Good Will Cruise route April – June 1939
On a goodwill tour of South America in 1939, three US cruisers found little goodwill in this angry sea. Newsreel cameras aboard the USS San Francisco recorded this epic struggle of the ships which included the USS Quincy and USS Tuscaloosa.
I don’t recall my father ever mentioning this to me, but my husband said he had heard the story. I only wish my dad were here to share this memory with me. At least, I have been able to share this treacherous event with many in my family.
When you see the tossing, turning and huge waves in the video, I feel they were lucky to have survived. Just think, if they hadn’t, I wouldn’t be here to tell this story today.
Thanks Lisa and David. I’m now convinced that YouTube can be used for genealogy and to add to our stories.”
Carol’s fascinating success can be directly tied to the fact that she developed a research plan focused on specific information.
2. Craft Your YouTube Search Query
As you can see, Carol didn’t just search YouTube for her Dad’s name. In fact, unless your ancestor was famous in some way, that is likely not a strategy that will pay off.
Instead, she assembled the pertinent information and used that in her query. Here are the keywords and phrases I pulled from her email:
The USS Tuscaloosa
Goodwill South American Cruisein1939
Navy from 1936-1939
I included her dad’s name in this list because it never hurts to run your ancestor’s name through a search just in case something pops up. You never know what might be on YouTube. For example, perhaps a childhood friend has uploaded an old home movie to YouTube and named him as being in the movie too!
When conducting your initial YouTube search, include all the important information. If the results are unsatisfactory, you can always remove or add search terms. Since we can’t be sure what if anything is on YouTube pertaining to our research subject, we have to be flexible, and that means expecting to run several variations of our search. We’ll talk more about that in step 3.
In Carol’s case, her research plan was focused on finding a video pertaining to the U.S.S. Tuscaloosa’s Goodwill cruise that her father participated in. She could start with a search such as:
USS Tuscaloosa Goodwill South American Cruise in 1939
The results for this search query are excellent and include the video that Carol found:
Image 4: YouTube search for family history
3. Analyze Your YouTube Search Results
Even though these results successfully delivered the video that satisfied our research plan, we would miss tremendous opportunity if we didn’t take a few extra moments to further analyze the results. You never know what else might be out there!
Here are just a few of the things you should be looking for when reviewing your YouTube results:
LOOK FOR: Should I be more specific in my search query?
Look at our search results (Image 4 above). What stands out to me is that there appear to be many different videos on YouTube about war time ships and cruisers. This is great for family historians, but it means that there are more results to look through than we might have expected.
As you have probably experienced in the past, not all the words in our search query are included in every search result we receive. There is a way to quickly and easily find only videos that specifically mention the words and phrases we want to find. By putting quotation marks around “U.S.S. Tuscaloosa” we can tell YouTube to only give us videos that mention that exact phrase.
When Google searching (and Google is the search engine under the hood of YouTube), quotation marks function as a search operator. They tell Google specific instructions about what to do with our word or phrase. In this case, they tell Google that the phrase is mandatory, and must appear exactly as typed and spelled. The one exception is the periods in U.S.S. Generally speaking, Google disregards punctuation, so it ignores the periods. It doesn’t matter whether you include them or not.
It is important to note that operators don’t always work as consistently in YouTube as they do in regular searches at Google.com. That being said, it’s great to have a variety of tools that we can use to improve our searches, and they are definitely worth a try. My book includes a wide range of additional search operators and how to use them.
Running a second search on “USS Tuscaloosa” opens many new video opportunities (Image 5):
Image 5: Search results for a query containing the quotation marks search operator.
This search not only includes the 1939 tour, but also other videos of the ship that may also be applicable to the family’s history. As you can see, sometimes less words in a search is more!
LOOK FOR: What do the unwanted video results have in common? Sometimes you may notice that you are receiving many results that are not a good match for what you are looking for. When this happens, take a look at your results and try to come up with words that are associated with the unwanted videos, and have no relevance to your goal.
Image 6 (below) is an example of search results in YouTube for the following query:
USS Tuscaloosa Goodwill Cruise in 1939
Image 6: Identify unwanted videos and words in the YouTube search results
While the results page includes a few good matches, it also includes current videos about quarantines on ships which is a viral topic at the time of this writing. Since these are not applicable to our search plan, we will want to eliminate them, and we will do that in Step 4.
4. Improve Upon Your YouTube Search Results
In a case like the one above (Image 6) where you are receiving several video results not applicable to your research goal, you can try literally subtract the unwanted words that you identified in Step 3 from your search. In most cases, this should remove the videos that contain those words in their title or description.
To do this, use the minus sign (-) search operator in conjunction with the word. Here’s an example of how we can do that with this search:
USS Tuscaloosa Goodwill Cruise in 1939 -quarantine
This search will remove the results that mention quarantine.
You can subtract multiple words from your query if you wish. Each word should have a minus sign touching it, and there should be a space between each subtracted word as in this example:
USS Tuscaloosa Goodwill Cruise in 1939 -quarantine -princess -coronavirus
Googling, whether at YouTube, Google.com or any of the other free Google tools, is an art form, not a black and white science. We need to try variations in order to learn from what works and what doesn’t. To reach our goals, we need to try adding in more of what we want, and removing what we don’t want. In this case I would also try adding to my query that that cruise was in South America, and that the phrase USS Tuscaloosa is mandatory. Here’s what that search query would look like:
“USS Tuscaloosa” Goodwill South American Cruise in 1939 -quarantine
Remember, we’re not going for perfect results, we’re mining all the different “veins” in the YouTube gold mine by running multiple versions of the same basic query. Feel free to experiment with mixing and matching keywords and operators. The results may be worth it!
Learn more about Google Search operators in my video:
GOOGLE GURU TIP: Conduct each variation of your search in a new browser tab. This allows you to compare the results side-by-side while retaining each query, making it easy to return to the queries that are performing the best.
You can also potentially improve upon your YouTube search results by using the Tools button to reveal the secondary filter menu. (Image 7)
Image 7: Click “Filter” to reveal the YouTube search filter options
These filters won’t prove useful in every case, but they do offer some handy options for narrowing the scope of your search.
5. Capitalize on Your Results
When you find a video that meets your research goals, there’s a good chance that the person or company that uploaded and published the video (publishers are called “Creators” by YouTube) may have more videos on that subject. Here’s a quick and easy way to find out.
On the video page, you will see the name of the Creator right below the video in the left corner. (Image 9)
Image 9: More videos found on YouTube
Click the YouTube Creator’s name. This will take you to their YouTube channel. Every Creator who has published a video has a YouTube channel. It’s sort of like their own home page for their videos. There you will be able to see and search any additional videos they have published. Click Videos to see all their videos. (Image 10)
Image 10: More videos on the Creator’s YouTube channel
If the channel has a lot of videos, click Playlists in the channel’s menu to see how they are grouped by topic. You can also search the channel for keywords and phrases by clicking the small magnifying glass icon on the far right end of the menu.
A Bright Future for Family History on YouTube
In Step 3 we analyzed the search results for Carol’s YouTube search. Let’s take another look at those results:
Image 8: Over time new videos are uploaded to YouTube waiting to be found.
It’s interesting to note that in addition to the video that Carol found which was published 4 years ago, another video on this topic was published a year later.
It’s estimated that more than 500 hours of video is being uploaded to YouTube every minute. This is up from the 400 hours per minute announced in 2015 by YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki.
Among that vast storehouse of film footage I’ve found countless videos that have enhanced my family’s story. And readers just like you email me the gems they unearth. I love receiving these success stories. Thank you to Carol for sharing hers! If you make an exciting discovery using these strategies please share them in the Comments. It will inspire us all to continue our search.
The bottom line is that the potential for finding your family history on YouTube grows dramatically minute by minute, so don’t wait another minute!
Have you found all the school records there are to be had for your ancestors? Most of us haven’t, and the chances are very good that there are still some gems out there waiting to be found. Here are ten solid strategies that will help you track them down for your genealogy research.
Watch episode 82 below.
Because the movement for compulsory public education didn’t begin until the 1920s, many people assume that there few records to be had for genealogical purposes prior to that time. The reality couldn’t be further from the truth. Many children attended school much earlier.
In fact, it may be surprising to learn that the first public school in what is now the United States opened in the 17th century. On April 23, 1635, the first public school was established in Boston, Massachusetts.
Illustration of the Boston Latin School by Ebenezer Thayer, courtesy of Wikimedia
It was a boys-only public secondary school called the Boston Latin School, and it was led by schoolmaster Philemon Pormont, a Puritan settler. The school was strictly for college preparation, and produced well-known graduates including John Hancock and Samuel Adams. It’s most famous dropout? Benjamin Franklin! The school is still in operation today, though in a different location.
Thousands of schools serving millions of students have been established in the U.S. since the inception of the Boston Latin School. (According to 2015-16 data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) there are 132,853 K-12 schools in the U.S.) This means that the chances of there being school records for your ancestors is great indeed!
10 Solid Strategies for Finding School Records for Genealogy
Here are 10 proven ways to find your ancestors’ awkward yearbook photos, sports triumphs, and much, much more.
1. Establish a Timeline of your Ancestor’s Education
Check your genealogy software database to figure out when your ancestor would have attended high school or college. Keep in mind, as recently as the 1960s, children did not go to Kindergarten but may have started school at about 6 years old and beginning in First Grade.
To keep my search organized, I decided to create a simple worksheet form in a Word document. It allows me to identify the right time frames, locations, and other pertinent information for my search, and record my progress along the way.
2. Consult Family Papers and Books for School Records
Go through old family papers and books looking for things like:
senior calling cards,
high school autograph books,
journals and diaries,
fraternity or sorority memorabilia,
yearbooks and more.
When I dug through boxes and my grandmother’s cedar chest I found several records like…
a Report Card:
My grandmother’s brother’s 6th grade report card found among family papers.
Grandma’s class picture from the 7th grade in 1925, Chowchilla, California. She is in the back row on the far right, and her brother is the boy in the center of the back row:
Grandma (back row, far right) with her 7th grade class.
And Grandma’s senior portrait, 1930:
Grandma’s senior portrait from 1930
3. Google for Academic Family History
From the professional website of the state archives to the family history site cobbled together by a cousin you’ve never met, the potential for finding school records on the vast expanse of the internet is limitless! Google is the tool to help you locate websites that include school-related records with lightning speed.
Since I’m not sure which school my grandmother attended, I started off my search for my grandmother’s school with a simple query for the history of schools in the county where she lived as a child:
Google search for the history of school’s in the county
I was pleasantly surprised at the first search result. It’s a newspaper article from the Madera Tribune literally outlining the history of how the schools evolved in the county! It details such things as the driving forces behind where schools were located, when they were founded, and which ones at the time of the article were no longer in existence.
History of Madera Schools Outlined in the Madera Tribune, September 1955.
Next, I focused my attention on the grade school listed on Grandma’s brother’s 6th grade report card that I discovered during my search of family papers. I Googled the name of the school, county and state.
A search like this can literally deliver millions of results. In fact, this specific search brings up over 1 million search results.
You can typically reduce the unwanted search results by 90% by using search operators. These symbols and words give Google further instructions on what you want done with the words you are searching.
While I cover a large number of operators in my book The Genealogist’s Google Toolbox, I’m going to use just one of the most popular to dramatically improve my search for the Sharon school.
In the example below I put quotation marks around the name of the school. Doing this explains to Google that I want this phrase to appear exactly as I typed it in every single search result. You’ve probably noticed that when you search a phrase by itself, you’ll receive results that include only one of the words, or the words spelled differently, or in a different order. The quotation marks search operator prevents this from happening. It mandates that the phrase appear on every result exactly as you typed it.
Using Search Operators to Google the Grade School
Notice that I didn’t put quotation marks around the county name or the state. I recommend using search operators sparingly, at least in your initial search, to ensure that you don’t miss out on good results. If I were to put quotations marks around “Madera county” I would not receive any web pages that do mention Sharon School but just don’t happen to mention Madera County as a phrase.
Notice also that this search resulted in just over 11,000 results, a small fraction of what I would have received had I not used the quotation marks! Even more important is that the results on the first few pages of are all very good matches.
I could try a few more variations such as adding words like history, genealogy or records.
My googling led me to the Internet Archive where I found old silent color movies shot in the 1940s. There were several films and one featured the local school in the area where my relatives lived. Many, many people were filmed! Could one of those faces be one of my relatives?! Learn more about finding genealogical information includes school records by watching and reading 10 Awesome Genealogy Finds at the Internet Archive.
Click image to watch episode 43.
4. Search Newspapers
Historic newspaper are also a wonderful source of honor rolls, school sporting events and anything else having to do with school life.
While there are certainly more historic newspapers online than ever before, it’s still a fraction of what is available.
Click the U.S. Newspaper Directory button at Chronicling America
On the Directory search page, enter the state, county and town:
Search the U.S. Newspaper Director for the school location.
On the results page, click the “View complete holding information” link:
Click “View the holdings”
Now you can view all of the known available locations for this item:
The item I searched for has three known locations.
In my case, the Chowchilla newspaper of the early 20th century has not been digitized and is not available online. However, the California State Archives in Sacramento has an extensive collection of microfilm. I was able to make the trip in person, and was certainly glad I did! They not only had the newspaper I needed but also countless other resources that were helpful for my genealogical research.
My Grandma listed by name in the newspaper for making the Freshman high school honor roll.
Here are additional resources to help you find newspapers for your school records research:
Local newspapers can also be found by searching for the public library website in the town where your ancestor attended school. Check the library’s online card catalog or contact them directly to see what newspapers they have and whether any can be loaned (on microfilm) through inter-library loan.
Click here to search Genealogy Bank – (This page includes a 7 day free trial option.) This popular subscription website has over 11,000 newspaper, 95% of which Genealogy Bank says are exclusive to their website.
5. Consult U.S. State Archives and Libraries
The public libraries and state archives across the country are a treasure trove of genealogical resources, and that includes school-related records.
While it’s easy to stop by your local library for a search, it may not be as easy to make your way to the public library in the town where your ancestors lived. Turn to the internet to do your homework regarding the repositories, their holdings, and the most convenient and economical way for you to access them.
Click here to read Archivist Melissa Barker’s article called Using Vertical Files in Archives.
6. Contact State Historical and Genealogical Societies
In addition to newspapers, state historical and genealogical societies might have old yearbooks, school photograph collections or other records. For example, the Ohio Genealogical Society library has a large collection of Ohio school yearbooks.
Local historical and genealogical societies may also have school memorabilia in their small or archived collections.
To find contact information for a local historical or genealogical society, Google the name of the county and state and add the words genealogy, history and / or society at the end. For example: Darke County Ohio genealogy society.
7. Search for Online Yearbooks
One of the most exciting genealogical record collections to have come out in recent times is Ancestry.com’s U.S. School Yearbooks 1900-1999 collection. It is an indexed collection of middle school, junior high, high school, and college yearbooks from across the United States.
In June of 2019 Ancestry replaced old records with new updated records for most of the yearbooks found on the site. They also added new records from 150,000 yearbooks that previously only had images available. Later in August of 2019 they improved the collection even further by adding a staggering 3.8 million new records. This update also included 30,000 new image-only books.
Ancestry also has an extensive indexed collection of middle school, junior high, high school, and college yearbooks for Canada. Click here to search the Canadian collection.
MyHeritage has an international collection of yearbooks. In the menu under Research go to the Collection Catalog and search for Schools & Universities.
Additional websites featuring yearbooks include:
Old-Yearbooks.com – According to the website, “Old-Yearbooks.com is a free genealogy site, displaying old yearbooks, class rosters, alumni lists, school photos and related school items. All materials on this site are the property of the submitter. You may not use the images, text or materials elsewhere, whether in print or electronically, without written permission from the submitter or this site.”
Classmates.com – “Register for free to browse hundreds of thousands of yearbooks! You’ll find classic photos of friends, family, and even your favorite celebrities. Viewing the books is always free, and you can purchase a high-quality reprint.”
E-Yearbook.com – Their goal is to digitize all old high school, college & military yearbooks. The site has millions of yearbook pictures digitized, they say they are adding thousands of new pictures every week. “From our estimates, we offer the largest collection of old high school, college and military yearbooks on the Internet today.”
8. Check Township Archives
You might be thinking you didn’t read that right, but you did. Townships are small areas within the county. These small townships may have their own archives or one room museums. They are often the holders of some pretty one-of-a-kind finds.
The best way to determine what the township may have is to contact the township trustees. Google your township name, the county name, state name, and add the word trustee. You will likely need to give one of the trustees’ a phone call to ask what resources might be available.
The auction website ebay is the perfect place to look for school record and memorabilia, particularly hard-to-find yearbooks.
Conduct a search on the school or town you are looking for to see if anyone is selling a yearbook that you want. (You’ll need a free ebay account to do this.) Also, search for old photographs or postcards of the school building that you can add to your family history.
Initial search for school items at ebay
When I searched for Chowchilla California School, several auctions for school-related items from Grandma’s high school came up. Unfortunately, these are auctions for yearbooks after she had already graduated. But no worries! This search is only for today. Tomorrow someone could put up an auction for exactly what I want. There’s only one problem: no one has enough time to search every single day!
A way to save time and ensure that you don’t miss new auction items is to save your search.
Click the Save this search button toward the top of the page:
Click the Save button to save the search you just ran.
By doing this, you will be sent an email any time a new auction comes up that meets your search criteria. You can learn more about setting up ebay saved searches for family history by listening to Genealogy Gems Podcastepisode #140.
Here’s another one of my favorite strategies: After you run your initial search, check the box on the results page to include completed listings.
Click the Completed search box in the left hand column
In the revised “Completed” search results you may see some items that are of interest. If the item has a green price, it means the item was sold. If the price is black, it did not sell.
Each item will also have a link that says View Similar Active Items. Click that to see a list of items currently for sale that are very similar to one that you wanted.
You can also contact the seller of any item to inquire about the unsold item or to ask whether they have related items.
Bought on ebay: A yearbook from the school where my husband’s grandfather was a music teacher
I bought the yearbook above on ebay several years ago. It includes several photographs of my husband’s grandfather who was a music teacher at the high school back in the 1940s.
10. Call the School
If the school is still in operation, try calling the main office of the administration office. They may have old yearbooks and scrapbooks in their library or on display. If they don’t, they may very well be able to tell you where they can be found.
You can obtain contact information by Googling the name of the school and the location.
Good times to try calling a school are mid-morning after kids are settled into class, or between 3 and 4:00 pm local time, when many of the kids have gone home but the school office is still open.
Tell Us About the School Records You Find
Using these strategies you are bound to find more school records for your genealogical search. Please leave a comment below and share what you found, where you found it, and which strategy you used. It will inspire us all to keep looking! And if you have a favorite strategy that we didn’t mention here, please do share that too.
On their website, the U.S. National Archives states their mission is to: “provide public access to Federal Government records in our custody and control. Public access to government records strengthens democracy by allowing Americans to claim their rights of citizenship, hold their government accountable, and understand their history so they can participate more effectively in their government.” (Source: https://www.archives.gov/about/history/about/history/history-and-mission)
Shockingly, as of February 2022 the archives has not been fulfilling that mission for nearly two years! (Source: Visit each facility web page listed at https://www.archives.gov/locations)
Please share and help get the word out.
My guests Geoff Gentilini, President of the Archival Researchers Association, and Jessica Taylor president of the international genealogy research firm, Legacy Tree Genealogists explain:
Geoff Gentilini is the president of the Archival Researchers Association. He is a professional researcher specializing in military records, individual veteran searches, unit histories, and family history research. He is the owner and project manager of Golden Arrow Research. In 2011, Geoff devised a unique process to rebuild the service histories of individual WWI, WW2 & Korean War veterans whose personnel records were lost in the 1973 archives fire. His work has enabled thousands of descendants to gain a better understanding of their ancestors’ military service. He is the president of the Archival Researchers Association, an organization that has been instrumental in advocating (to Congress) for an increase in the budget of the National Archives.
Jessica M. Taylor serves as president of international genealogy research firm, Legacy Tree Genealogists, and as a board member for the Association of Professional Genealogists, the Genealogy Business Alliance, and the Association of Genealogy Educators and Schools. With a degree in Family History – Genealogy and over 20 years of experience, Jessica loves contributing to the genealogy community and pushing the industry forward to better help others discover their roots.
The Scope of the Records at the National Archives
Lisa: Can you give our audience a quick overview of the scope of the records that are housed at the National Archives?
Geoff: There are about 46 facilities, including 15, presidential libraries, 14 archives, 17, federal record centers, and these are spread out across the country. They contain more than 13 billion textual records, 20 million photographs, 40 million aerial images, there’s 75,000 miles of film. These records tell our national story. The holdings are massive.
Today, something like 1% of this material is online. Researchers access the other 99% of these records in our nation’s public research rooms, which are scattered across the country.
I think the National Archives has the goal of digitizing somewhere near 3% of these records by the year 2024. But as we all know, just because something is digitized, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s going to be online or usable for research.
Jessica: The first time he said, you know, 99% of the records are digitized, I said “no way, there’s no way that that could be true.” So he sent me information that’s put up by the archives, and I did the math. And I said, “Holy cow, you know, it’s absolutely true.” There are records there that you can’t get any other way, besides going in person to get those records.
Lisa: I did an entire hour show on the National Archives website last year, and it got on my radar as well, that as wonderful as the site is, and it’s got some access to some things, it’s such a tiny fraction! This means there’s a treasure trove remaining, but you have to access it in person.
Jessica, that leads us to the research rooms because that’s where we gain access to the records. What and where are the research rooms? And who uses them?
Jessica: There are 14 National Archives research rooms spread around the country. Washington, DC has a major one. There’s one nearby in College Park, Texas, a few on the West Coast, one in Missouri. So they’re spread out throughout the country.
Each one of these research rooms has different records. So, like we said, they’re all paper still, and in different facilities. If you want a certain type of record, you have to go to that facility to get it.
The people who use these research rooms are obviously genealogists, that’s my primary interest in them, historians, authors, filmmakers, and lots of use for veterans. There are educators, students, I mean, there are so many groups who need these records and have been on hold.
I have a friend who is working on a book that she’s had to put on hold for two years because she needs the information that’s in one of the archives. She can’t complete the book until the archives opens.
The Impact of the Research Rooms Closures
Lisa: Geoff, I know that you work a lot at the National Archives in St. Louis, can you explain to our audience the significance of that particular location, and its closure, and particularly on veterans? How are they affected?
Geoff: The Research Room in St. Louis is really special because it contains the personnel records and military records that tell the story of the men and women who served in the armed forces. These are records from World War I, World War II, the Korean War all the way up through Vietnam, and later.
Many living veterans and veterans’ advocates rely on researchers to work on these more complex research cases. They help to reverse denied benefits claims in many cases. This type of work has been stalled for two years!
From the historical record side of things, this is the work that I used to do primarily in St. Louis. I would rebuild the service histories, the individuals whose records were lost in the 1973 fire, primarily veterans of World War II but also World War I, and the Korean War. Families who really knew nothing about their loved ones service could gain closure by understanding their contribution to the war effort.
This research in St. Louis also helps to do things like correct grave markers for veterans and locate the remains of fallen soldiers who were lost on the battlefield.
At this point, there hasn’t even been a minimal reopening in St. Louis, the way that there was at some other research locations.
Lisa: You’re talking about veteran records. I imagine that people are trying to verify benefits. Don’t you guys work with people who volunteer to help veterans get the records they need so that they can apply for their benefits or is that stalled?
Geoff: Yeah. There is a massive backlog right now of requests that come in from veterans and their families for DD 214 records. These are like the military discharges that you can use to when you’re seeking benefits to get a home loan and things like that. What has happened is that the historical research portion of the archives there has not been reopened, because of that enormous backlog. But at this point, it’s been two years, and they’ve sort of locked the doors. But that that backlog is still growing. The St. Louis Research Room is also a smaller Research Room, and we believe it can be reopened by leaving a smaller footprint.
Lisa: Jessica, can you give us a sense of the financial impact of these closings on the people who rely on access to the research rooms for their work?
Jessica: When when COVID first hit in 2020, and they were closed, that’s the time period when I got in contact with Geoff. What drew me to trying to help his organization initially was people like Geoff who are completely out of work. Their businesses revolve around access to archives, to the National Archives, to specific facilities in specific regions. And so, I thought, wow, I’ve got to help them be able to work again, right?
So we’ve tried and now two years have gone by, and I just can’t imagine how these people are faring. Because they’ve been out of work for two years. I just talked with somebody on LinkedIn who reached out about this petition, and he was so thankful that we have this petition and said, “Well, I’ve been so frustrated. I was actually told, you know, shame on me for building my business model around relying on the National Archives.” And I thought wow, how sad that we can’t rely on the National Archives to open. It just hurts my heart. I mean, beyond that, there is this author I mentioned who is trying to finish her book can’t finish it. It’s been two years!
And of course, we have many clients who have ordered genealogical research that we can’t finish. Many have asked for refunds, because two years is a long time to wait for something like this. So unfortunately, it definitely has had an impact in the genealogy industry and other industries as well.
Geoff: The work that we do is important work. It’s specialized skills, too. And after two years, we’re starting to see our colleagues quit and move on to other things, because how long can you sustain yourself without being able to access these records that enable you to do your job? So that that’s something else too. It’s a loss for the public. We’re losing the expertise and the people that help to tell these stories by accessing these records.
Will the National Archives Reopen?
Lisa: Let’s talk about the reopening because right now, we’ve looked at two full years of closure and lack of access. I was doing some research in anticipation of getting together and talking today and I was looking at what the National Archives is saying about their policy and what they call high, medium and low risk. Even if the risk is considered low, they’re not saying full reopening. They’re talking about appointments and screenings and things.
I know that David S. Ferriero, Archivist of the United States, put out a letter, the most recent one I could find was November 8 of 2021. He says “at low transmission level staff will be on site to complete all types of work, and research rooms are expected to remain open by appointment only.”
Geoff, does that sound like an organization that’s planning on and anxious to get back to full time access?
Geoff: Yes, well, it certainly sounds like a difficult system for someone who would need to be able to do their job five days a week and get in there and really access these records in the way that we need to, to do our jobs. We really are trying to look past that. The restrictions, until we can get back to a level of normalcy, at least in the level of access to records, the sliding scale system with the case rates, and how they open and close. This appears to be how the federal government has structured things for the agencies that fall underneath of the executive branch, the IRS, and the Social Security Administration. Some of this is out of the hands of the archives management.
Other things we think they might be able to do when they do open to kind of prioritize the research rooms and get them back to functioning at pre pandemic levels. That’s really what we’re seeking. We kind of feel like where there’s a will there’s a way. And when 99% of the records that you work with are physical, it really demands that you have the staff and be open to meet that public demand.
Lisa: I noticed on the petition website, which we are going to talk about, there is a way that our viewers can help try to get the message forward to those in power to make a different decision and maybe open this up.
One of the things that’s interesting is that the museum in the Washington DC area is open. It’s in the same building as the research rooms, and those are closed.
Geoff, have they told you anything about ‘here’s the mark, here’s the goalpost? When this happens, we will welcome you all back.’ Do you have any sense of what that place is?
Geoff: I think that the pandemic has been so unpredictable that no one is willing to make any type of you know, there’s no clarity. Everyone is sort of seeking cover. And in this hyper partisan environment that we live in today, nobody’s willing to kind of stick their neck out and say, ‘Well, this is what we’re going to do to take initiative, be imaginative.’ And that’s really what we need so that we can function in a type of new normal when it comes to research.
We know that we’ve got vaccines – 95% of the federal workforce is vaccinated. I believe that you have to either show proof of vaccination status to get inside of the archives or show that you’ve had a negative test. And then of course, you’re required to wear a mask. So, there are things in place to make sure that we have a safe environment when we’re researching. So, the public is safe, and the staff are safe. We just need to figure out how to get back to pre-pandemic levels of access, even if we do have some new restrictions in place, like masks or vaccines or things like that.
Jessica: Geoff mentioned to access the archives, showing that you’re vaccinated, using a mask. So that was in place during the couple of weeks that two of the archives were actually opened in November. We had two archives opened for a couple of weeks, in November. And we did follow all of those protocols. However, they were closed, and the other facilities around the country have never opened since March 2020.
Lisa: And of course, since then, with the coming up Omicron, we know that the vaccinated get ill just like the unvaccinated. So, you’re right, it keeps changing and keeps moving. And that’s where the lack of the goalpost is kind of a challenge.
Let’s talk about some of the ways you’re trying to communicate with the National Archives to see what could be resolved so that everybody feels good about what’s happening and can participate and get what they need.
How You Can Make a Difference in the Reopening
Jessica, you’ve put a petition together. This is what first came to my attention. Tell us about what that is and what your goals are.
Jessica: Absolutely. A main goal that I have with this petition is I just thought ‘I can’t let over two years go by with these important archives being closed, and the leaders of the archives not receive a united strong message from our communities that we care about this, and that it affects us.’ So a major goal is I just want to be able to show them how many people care that they’re closed, especially because it affects us not only now, but genealogists and historians have a long history of having to fight for public access to records.
I don’t want those leaders to look back on this event, years into the future and think ‘well, nobody really seemed to mind that they couldn’t access those records.’ I want them to know that many, many thousands of people cared that they couldn’t access the records.
The ask of this petition is that they reopen by sometime in March 2022. That will be a full two years that many of these facilities have been closed. We’ve seen many other events and businesses and groups have been able to safely reopen, I think that the National Archives is capable of doing the same. I think that it’s important that we ask for that strongly and in the united fashion.
The petition is at https://change.org/reopen archives. We want thousands of signatures. We have about 3000. We’d like to at least double that. We want them to know that these archives matter to the citizens of the United States and the world.
Lisa: I wholeheartedly agree. And I know you’ve just had it up a couple of days, and that’s an amazing start right out of the gate.
As you said, there’s a lot of different players involved who make the decisions, but it’s so important that we make our voice known and our needs known because how else would they incorporate that into the decision-making?
Anything else Geoff that you want to mention about this and things that you would encourage people to do?
Geoff: Something else folks might think about doing is reaching out to your house representative to your senators and just letting them know that you care about this issue that you want to see the archives open all the research rooms back open again. Citizens need and deserve access to government records. That’s the archives mission.
Lisa: it certainly is, and I really appreciate and respect that the two of you have taken some action and made your voices known and hopefully we will ask everybody here watching to help do the same.
Jessica: And please share, you share it, sign it and also share!
Lisa: Yes, That’s the best way to get the word out. Everybody knows another genealogist!
Elevenses with Lisa Episode 21 Video and Show Notes
Live show air date: August 20, 2020
Join me for Elevenses with Lisa, the online video series where we take a break, visit and learn about genealogy and family history.
How to Find Free Genealogy Resources
In the genealogy community it’s often said, “Only a fraction of genealogical records are online.” That’s true indeed, but it’s not a reason not to start your search online. A more helpful and accurate piece of advice would be “while not everything is online, all search for genealogical information starts online.”
The reason for this is simple. Online research before you go will reveal:
If the materials are available at a more convenient location
If the materials are available somewhere online for free
The call number, location, and other specific information you need to quickly access the materials once you arrive.
Details about gaining access to the facility and materials.
The last bullet point above will help you avoid the disappointment of discovering an unforeseen closure, or that the specific records you need are actually help at a satellite location.
New genealogical information and records are uploaded daily to the internet. Some of this information is available for free. In this article and episode we will cover strategic ways to locate and access free genealogy online.
The Amount of Data Continues to Increase – Read more about the growth of online information here.
The Path of Least Resistance to Free Genealogy
Most genealogists want to obtain records at the lowest available cost with the least amount of travel. Therefore, always starting your search online just makes good sense.
Here’s our path of least resistance:
Free and Online: FamilySearch, Google, WorldCat
Online and Subscription: Ancestry, MyHeritage, Findmypast, niche sites
Free and Locally Offline: Libraries, Archives, Universities
Offline and Distant: Examples include the National Archives, Allen County Library, Family History Library, NEHGS
The FamilySearch Catalog: New digitized images are added daily from microfilms & digital camera operators. These include books, maps, compiled family histories, and more. The catalog also includes materials that are not online but are available at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City or through Inter-library loan.
The FamilySearch Wiki is a free online genealogical guide comprised of more than 93,000 articles. It covers 244 countries, territories, and islands. It includes links to genealogy databases and online resources as well as how-to information.
Use the FamilySearch Wiki Watchlist to follow pages of research interest. Here’s how to watch Wiki pages for new and free genealogy content:
Log in with your free FamilySearch account
navigate to the desired page
click the Watchlist link in the upper right corner of the page.
Look for the Watchlist link, and the blue buttons that lead to free online genealogy records for that location.
Google is still your best bet for finding sources both online and offline.
You can dramatically improve your search results by incorporating search operators into your search. Watch episode 13 of Elevenses with Lisa to learn about how to use search operators when googling for genealogy.
Set up free Google Alerts to be on the lookout for new and updated search results. You’ll receive them by email, and you can control the frequency.
Google Alerts do the work of searching for free genealogy for you.
How to Create a Google Alert:
Highlight and copy (Control C on Windows or Command C on Mac) the search query that you typed into the Google search box
Go to www.google.com/alerts
Sign into your free Google account
Paste (Control V or Command V) your search query into the Search Query box on the Google Alerts page
Select the Result Type you desire (ex. Everything, News, etc.)
Select how often you wish to receive alerts
Select How Many results you want to receive (I recommend Only the Best Results)
Enter / Select the email address you want your alerts to be sent to
Click the Create Alert button
Partnerships Make Free Genealogy Available
Many of the genealogy giants enter partnerships with each other in order to facilitate digitization and indexing of genealogical records. This means that the same materials may be found in different locations on the web, and sometimes for free.
17,900 subscribing member libraries in 123 countries collectively maintain WorldCat’s database which is the world’s largest bibliographic database.
Use WorldCat to check that you are indeed accessing the resource from the most convenient repository and if it’s available for free. Here’s how:
Run your search
Click an item
Under Find a Copy in the Library enter your zip code
The library closest to you will be listed at the top
Once you get your search results, look to the left in the Formats box. There you can quickly narrow down to only items that are online by clicking boxes like DownloadableArticle. Some of these may require a log in on the website you are referred to.
To find free records at MyHeritage.com, go to https://tinyurl.com/LisaMyHeritage. In the footer menu of the website, click on Historical Records. Then fill in your search criteria. (Update: If you don’t see Historical Records in the footer, go to Research > Collection Catalog and search on the keyword “free.”) Scroll down the search results and look for the green free tags.
To find free records at Findmypast which specialized in British genealogy but also includes records from around the world, go to https://tinyurl.com/FMPLisa.
(Some links in our articles are affiliate links. We will be compensated at no additional cost to use when you use them. This makes it possible for us to bring this free show to you. Thank you!)
Google Site Search Can Help Locate Free Genealogy
A site search works like many search operators as previously discussed in Elevenses with Lisa episode 13 (watch and read here.) It provides Google with specific instructions about the type of search you want to conduct with your search terms and keywords.
This Site search tip comes from Lisa Louise Cooke’s book The Genealogists’s Google Toolbox.
Site search runs your query only on the specified website. This is extremely helpful and efficient if:
you have a particular website in mind that you want to search,
you aren’t having success using the search field provided by the website,
the website you want to search doesn’t have a search field.
Here’s an example of a Site search:
Free Pennsylvania site:ancestry.com
Try running the search above for yourself. You’ll find results that include many free genealogy records pertaining to Pennsylvania. Substitute the words to meet your search needs.
Construct a Site search for Free Genealogy by first typing in the words and phrases you wish to search for. Include the word free. Leave the appropriate spacing between them and follow the last item with a space. Then type site: and add the website home page address (URL). You can copy the URL and simply paste it in place. There is no space between the colon and the URL. And note that www is not required.
Searching for Offline Local Sources with Free Genealogy Information
To find what’s local and free:
Search WorldCat.org (be sure to use the Zip Code filtering to find the genealogy materials at the location closest to you.)
Use Google to search.
Find your local Family History Center here. These centers have unique free resources as well as free access to some subscription genealogy websites.
When you find a library, archive or other repository, visit their website and look for:
Databases they offer
Their online catalog to plan your research
Other associated libraries
Details on planning a visit
Get Free Genealogy Help on Facebook
Search for Random Acts of Genealogical Kindness (RAOGK) on Facebook.