August 16, 2017

Is an Archive Really What You Think It Is?

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

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

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

What exactly is an archive?

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

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

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

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

Tips for finding and visiting archives

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

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

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

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

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

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

New African American Oral History Collection at Library of Congress

mic_on_the_air_pc_800_4940A video archive of oral history interviews about African-American life, history and culture and struggles and achievements of the black experience in the United States has been donated to the Library of Congress.

It’s called the HistoryMakers archive, and it’s the single largest archival project of its kind since the WPA recordings of former slaves in the 1930s. According to a press release, “The collection includes 9,000 hours of content that includes 14,000 analog tapes, 3,000 DVDs, 6,000 born-digital files, 70,000 paper documents and digital files and more than 30,000 digital photographs.”

“The collection comprises 2,600 videotaped interviews with African-Americans in 39 states, averaging three to six hours in length. The videos are grouped by 15 different subject areas ranging from science, politics and the military to sports, music and entertainment.”

“The HistoryMakers archive provides invaluable first-person accounts of both well-known and unsung African-Americans, detailing their hopes, dreams and accomplishments—often in the face of adversity,” said James Billington, the Librarian of Congress. “This culturally important collection is a rich and diverse resource for scholars, teachers, students and documentarians seeking a more complete record of our nation’s history and its people.”

History Makers Archive website“The collection is one of the most well-documented and organized audiovisual collections that the Library of Congress has ever acquired,” said Mike Mashon, head of the Library’s Moving Image Section. “It is also one of the first born-digital collections accepted into our nation’s repository.”

This African American oral history archive was donated so it would be preserved and accessible to generations yet to come. However, this doesn’t mean the HistoryMakers organization is done gathering stories. According to the press release, “oral histories are continually being added to the growing archive. The oldest person interviewed was Louisiana Hines, who passed away in 2013 at 114. She was one of the iconic “Rosie the Riveter” workers during War World II. One of the youngest is a prima ballerina, Ayisha McMillan, who was 29 at the time of her interview.”

Visit the HistoryMakers Archive here.