That’s in the Archives! 3


Recently I read a newspaper article where the author stated “Sometimes, genealogists need private documents, letters, business records and diaries to confirm dates or relationships. Those aren’t the kinds of things you usually find at the National Archives or your state’s archives.”

I could not disagree more with this statement. As an archivist and genealogist, I can confirm that personal papers such as letters, business records, diaries and journals are indeed found at the U.S. National Archives and especially at our state archives. These types of records are donated by individuals to archives all the time.

The United States has 50 states and each of these states have their own state archives. Each one collects and preserves personal records such as diaries, old letters, business records and so much more. The best part is that all of these state archives have a website where you can find out about these records collections. You may not find all the records digitized and available electronically but they do have indexes and finding aids to help you know what they have so you can plan a research trip or contact them by email.

The U.S. National Archives has a fantastic website full of digitized records that anyone can access and freely use. They also have indexes and finding aids to their collections that tell us what each collection consists of down to the folder level. Nothing can compare to visiting the U.S. National Archives in person, everyone needs to go at least once in their lifetime. But you are not able to travel, working with the U.S. National Archives by email requests is quite doable.

These resources are generally not found digitized or online as much as other records, so it could seem like an archive doesn’t have them. Many archives are making great strides in getting their collections digitized and available online but the fact is that the majority of these records are sitting on shelves just waiting for genealogists to find them. We should always talk to the state archives where our ancestors lived to see what they have available.

Finding the records that our ancestors produced or those records they are mentioned in can be a challenge, no doubt. But we should never leave any stone unturned or any archive un-searched. We should never get discouraged if we don’t find what we are looking for with our first or even second request. We should keep looking and digging because our efforts could very well pay off.

When doing research in a particular region, state, county or community ask yourself “Where are the records?”. Many times, we make the mistake of thinking that all the records are at the courthouse or all the records are located at the genealogical society when they could be scattered amongst several repositories. It is always a great idea to find out what kind of archives are in a particular area and talk to each one of them about what they hold in their collections.

We should never automatically assume that if particular records are not where we think they should be that they don’t exist. In my own experience as an archivist I can say that many


About Melissa Barker

Melissa Barker is a Certified Archives Manager for the Houston County, TN. Archives. She also lectures, teaches and writes about researching in archives and records preservation. She writes her own blog and has written articles for several publications. She is affectionately known as The Archive Lady. She is also a Professional genealogist that works with clients researching their Tennessee ancestors.

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3 thoughts on “That’s in the Archives!

  • Tami

    I am the president of the Alder Grove Heritage Society, which operates a comparatively small museum and community archive. While our records aren’t yet digitized (we’re working on it), we do indeed have such records – war diaries kept by local residents, business-related invoices and receipts, personal diaries (one kept by my great uncle), and even the historical documents of local organizations such as Women’s Institutes and groups like the BPOE (Elks), a non-profit thrift store that was run by a Seniors’ group, visitor sign-in books from local schools. We even have hotel and motel guestbooks, one going back to 1910. Never under estimate the worth of your local archival holdings.

  • Judy Humphries

    You are so right! Even small community archives hold quantities of deeds, letters, diaries, family business ledgers and other such documents. Since many if not most of these are handwritten the digitization process can be daunting, time-consuming and costly. Furthermore, many small archives simply do not have the money to place their digitized holdings on the web where they can be viewed and accessed. By contacting the archives in your area of interest, and asking about Finding Aids and databases held on-site, you may discover a treasure-trove of personal documents — marriage certificates, photographs and all the other items that could make your family history come alive.