Your Guide to Using Archives for Genealogical Research
Archives are set up to collect and maintain records for which there is established mechanism for long term storage. These can be records created by an individual, an organization or an individual. Often when the creator/caretaker of the records dies or ceases to function, those records are transferred to an archives to be preserved. Archives differ in what they collect. Some are jurisdictional in scope, collecting for example everything they can that pertains to the development and history of an institution, town, city, county or nation. Others exist to further research in a specific topic -- women's history, the Civil War or automobiles, for example. Archives tend to collect manuscripts and privately created documents; libraries tend to collect books and published documents... but often each collects material of both types. Sometimes an archives and library are housed together. Sometimes archival materials are found in museums, which collect not only the written history, but artifacts. Again, some artifacts can be found in archives, as well as museums.
* About Archives * Locating Archives and Discovering What They Hold
* Searching multiple archives at once * Digital Archives * Books, Articles, Tapes *
Archives range in size from the huge National Archives, in Washington D.C. to a small collection housed in a single room, often lovingly cared for and opened to the public by a single dedicated individual. Sometimes an archive will co-exist a rare book collection in a library, and the whole will be called "Special Collections"
Archival Repositories provide bibliographic access to holdings in one of several ways: 1) the card catalog 2) A written guide 3) Finding aids 4) Accession lists. There has been a gradual, and probably continuing, shift from providing these resources on paper to offering them online.
Card Catalogs: Can be 3x5 paper cards in a wooden cabinet, an online catalog, published as a book, Many archival repositories report their cataloged holdings to the National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections, which is discussed below. Some online catalogs are a part of larger catalogs that provide information on the holdings of a parent institution.
Written Guides: Ranging from one page handouts to published books, these written guides are more and more being abandoned in favor of providing information on the web. See
Finding Aids: Finding aids range in size from one page to several pages. They usually include a collection overview, biographical notes, scope and content of the collection, a contents list and information on use. They may include a list of search terms.
Collections in archives are grouped together as they were in the hands of the creator of the collection. Thus all papers of the John Doe family are kept together, even if some relate to, say, the neighborhood church. In archival terms, these groups may be called a collection, a record group, a record series, or, in non U.S. archives, a fond. They are often then subdivided into other groups. A large collection may have a finding aid that will detail more specifically what is in the collection. Finding aids vary in size: some are only a page or less, some the size of a small book; a few might be multi volume in nature. Here are a few examples of finding aids:
Accession Lists: Often published in the newsletter or annual report put out by the repository, they now often appear in a "what's new" section on the web sites.
Once you find the web site for an archives that covers the locality or subject of your research, look for special features.
Sometimes an archives will put out a handout or circular that lists items pertaining to a specific subject, but across record groups. The State Archives of Michigan provides such circulars.
Archives are always getting new material, which will often not yet have a circular or be listed in any published listing of collections. It is unusual to find a listing of newly arrived material on a web site, but an example of one archives that does this is our own Bentley Historical Collections page of Recently Accessioned Materials at the Bentley
In the past some Archives published books or pamphlets to tell researchers what was held in their collections. Those print publications have mostly given way to web sites, which are more accessible and can be kept more current, but they can still be useful.
The U.S. National Archives is in Washington D.C. and operates several Regional Centers. Their Archival Research Catalog is their catalog of holdings, but it is incomplete. Links to the web pages of the Regional Centers are useful because each Regional Center describes more completely holdings specific to a particular area.
Examples of State Archives
Examples of Church Archives
Examples of Public Library Archives
Examples of University Archives
Examples of Historical Society Archives
Examples of Corporate Archives (much less likely to offer public access or advertise their holdings)
Examples of subject specific archives
ArchivesUSA (must be logged in to a library that has a subscription)
-- NUCMC (National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections) was originally issued as a series of printed volumes issued between 1959 and 1993, but is now available online. All listings post 1993 are available only online. It serves to list and briefly describe collections held by archives through out the United States. A collection might be as small as a single letter or as large as several boxes of material.
Listings 1986 forward can be searched at Library of Congress site.
The whole of NUCMUC can is searchable in Archives USA (mentioned above)
-- NIDS (National Inventory of Documentary Sources) This was first issued by Chadwick Healy in microfiche. The microfiche contained indexed copies of the finding aids for a large number of collections in archives throughout the United States. It was the first time researchers could access these finding aids without going to the archives and was a boon to researchers. It still exists in microform, probably owned only by very large libraries. It is a very complicated set to use, but can now be easily searched on ArchivesUSA (mentioned above) and any library large enough to own the microform set would almost certainly also provide access to Archives USA. Archive USA does not provide access to the finding aids themselves. For those, use the fiche set or see if the owning archive offers the finding aid you want to see online; each hit lists the collection and gives a link to the web site of the owning repository.
Archive Grid (must be logged in to a library that has a subscription) This site contains cataloging descriptions of collections held by thousands of archival repositories. Descriptions vary from very short summaries to full finding aids.
Northwest Digital Archives (searchable, digital collection of finding aids)
Oregon Trail Diaries (transcribed)
National Archives: Access to Archival Databases allows you to search several databases of material held by the National Archives. Family Tree Magazine provides this brief description, current as of 2003.
Examples of Guides to mss. collections
Colletta. " Private Archives: What They Are and How to Use Them" in Family Chronicle September/October 2006 pp. 11-14 (find in a library)
Cyndislist: Libraries, Archives and Museums
This page last updated
March 28, 2007
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