Vertical Files vs Manuscript Collections: How Are They Different?Working in a county archive on a daily basis, I am surrounded by original records, photographs and ephemera. It is my job to organize the records we have in the Houston County (TN) Archives so that they are accessible to the pubic and that includes many of the wonderful genealogists that come through my door everyday.
|Houston County, Tennessee Entrance|
Recently, I had a wonderful conversation with Pat Richley-Erickson, better known as Dear Myrtle (http://blog.dearmyrtle.com/) about the differences between Vertical Files and Manuscript Collections and how to help the genealogist know the benefits of both to their research. We both agreed that Vertical Files are a "hodgepodge" of documents and ephemera while Manuscript Collections are distinctively different and are a collection of highly curated groups of records. We also agreed that these two record sources are essential to genealogy research.
|Items in the McAuley Surname Vertical File, Houston County, TN. Archives|
In my opinion, Vertical Files and Manuscript Collections are two of the most underused and misunderstood record collections that a genealogist has at their disposal. A lot of genealogists don't even know to ask about these specific collections when they are doing research at an archive. One of the reasons for the "mystery" surrounding these record sources is these records are not sitting on shelves in the research area for the researchers to access themselves. These record sources are usually stored in back rooms or vaults and they have to be requested to be seen. Normally, genealogists have to request files be pulled from the Vertical Files Collection and boxes to be pulled from the Manuscript Collections and brought to them in the research room. Genealogists need to know that archivist are there to help them. They stand at the ready to pull records that you request and they are ready to share the fantastic records found in Vertical Files and Manuscript Collections.
|Vertical Files Cabinets, Houston County, TN. Archives|
Like I mentioned before, Vertical Files are a "hodgepodge" of all different kinds of documents, newspaper clippings, ephemera and memorabilia. These items are normally donated to the archive by patrons piece by piece or they could have been found in a box of "stuff" that was donated to the archives. The archives staff then files the items by either Surname or by Subject. For instance, if there is a newspaper clipping of an obituary for John Brown, it would go in the BROWN file in the Vertical Files Collection. If someone donated a letterhead document from the WISEMAN FUNERAL HOME, that document would be filed in the WISEMAN FUNERAL HOME file. The archivist should have an index available for the researcher to consult to see if there are any surnames or subjects that are of interest to them and then they can request that those files be pulled and brought to them for researching.
|The "A-B" Drawer in Vertical Files Collection, Houston County, TN. Archive|
Manuscript Collections are a completely different type of record source but one that I believe is essential and should be on every genealogists "To-Do List".
One of the best ways to explain what Manuscript Collections are is to use this visual:
I have been doing my personal genealogy research for my family and my husband's family for the past 26 years. Let's say I have decided that I want to donate everything I have collected to my local archive. This includes all documents, photographs, ephemera, notes and artifacts. I box everything up in cardboard boxes, load them in my car, drive them to the archive and drop them off. Now, the archive will take all those boxes and will give it a collection name like "The Melissa Barker Records Collection" or possibly "The Melissa Barker Genealogical Papers". Then the archivist will organize the records by type, style and date. The records will be organized into file folders and each file folder is given a number like Folder #1. Then all these folders are places in boxes and these boxes are given a number like Box #3. Most importantly a "Finding Aid" is produced to go with the Manuscript Collection. Vertical Files do not have Finding Aids! The Finding Aid is a written guide explaining what is contained in the manuscript collection and includes a box-by-box and folder-by-folder listing of what the boxes and folders have in them. Now the collection is ready for researchers!
|The Irish Celebration Manuscript Collection, Houston County, TN. Archives|
I truly hope that all genealogists will start asking about Vertical Files and Manuscript Collections in our many wonderful archives. They are just sitting there waiting for genealogists to discover their contents. Just because you can't see them on the shelves in the research area doesn't mean they don't exist. Ask the archivist about Vertical Files and Manuscript Collections on your next research trip!
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