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A Genealogist In The Archives

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Framed Photographs and Documents

Many of us have inherited framed photographs or documents as part of our family genealogy collections. In the Houston County, TN. Archives, we sometimes receive framed photographs and documents as part of a larger records donation.

Many of these framed photographs and documents are in frames that have removable backs. This way the photographs and documents can be changed out if the person wanted to display a different photo or document. My Grandmother, Ida Kathryn (Drummond) Bartram, had framed photographs of all her grandchildren's school pictures and each year she would put the newest photo in the front to be displayed.

Frame with Removable Back

Frame with Removable Back

If you have received framed photographs or documents with removable backs, have you taken the back off to see what secrets could be hiding? Recently, I inherited some framed photographs from my aunt and I found that there was a different photograph hiding behind the one that was showing.

The photograph that was on display was:

William Sherman Bartram (1872-1961)
The photograph that I found, in the same frame, hiding behind the William Sherman Bartram photo was:

Filmore and Mary Drummond

The interesting thing about these two photographs is they are from two different families that are both related to my late aunt and myself.

One of the first things we do in the archives when we have received framed photographs or documents that have removable backs is to remove the back and see if there are any additional hidden documents or photographs that can't be seen from the front.

It is surprising how many people will put more than one photograph or document in a single picture frame. Then, over time, those older photographs and documents are forgotten. There has been many times when people have found long lost photographs and documents in picture frames of their family.

Some might remember back in 1991 when someone purchased a $4.00 painting at a flea market and when the frame was taken apart an original copy of the Declaration of Independence was found which was estimated to be worth $800,000.00 to 1 million dollars at the time. You can read about this event here:

While we may not find an original copy of the Declaration of Independence behind one of our ancestor's photos, it is still a good idea to check those framed photos and documents for anything that might be hiding!



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Monday, February 20, 2017

Presidential Libraries

One of the things I wanted to do in 2017 was shine a light on many of our wonderful libraries and archives across the United States. While I can't talk about them all, I hope that the ones I do highlight in my blog in 2017 will inspire each and everyone of you to contact these archives and use the mountains of resources they painstakingly process and make available to the researching public.

Since this is President's Day, I thought I would highlight our wonderful Presidential Libraries all across the United States.

Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum

Thirteen of the Presidential Libraries are under the auspices of the U.S. National Archives. They describe the libraries as:

Presidential Libraries and Museums promote understanding of the presidency and the American experience. We preserve and provide access to historical materials, support research, and create interactive programs and exhibits that educate and inspire.

These thirteen libraries have websites and the links can be found on the U.S. National Archives site:

William McKinley Presidential Library and Museum

Five of the Presidential Libraries are operated by private foundations, historical societies or state governments. They are:

William McKinley Presidential Library and Museum

Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Library and Museum

Calvin Coolidge Presidential Library and Museum

Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum

Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library and Museum

Many of you may be thinking that these Presidential library would be of no help to the genealogy research that you are doing. I admit that not everyone will find their ancestors in the records at these libraries, however, how will you know if you don't try?

John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum

Think about where these Presidents lived, who they were related to and who they may have interacted with during their lifetime. Presidential libraries hold more than just papers and records from the Presidency, many of them hold personal papers, diaries, photographs and records about their ancestors. These records could include friends, associates and neighbors (F.A.N. Club)!

Do not discount these Presidential libraries. Check out their websites, records indexes, manuscript collection finding aids and anything else that might tell you what these repositories hold.

You might just be surprised what you find at a Presidential Library and Museum!

Happy President's Day!



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Monday, February 13, 2017

Remove Staples Like An Archivist

One of the first rules in archiving documents that all archives and archivists follow is: Remove all metal from documents. This includes staples, paper clips, straight pins and any other fasteners keeping documents together that are metal.

Some of you are probably thinking, "I know how to remove staples, what's the big deal?"

As an archivist I have seen many damaged documents by those that thought they knew how to remove staples and yet still damaged their documents.

It is not unusual for all of us to find rusty staples attaching documents together in our genealogical records. Archivist encounter staples on a daily basis and removing them is of utmost importance.

Staples can rust and damage genealogical documents. Over time, with the act of turning the documents over and over, can cause the staples to tear the documents. Removing staples is an easy process and if done properly will not damage genealogical documents.

Do Not Use a claw staple remover that looks like this:

These can cause more damage to documents than helping to remove the staple.

Do Not Use this wand staple remover that looks like this:

These can also cause more damage to documents than helping to remove the staple.

In the archives, we use an archival microspatula to remove staples that looks like this:

The process to remove staples is an easy one:

-Turn the stapled documents over so you are seeing the back of the staple.

-Using the archival microspatula, gently pry up the two prongs

-Turn the stapled documents over to the front and using the archival microspatula, gently lift out the staple from the documents

Viola! The staple is removed!

Admittedly, this process takes more time to do than using a claw staple remover. Keep in mind that the goal is to do the least amount of damage as possible. Using this staple removing process will insure that no damage is done to the document or at least kept to a minimum.

Archivists and Genealogists both know the importance of genealogical records. Preserving these records is important and something we should all do.



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Thursday, February 2, 2017

Unprocessed or Uncatalogued Records, Ask the Archivist!

(I would like to Thank my fellow archivist, Dean Debolt, University Archivist at The University Archives and West Florida History Center, for his comments on this subject that has generated this blog post)

As an archivist, working in an archive everyday, I get very excited when someone walks through the door with a records donation in hand. Many of our archives would not have the historical records they have without the generosity of others that make records donations. Whether it's documents, photographs, ephemera or artifacts, our archives are constantly accepting records donations.

Parker Surname Vertical File, Houston County, TN. Archives

Many archives have back rooms full of unprocessed and uncatalogued records collections. Sometimes they are even sitting in the original boxes they were donated. These records collections have not been microfilmed, they are not online anywhere but they exist and the genealogist needs to seek them out.

One tip that I like to share with genealogists is to ask the staff at the archives about these unprocessed and uncatalogued records collections. Many times these records collections haven't even been processed yet but the archivist might let you look through a specific collection. Be prepared, sometimes the archivist doesn't allow patrons to view unprocessed collections. But like I always say "It doesn't hurt to ask!" The archivist should know what they have in those collections and should be able to help the genealogist decide what could possibly help them with their research.

Many of our archives and archivists are very busy processing records, helping patrons, answer email, etc. that many records collections could just be sitting waiting to be processed. If you have made a research trip to an archive, it wouldn't hurt to ask about any new record donations or collections. There could very well be records in those boxes about your ancestors.

Houston County Lions Club Records Donation, Houston County, TN. Archives

If you are emailing or talking to the archives by phone, be sure and ask about any new records collections that have been processed or that have recently been donated and are waiting to be processed. Most likely you will have to travel to the facility to see the records but you can get an idea of what is available. 

The next time you are at an archive or communicating with them by email or phone, don't forget to ask the archivist about uncatalogued records or any new records donations that haven't been processed yet.



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Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Archives Need Genealogists, Be A Statistic!

Last week Amy Johnson Crow wrote a wonderful blog post entitled The Real Reason You Shouldn't Reshelve Genealogy Books (

Also, yesterday Judy G. Russell's blog post Records Access Alert: LVA Records ( tells us about the Library of Virginia's budgetary woes.

After reading Amy and Judy's posts, I knew that I had to write a blog post of my own to further explain the statistics that many of our archives and libraries keep on a daily basis and why we need genealogists to use our facilities now more than ever!

Archivists keep statistics on a daily basis, weekly basis, monthly basis and yearly basis. These numbers are used by archives to show how much the records are being accessed and used. Some statistics give us hard numbers of how many visitors, emails and phone calls we have received and answered.

Why are these statistics important, you might wonder?

Many times these statistics are used by budget committees, county governments and other governing bodies to determine the next years budget. They are also used to justify the amount of days and hours a facility should be open. Most importantly, these statistics also determine if the staff that is currently employed is needed or costing too much money.

So, how can a genealogist help?

Books

When you visit an archive of any kind be sure to sign the guest book, registry book or whatever sign-in book that is available. If you are not asked to sign-in, ask the archivist or librarian if they have such a book for patrons to sign. Sometimes we get so excited about helping people that come in the door that we sometimes forget about the sign-in book. The numbers counted from the sign-in book shows those in charge of budgeting how many people have visited and been to the archive.

Do Not Reshelve Books

As Amy Johnson Crow's post explains, if you see signs posted that say "Do Not Reshelve Books", please follow those directions. If there is no sign, ask the archivist or librarian if you should reshelve the books or leave them on the table. The statistics that are gathered from counting the amount of books used on a daily basis is very helpful in showing the facilities usage. I know that we all try to be nice and help out the staff by reshelving the books but don't do it. You may be hindering the statistics they need.

Can't Travel, You Can Still Help 

Many of us are not able to travel to the archives that hold the records of our ancestors. Don't let this deter you from accessing these records.

Email Our archives have email address and we encourage patrons to email us with your records requests. Please be patient for a reply as our archivist have a lot to do on a daily basis. Archives keep statistics of how many people have emailed them and what records they have requested.

Call Calling an archives on the phone is also an option. Be prepared to leave a message or to be told that they may have to call you back if they are a small archives with a small staff. When making your records request, be as specific as possible. Archives keep statistics of how many people call and what records they have requested.

Write a Letter! I know that seems very old fashioned but it really does work. Type up a letter with your genealogical records requests, be as specific as you can be. Also, include a self-addressed stamped envelope (SASE). Archives keep statistics of how many mail requests they receive and what records were requested.

So, Be A Statistic! Help keep our archives, libraries, historical societies, genealogical societies, university libraries/archives and museums OPEN AND FULLY STAFFED! 



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Friday, January 27, 2017

Archived Records That Are Off The Beaten Path

Court records, deeds records, scrapbooks, photographs... these are some of the more well known record groups that most researchers access when they visit an archive, historical society or library.  

But did you know that there are numerous other record groups and types that are housed in archives that are almost never requested to be viewed by researchers. Why is that? Maybe it's because the researcher doesn't know these wonderful collections exist.

Wisdom Lodge #300 Newspaper Clipping, Houston County, TN. Archives

Here are 5 tips for genealogy researchers to learn about and view unique records in the archives where their ancestors lived:

1. Plan, plan, plan! Every genealogist who visits an archives, historical society or library to do research needs to have a research plan in place before they step foot in the door of the facility.  

2. Ask the archivist or librarian what record collections they have that are unique or unknown to the general public. Possibly there is an index of what is in the collection or better yet a Finding Aid.

3. Ask the archivist or librarian to allow you to view all of their records indexes or all of their Finding Aids. Most repositories will have these printed and in notebooks or they will be available on patron computers in the facility.

Election Worker's Payroll Request, Houston County, TN. Archives

4. Specifically ask to view the Vertical File Collection index. This index will be alphabetical and will include surnames as well as subjects such as "Erin United Methodist Church". Each file could contain just about anything. Remember...Vertical Files are like a box of chocolates, you never know what your going to get!

5. Specifically ask to view the index to the Manuscript Collection. Again, this listing will be alphabetical. The titles could be named anything, some of the more familiar titles will look something like this: "John Doe's Family Papers 1812-1900", "Erin Methodist Church 1848-1920". These collections could be contained in one box or in multiple boxes. The Finding Aid for the collection will help you decipher what is in the collection.

The next time you visit an archives, historical society or library to dig up those records on your ancestors, try these 5 tips to help you find those unique records, the ones that will tell more of your ancestor's story, the ones that will put "meat on your ancestors's bones"!



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Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Preserving Your Ancestor's Textiles

Some of the most interesting items we have in our own family genealogy collections as well as in our many archives are items made of some sort of fabric. Things such as a christening gown, quilts, high school sweaters and doilies are just a few of the items some of us have as part of our family archive.

Preserving and storing these items can be a challenge and if not done properly could result in the destruction of these precious heirlooms.

        Hand embroidered handkerchief. Houston County, TN. Archives

For most fabric items you will need archival tissue paper and the correct size archival box for storage. First, put a layer of tissue paper in the bottom of the box. Then put your fabric item on the tissue paper. If the item is large such as a quilt or a piece of clothing, it is okay to fold it but put layers of tissue paper between the folds making sure that none of the fabric touches itself. I also like to put extra tissue paper as a filler in the box so that the item doesn't move around. I just ball the tissue paper up and put it around the item and that will keep it still in the box.

Place the box in a dark, cool and dry storage place. With fabric items I like to take the archival box and place it in another box such as a plastic tote which can be sealed, this is to deter moths and insects which can destroy fabrics.

Be sure to put documentation in the box to explain in detail all pertinent information about the item.  If it was handmade, include the name of the person who made it. Also, if applicable, include the chain of ownership of the item and how it has been passed down in the family and which ancestors owned it before it was passed down to you. The more information you include in your description, the better!

             Handmade christening gown. Houston County, TN. Archives

Finding fabric items in an archives can be a challenge but they do exist in collections housed in many of the our wonderful repositories. Most items of this kind will be found in families records collections which are normally part of the archives larger Manuscript Collection or Special Collections. When a families records have been donated to an archive, the collection could include fabric items and they would be processed right along with the documents and should be listed in the finding aid.

Another way a fabric item could be cataloged in an archive is in a group collection such as a "Quilt Collection" which could include many quilts by different makers and are housed in one collection. Or maybe these items are cataloged in a local high school collection, such as the lettermen sweater in the photo below.

         Letterman sweater from Erin High School. Houston County, TN. Archives

As genealogists we are always searching for that next important document to help tell our ancestor's story. Don't forget our ancestors are also trying to tell us their story through things they made, things they wore and things they used on a daily basis. The story behind a handmade quilt can be just as interesting as the story behind a document.

Preserving the textiles of our ancestors and the stories that go with them should be part of every genealogists journey to document our families.



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