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A Genealogist In The Archives: November 2015

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

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 these repositories 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.

                          Newspaper clipping from "Wisdom Lodge #300 Records Collection" 
                                         located at Houston County, TN. Archives

Here are 5 tips for genealogy researchers to learn about and view unique records in the repositories 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 repository.  

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  from 
                     "Houston County, TN. Election Commission Records Collection"                                                                       located at 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"!

And always remember:  It's not all online, so visit an archives!

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Preserving the Fabric of Our Ancestor's Lives

Some of the most interesting items we have in our own family genealogy collections as well as in 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 and laced handkerchief. Located at the 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 in the box. I just ball the tissue paper up and put it around the item and that will keep it still in the box. Then 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. Located in the Houston County, Tennessee 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's sweater in the photo below.

         Letterman sweater from Erin High School. Located in the 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 that they made, things that they wore and things that 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 fabric of our ancestors and the stories that go with them should be part of every genealogists journey to document our families.


Thursday, November 5, 2015

Old Letters: Preserving a Rare Genealogical Record Source

Stationary, envelopes, postage stamps....what am I describing? Yes, an old fashioned, handwritten letter.

Handwritten letter from Mattie to Miss Alice Reynolds dated October 25, 1903.
Located at the Houston County, Tennessee Archives

Today most of us write emails, tweets, Facebook posts and texts to communicate with our family and friends. When was the last time you sat down and wrote an actual handwritten letter and mailed it to someone? This type of genealogy record source is what I call a "rare genealogical record source" because while the old letters still exist there are practically no new records of this type being produced.

As genealogists what do we do with these old letters that we have in our family collections? We preserve and archive them!

Before the actual physical archiving starts, I always encourage genealogists to scan or digitize their letters and to transcribe them word for word, that way once you have physically archived them you don't need to handle them as much. Handling them with your hands can cause damage over time if the items are handled a lot.

Original envelope for letter by Miss Mary Carpenter with post mark of December 17, 1889, Erin, Tennessee.
Located at Houston County, Tennessee Archives

When archiving old letters, it is important to keep the original envelope with the letter if it has been saved. There is valuable genealogical information on the envelope that you want to save. My advice is to remove the letter from the envelope, flatten the letter and put both the letter and the envelope into an archival polyester sleeve or into an archival page protector. Store them in an archival box or in a 3-ring binder and keep in a dry, dark place where it is preferably as cold as possible. Heat and humidity can destroy your documents, so it is always a good idea to store your records in a cold environment.

Now, how do you find old letters in archives, libraries or any of our wonderful repositories that hold genealogical records? This task can be a bit difficult but if you are diligent you might just get rewarded.

Most old letters will be found in Manuscript Collections. These collections of records are usually arranged by subject, surname or with titles such as "John Doe Papers 1871-1922". Once you have identified a collection that interests you, then you need to look at the Finding Aid. The finding aid is a document that is produced by the archivist and is an outline of what the collection is all about and will include a list of what is contained in each box. Most of the time the box list is not detailed by what each piece of paper is in each folder but rather it will say "Folder #1: Correspondence 1871-1888". You will have to open the file and read through the correspondence to see if there is anything of interest to your research.

Greeting card with letter sent to Mrs. W.T. Smith of Erin, Tennessee dated 1919.  Notice how small this letter is next to this cell phone. Located in the Houston County, Tennessee Archives

Lastly, let's not forget postcards! Our ancestors were avid users of postcards of all kinds. The preservation methods described earlier in this blog can be used with postcards. Also, postcards will be found in Manuscript Collections the same as old letters. Postcards come in all shapes, sizes and kinds. There are even postcards made from photographs. If you are looking for a photograph of your ancestor, just maybe there is one out there that is on a postcard. 

      Postcard to Master Marshall W. Wynns in Erin, Tennessee from L.F.J.
        Located in the Houston County, Tennessee Archives

While the art of letter writing is no longer in fashion, we as genealogists have an opportunity to peer into our ancestors lives by reading their wonderful letters. The information that could be contained on our ancestors letters help us to put "meat on the bones" of the ones we are researching and helps their story come alive!