click to view original photo

Private Eyes!

Books are great and so are maps. But there are also research materials called private papers which can be very helpful in expanding your family research beyond the standard sources.


Content Details

Type: Article
Resource: GenWeekly
Prepared by:
Word Count: 1902 (approx.)
Short URL:

Private Eyes! No, not detectives. This time out I plan to discuss the use of private papers and archives in genealogical research and how you can access some of these.

It should not be surprising to think that there is personal and genealogically useful information in what, for lack of a better term, might be called private papers. These could be letters, diaries, work records from a company and other such materials.

So, how do such things come to a repository such as a library, archives, college, historical society and so on? Most often they will be a gift, either from the donor while they are alive, or from the estate of the donor after their death. In modern days, there is frequently no money to purchase such items, so an organization is expected to hustle to the donor or the estate and assure them that the items will be cared for properly and made available for research use.

When I was in charge of such acquisitions for the library I used to work in, I developed a Deed Of Gift. This means that the donor gets to read such a document, and if they chose to sign it, it provides protection for both the donor and the institution. Basically, it gives the donor the assurance that their gift will be properly cared for and made available. And it gives the institution broad discretion in how to preserve and make it available. For example, one of the older such documents I could find for my institution did not even mention photocopying, let alone digitizing or the Internet. So, I came up with one that was approved by the legal authorities and that lets the library house, display, photocopy, film, digitize and display on the Internet - and sell copies of - whatever the institution thinks is helpful to users. What I am really proud of is the little squib that states "in whatever technology may from time to time become available," which leave my successors a hundred years from now a lot of wiggle room!

So, what's in such papers? Of course it depends on the records, whether day-to-day, religious, business, political, etc. But as a rule, genealogically useful records would contain names of people, where they worked, their viewpoints of issues, etc.

Whose papers are deemed worthy of saving? A broad cross-section of people, from politicians, to genealogists, to a family of newsworthy persons (the family of a war hero who was killed in a plane crash decades after his service, gave the family papers to the library, and they provide a rich lode of information about that man's life, interactions with the community, and so on). Educators might mention students; religious people might mention parishioners, et al. I did turn down some papers from a prospective donor who wanted free photocopies made at our expense for all the libraries in the county, and another whose claim to fame was that she had visited a lot of places and brought back souvenirs. Perhaps a President would be worthy of such caretaking, but for the average Joe or Jane, no. Their souvenirs provide no intrinsic value that can be afforded in most cases.

There is certainly a financial side to the archival papers equation. Which gets to another thing. As I was writing this article, I read that Canadian Archives are going to take a huge financial hit. It takes money and staff to run archives, and without both, the papers might just as well be in a garage somewhere. Most libraries and archives are presently operating with half the staff that they had ten years ago. This means that they might not be able to respond quickly to questions, or at all to questions from out of state.

How do you ask for help? Most places that have a web presence, have a place were a user can submit a question by email. If they have a physical presence, you might be able to visit them. Call first and see what hours they are open, and if there are any fees or restrictions. Also, ask how copies might be obtained, or if you can get scans or bring a camera. Colleges usually let non-students and non-faculty into their collections, although their primary job is serving their own academic community.

In other words, there are many kinds of materials that a user might find in private papers.

So what are some examples? All of my professional experience was in New York State, so that is what I am most familiar with. But I have included some references to nationwide locations. Try the logic of looking for things that I mention through your own location.

A good example is a collection at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY. In its collection, is this: "The Study Center for Early Religious Life in Western New York was established at Ithaca College in July 1978. The chief purpose of the Study Center was to collect primary sources documenting religious life in the first half of the nineteenth century in central and western New York State. In September 1981 295 collections, mainly on microfilm, came to Cornell. The church records collected include minute books, sermons, membership registers, subscription books, trustee records, Sunday school records, circuit books, and Bible society records from numerous denominations. In addition, there are papers of families and individuals including diaries, journals, letters, and account books."

In other word, actual books and microfilms from many counties are available for public use at Cornell, including church records back to the early 1800s. For western New York, this is quite early. The reference for the pathfinder for this collection is given later.

Cornell also has: "Records of the Cornell University Christian Association include minutes of the Board of Directors, business meetings, the Executive Committee, and other committees; constitution and bylaws; officers and members; financial records; and scrapbooks. Records of Cornell United Religious Work include minutes of the Board of Control; office files of (the directors). Also, tape recordings of the National Association of College Chaplains Conference, 1965; portraits; memorabilia; and miscellaneous reports, books, clippings, pamphlets, photograph albums, and periodicals relating to CURW activities."

I have mentioned these because there is a very good chance that if someone you are researching lived in Western New York, or had a relationship with Cornell University, they might be mentioned in these records. They, too, are publicly accessible. To the best of my knowledge, they are not now and not planned to be online in the future.< p>The ever-busy folks at Cornell also were home to a project 30 years ago that created a series of volumes for every county in New York, those being "Guide to Historic Resources in (name of county) County, NY. A reference to it is given at the end. While it is now disbanded, it has been updated and is searchable online.

Online catalogs also are available for most libraries. Some colleges have done an excellent job of this, some libraries have not. Ditto for historical societies. It all comes down to money and staffing. Here is where librarians and archivists are your friends. You can ask them if they are aware of such things for your state or location, and if there are any guides to them.

EAD means "encoded archival descriptions." The EAD Document Type Definition (DTD) is a standard for encoding archival finding aids using Extensible Markup Language (XML). The standard is maintained in the Network Development and MARC Standards Office of the Library of Congress (LC) in partnership with the Society of American Archivists. This is how librarians and archivists catalog their collections online. The URL is given at the end, for those who are interested.

Another local example that comes to mind - and there are thousands of colleges all over the country which have analogous collections - is the University of Rochester Rare Books and Special Collections Department. Their web page is given at the end, and it has wonderfully detailed descriptions and enumerations of their holdings. While the actual items in the collection are not available online or digitally yet, the collection descriptions themselves are readable online. If there are ancestors who worked for some Rochester companies (for example, there were many clothing manufacturers who were headquartered in Rochester a century ago), their employees and operations are mentioned in some of the holdings.

Card files in libraries and archives are sometime the only way into a collection. While my former library had a great card catalog, and many items available online, the map catalog and the manuscript and archival catalogs are as of this writing only available on cards in a drawer in the collection. But there are scores of file cabinets and manuscript cabinets with great materials in them. I worked with those for more than 30 years and there are great genealogical materials buried in them.

Of course, many places have tried to digitize some of the collections and even make them available online. They do this out of pride in the collections, they want people to use them more, and they want to keep the collections safer from theft and disintegration (yes, there are those who wish to do harm to such materials).

One such project is New York Heritage that I am currently working with. It is a huge and growing collection of all kinds of materials from scores of collections all over New York State. As an example, I just finished scanning about 1,000 pages of Civil War letters and diaries. It was interesting - and heartbreaking, because some of the collections ended with the commander of the unit telling the family that their son had been killed in battle - because of the actual words of people from 150 years ago. And these are not TV stars being handed their family history in 60 minutes. These are actual handwritten materials talking to and about real people.

I have had to leave out a tremendous amount of descriptive materials because of space considerations. But when you look at various web sites, considering trying the following terms with your area of interest: Research Tools, Finding Aids, Topical guides, Online Catalog, Images, Audio files, and Videos, State Archives Indexes. For example, you can search databases including an index to film scripts and an index of individual names appearing in the records of various state agencies whose records are held by the New York State Archives. Almost any book on how to do genealogy online will have a chapter or two devoted to archives, but sure that what you find has been written fairly recently.

And do remember that it would be nice if you could type in a person's name and find them in every source, but as of this writing, it's just a nice dream.

References to Websites:

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2012.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

<< GenWeekly

<< Helpful Articles