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Vertically challenged? No!

Vertical files can be a highly valuable genealogical tool. What are they, and how can you find and use them?


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What is a vertical file and why is it important? How can it be used for genealogical and historical research?

The vertical file is one of those untapped sources that can be of considerable value, and may provide information not found elsewhere. The term "vertical file" sometimes known as the "clipping file," but the terms are not the same. Librarians and archivists use the term "vertical file" as a catchall for things that are worth keeping but not, perhaps, worth cataloging. The commonly used definition is a collection of resource materials such as pamphlets; clippings from periodicals; and mounted photographs, arranged for ready reference. It usually refers to the standing metal files originally used to store newspaper clippings and other ephemera on subjects of interest to the library. A clipping file should be just that, items clipped from larger items such as newspapers.

Unlike other catalogued materials, items in the vertical file are not arranged in collections or assigned catalog numbers, but are arranged in file cabinets, usually alphabetically, by subject matter. Vertical file topics include a variety of subject including, individuals, organizations, and institutions, among others -- whatever may be considered by the librarian or archivist to be relevant to a particular library or community. In the days before the Internet and the ease of searching it affords, a clipping file could allow access to otherwise "buried" information.

A vertical file may contain letters, photographs, obituaries, programs, and other information pertinent to a subject. That is not to say that everyone in a community is identified in the local library's vertical file, but if an ancestor was prominent or in some way associated with activities, events, or people of note, they may be found in the vertical file. A library's vertical file may also contain files on subjects outside of the community.

What other types of information can be found in a vertical file?

In one instance, a colleague was researching a sheriff from the late 1800s who was shot in the line of duty. She found the subject's name in the vertical file index of the state archives and sent away for the file. Within a short time she received a file that was over two inches thick, filled with a variety of interesting information, including newspaper accounts of the shooting, information on the subject's property and family, as well as various types of legal documents. Without that mention in the vertical file, it would have been much more difficult to access the reference. Oftentimes state level archives have very useful items, but the description is of necessity very vague, e.g., employee records of the ABC Company in the town of XYZ. Your ancestor could very well be in there, but how do you know? A reference in a vertical file may well state specific dates of employment.

Vertical files can include material from newspapers, magazines, local and state documents, pamphlets, and maps which include information about local people, places, things, and events. A vertical file may also include biographies or historical sketches and bibliographies to aid researchers in their study of a subject, offering "quick access to an abundance of information." In addition to information about individuals, vertical files may also contain information about local institutions such as hospitals, asylums, orphanages, poor farms, etc. There also may be information about businesses and other organizations of interest to the researcher. They may also include detailed information on climactic or otherwise notable events. See what may be hidden?

What the vertical file is not.

As noted by the Texas State Library & Archives, library vertical files "do not aspire to be a comprehensive source of information on any subject, current events tool nor as a day-by-day chronology of any given event."

Hopefully (not always!), there is a guide to the subject arrangement. They generally are not indexed to the discrete individual item except in smaller collections. It is not unusual for a library or archive, etc. of some size to have 50 or 60 four-drawers file cabinets of such materials. And oftentimes the current, best practice is to remove actual photographs from the files and house them separately for the sake of conservation and preservation. And not many contents of vertical files are yet digitized.

Where can a library's vertical file be found?

That truly depends on the kind of library that you are using. I know of some small libraries and archives that have just a few files, arranged by name and subject. Some societies are set up that way as well. If there is a small collection in one file cabinet in one room, the custodians of it probably have a good idea of what is there. Larger organizations may well have many thousands of items in their files. For example, my own library has a guidebook of subject headings (which match the 5 million-item newspaper clip file, and the 25,000-item picture file.) None of these appear in the online catalog, and only glancingly in written guides. But they are very heavily used by the staff and patrons.

It may be that not everyone working at the library is familiar with the vertical file. It is important to look around at the various files cabinets and boxes - to be curious and ask questions. Some organizations are trying to index such holdings and at least place a guide to them online, often at their website. But not every everyone has such connections to the Internet.

Two more examples: a local town historian has items filed by family names in his attic. Some are clippings going back 130 years. He's in his 70s and does not have a computer, but is a rich source of information. Hopefully, someone will help him photocopy his collection and keep a separate copy outside of his attic. Another local historical society is staffed by very serious volunteers, but again, just a few hours a week. Even very good historians may have wonderful items in their vertical files, but only work 4 or 6 hours a week at it.

For a variety of reasons, a library may have destroyed or no longer maintain a vertical file. Some feel the Internet has made vertical files obsolete, and some may no longer have the space or manpower to maintain a vertical file. The tragedy is that some information contained in these vertical files is unique and may not exist elsewhere.

Pardon me, but that destruction is truly shortsighted. One never knows that a researcher will ask for. Another example: the local newspaper folded one of its afternoon papers, and destroyed its own clippings. Now, that newspaper tells their reporters to come to the library! Just this morning one of the local writers was in using very interesting reports of just a few pages - reports that were in the vertical file.

The good news is that many libraries may have indexed their vertical files and placed that index online, allowing researchers to search by keyword or browse alphabetically by subject. You can then request a copy of the file, either by online, by phone or mail, and of course, in person at the repository.

How to find them:

To find libraries and archives that hold vertical files, you can do a Google search with the keywords "vertical file index" and browse the results for your locality of interest, or add the state name to the keywords, i.e. vertical file index Alabama. A more general search for the term "library vertical file" (and may be followed by state) may also turn up some interesting results, but will also turn up items of a more general nature than just available indexes.

A good example of a state library vertical file online index is the South Carolina State Library Vertical File. The site includes a description of its holdings and information for requesting copies, followed by an alphabetical index; a biographies index; and subject headings by topic. The Texas State Library & Archives is another outstanding example of an online vertical file index. [ ] Also good is the University of Utah, J. Willard Marriott Library, [] which is the Western Americana Vertical & Clipping File Index. A good example at the local level is the Monroe County, Indiana Public Library Vertical File Index, which includes the vertical files of Monroe County Historical Society's History Center. [ ] Also, The Kansas City Public Library's Missouri Valley Special Collections Vertical File Index [], which includes a description of individual folder contents, although copies of the file itself must be requested.

So, what other kinds of things might be found in such a vertical file? Trade catalogs, which show what a company made; if your ancestor worked there, it might even mention his or her name. Subway or train or bus schedules - which would give an idea how long it took for your ancestor to get to work, if you know where they lived and where they worked. Churches oftentimes have Sunday bulletins and, of course, births, marriages, and deaths appear in those bulletins. School items such as class histories, descriptions of courses, and sports results with pictures might be in there too. War-related items such as soldier substitutes, actual ration cards, notices of casualties and memorial services are yet another in kind or genealogically relevant items that could be filed in such folders.

And that leaves picture files - which properly should be dealt with in another article (as well as filed separately in reality).

The long and the short of it is, vertical files can be highly valuable genealogical tool, and while many vertical file indexes are available online, do not overlook the vertical files at the local libraries in your area of interest, files that may not be indexed nor available online.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2011.

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

*Effective May 2010, GenWeekly articles that are more than five years old no longer require a subscription for full access.

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