When searching for school records it is important to keep in mind the type of records available; the time period and location; and who was in charge -- knowing who was in charge at a particular time in history (see Part 2 of this series) will help in knowing where to look for records.
Where to Begin
A good education system speaks well of a community. For this reason, in addition to a history of the community itself and information on individuals and families, local area histories often provide considerable information on education within the community. For example, in the local area history, Yesterday in Hall County, the chapter on Education gives an accounting that goes on for 10 pages, providing not only the general history, but information on school districts, buildings, administration, teachers, students (where known), including the consolidation of schools and shifts in administrative control. Anyone looking for school history or school teachers in that Texas county would find the book an excellent reference.
Places to Look for School Records
School records might be found just about anywhere, and some will be online. Even for those records that are not online, you may be able to find references online, through the websites of various repositories. You can browse collections, or search for a particular name or school records, in general, for your locality. You may also want to search by organization, even by the title of a specific work, or any combination of the above.
As noted in the previous article, schools were under different jurisdictions at different times in history, and there are many different kinds of schools. School records for many locations and institutions have been microfilmed -- and many have not. The good news is that many have been donated and preserved, others have been extracted or otherwise transcribed and published. And some may very well reside right where they originated, a the school itself. While the following sources may sound like standard genealogical fare, thinking about these sources in terms of school records may give you a fresh outlook.
Libraries. Libraries are a key resource in researching school records. The LDS Family History Library, in particular, and other genealogy libraries have collections from across the country, both in books and microfilmed records. You would want to look in a library's card catalog (most are online) for school records within your locality of interest. WorldCat allows you search hundreds of libraries at one time.
As school records can be listed under a variety of subject headings, you may wish to experiment with different keywords and subject headings: town records; charity schools (or other school type); school minutes; annual reports; teacher appointments; teacher contracts; teacher examination records; school employee records and lists; school census, etc. To narrow results, you will always want to include the locale.
Local public libraries (many have special genealogy departments or collections), may have local records and records of nearby communities. Public libraries in larger areas are likely, also, to have records beyond those of their local community such as neighboring towns, counties, or even other states.
State libraries in addition to college and university libraries are excellent places to look for early town, county, and church records, and school records, in general. The Library of Congress photo and manuscript collections may even have school-related records for your area of interest. Many libraries have digitized collections of books, documents, and photographs, available online. Other resources, include library vertical files and photo collections, which may have records of individuals, organizations, events -- a good place to look for class photos.
Keep in mind, also, the genealogical value of a library's special collections (rare and one-of-a-kind materials) and manuscript collections; a school's administrative records are often donated to a library and filed in its manuscript collections. Also, the donated papers of individuals, especially those of educators, may very well have school record information -- such collections may be found at libraries, state archives, or historical societies. So you may want to pay close attention to the name of local teachers and administrators, who may have left a collection of papers. Libraries may also provide free access to many subscription websites and newspaper databases. And don't forget the previously mentioned local area histories (city/town or county), which may be found on library shelves, in digitized collections, or just about anywhere online.
State Archives & Historical Societies. A valuable source not to be overlooked. The focus of state archives and historical societies, as well as local genealogical societies, is preserving the local history. For that reason, a great many types of materials from all walks of life are donated to these organizations, including those of schools and school districts. Like libraries, the collections of state archives (often combined with state libraries) and historical societies are many and diverse, true treasure troves of information. The websites of these organizations are an excellent place to search and browse.
Local Genealogical Societies. Not only do genealogical societies strive to preserve the local history, they are pro-active in searching out, transcribing, and publishing their work. Much of the work is published in a society's periodicals over time, and some in specialized volumes: they may include extracted records, histories, biographies, and other articles. The publications of genealogical societies are variously held at any number of libraries, and may be available through the society itself. One of the best places to search, however, is PERSI, the Periodical Source Index, available through your local public library and online at Ancestry.com. Sponsored by the Allan County Public Library in Ft. Wayne, Indiana, PERSI is an index aimed at identifying topics of interest and indicating where the publication containing an article may be found; users also have the option of ordering a copy of one or more articles from the Allan County Library for a nominal fee.
Schools & Colleges. Some records are held at the school or school administrative level: local and state school districts and school boards. This is an important resource, but it may take some patience in getting a response: you may want to try old-fashioned letter writing, or even a phone call. Schools of course, include everything from public schools, to private schools, academies, military schools, boarding schools, orphan school, farm schools, early common schools, charity or church schools, missionary schools, ethnic schools; specialized performance or vocational schools, teacher seminaries, colleges and universities. As discussed in the first section of this article, it is important to become familiar with the school history of the local area, and then look for the types of records maintained by different organizations, keeping in mind the time period of who was in charge and maintaining the records. Wherever information is to be found on individual districts, schools, and students, will also be found the records of teachers and administrators -- many of whom began their careers as teachers.
Online. Researchers can check online for any of the repositories mentioned above, as most organizations and institutions today have an online presence, with at least an online catalog and/or inventory of holdings, if not online digitized collections. Online research can be divided into free and fee-based material; many allow you to search for free but may charge a pay-per-view, monthly or annual subscription.
Among the free websites are FamilySearch.org, which provides online access to the digitized records of the Family History Library and the Family History Library Card Catalog. The Family History Archive at BYU is another free resource, offering a growing collection of family histories, local area histories, and more. Other free sites are yearbook websites such as Old-Yearbooks.com (some are free and some are not); USGenWeb county pages which contain a wealth of local records, including school records; online records at RootsWeb, and the information and collections available on private websites. Also important are the ever-growing collections of free, full-text materials of every sort at Internet Archive and Google Books. As noted, PERSI is also a valuable online source, available through your local public library's online access and at Ancestry.com. WorldCat, which you can search through LiveRoots, is another useful tool -- a catalog of works held at hundreds of libraries, a WorldCat search can help you identify titles and find out where materials are located.
Also free, volunteer and private websites often contain school records of various types for individuals, localities, and institutions. Such information is typically found through a search engine, using a combination of school-related keywords and locality; you might even try your ancestor's name. It's amazing, really, how many record transcripts have been put online by individuals with no particular affiliation. A LiveRoots search will often unearth private websites, as well as a host of other genealogy-resources.
Many of the record types discussed in this series can also be found on various subscription websites such as GenealogyToday.com, Ancestry.com, fold3.com, WorldVitalRecords.com, etc., which, as noted, can be searched for free at many libraries. The value of a subscription site is the indexing that allows a more expedient search of its contents. And do not overlook newspapers. Teachers are often mentioned in various contexts in newspapers. Many subscription newspaper sites can be searched for free at local libraries, and many can be found for free |online. The Historical Newspapers Online website is a good starting point.
Finally, the Genealogy Today Subscription Database has an extensive collection of school records of various types. You can search for your ancestor's surname and then narrow the search with given name, location, and time period.
Other Articles in this Series