Southern California Genealogical Society
SCGS RESEARCH ASSISTANCE - Articles

Refresher Course: Archivists and Genealogists
By Barbara McKinlay

For beginners and experts, it’s always good to remember the first principles of research.

Archivist: The custodian of archives; usually archives, documents, or records relating to the activities, rights, claims, treaties, constitutions, etc., of a family, corporation, community, nation or historical figure.

Genealogist: One who traces or studies the ancestry and descent of a person, family, or group.

The appearance of a genealogist is often a signal for an archivist to grit his teeth and prepare for at least 15 minutes of irrelevant, rambling family history chat.

Likewise, the aloof, unsympathetic stare of an archivist may be enough to force a genealogist to waste valuable time searching without direction because of the dread he feels at asking for help.

The worst errors on the part of both people may be caused by inexperience. In the case of the genealogist, it is usually lack of preparation; in the case of the archivist, it is the inability to provide the clue to historical treasures.

Both should enjoy working together. It is exciting to find a new record, and it is equally exciting to be the one who brings it to light.

First, let’s talk about the genealogist. He has to do his homework. That may take a considerable amount of time. But no trip to a library or archive should be undertaken without a pedigree chart and the accompanying family history sheets. Both the genealogist and the archivist must have something objective for reference. After that, a careful analysis of the information to be sought, and the place it is most likely to be found, may be made.

Archives are very special sources that house original records. A little detective work can often turn up data about the holdings of a particular repository. An analysis of a pedigree chart can churn up a possible list of items that might be located--church or Bible records, collection of family information about specific families, minutes of an organization, etc. With such a list, and a pedigree chart, the archivist can then guide the researcher.

A genealogist should also be prepared to ask leading questions of the archivist about the collection:

  1. Are there special card files?
  2. Are there collections of material from specific organizations--churches, businesses, etc.?
  3. Is there a manuscript or volume describing the collection?
  4. How large an area does the collection represent?
  5. Are there films or books that can be borrowed on inter-library loan?

Questions like these will most likely elicit further information.

Any correspondence should state clearly and precisely the kind of information the genealogist is seeking and include a pedigree chart. A self-addressed, stamped envelope should always be enclosed.

Some archives are extensive and house books as well as original records. However, few can employ a large staff of people. Those who work there are usually busy trying to catalog the records they have. Since the records may be old and valuable, it may mean the archivist will have to stay with the patron until he is finished with the material.

Care should be taken not to abuse the privilege of using such a repository, and genealogists should keep their time there to a minimum. Go properly equipped to copy the material you are provided. You may not be allowed to make photocopies due to the fragility of the document, and some research facilities forbid the use of any type of pen. So carry extra, sharpened pencils, in case you break the point--or are lucky enough to wear it down.

What about the archivist? She has an awesome responsibility. She holds the key that unlocks the treasures under her jurisdiction. She needs to look very carefully at the pedigree sheet so she may offer more precise suggestions as to the records that may disclose new facts about a family. She alone knows the special card catalogs, the manuscript collection, the church records from the defunct churches in the area, the old parish records and the countless other riches. By asking pertinent questions about religion, military service, places where people lived for a long time, etc., she can match the records available with families. She may also be able to suggest other archives that would reward the genealogist.

Archives abound. Scratch around and you will find that most states have established archives. Many businesses have historians, and schools and large organizations often attempt to catalog their records. Most religious organizations also have one or more such records-storage facilities. There are all sorts of possibilities. Letters to a state library, school or an institution, as well as careful reading of footnotes giving the source of material referred to will help you ferret out many unthought-of depositories.

There are two books that will provide information regarding a great number of names and addresses of archives, libraries and other holdings. One is “Directory of Archives and Manuscript Repositories in the U.S.” It is published by National Historic Publications and Records Commission, and may be found at the SCGS Library in the reference section.

Another is one that is a standard in the field of family research, “The Source.” This book is also available at the SCGS Library and should be in the hands of any serious genealogist.


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