How to Expand Your Research beyond the Internet
This is second in a three-part series that offers tips and tricks to those who are ready to move beyond online research. Read part one.
When it comes to online genealogical research, “there comes a point when we have to recognize that we need to break out and start to use other types of materials,” said RootsTech 2017 presenter D. Joshua Taylor, president of the New York Genealogical and Biographical Society. Taylor offered some helpful suggestions for those who are ready to expand their research beyond internet resources.
“Just because we have a lot of records online does not negate the fact that we still have to dig into sources that aren’t yet online,” Taylor said. “In fact, many times we go just as far as we can with those online resources until we have to start heading to a localized repository.”
Start Thinking Outside the Box
When we start pairing on-site research with online research, “it’s important for us to get our mindset away from being a genealogist and being a researcher, and [start] thinking about the different aspects of someone’s life that might be captured somewhere,” Taylor said.
Perhaps you had an ancestor who was a farmer; farmers have tools, and sometimes tools break. In a case like this, it might be a good idea to see if the blacksmith in your ancestor’s hometown kept a financial log of his customers.
Remember, “anything that has to do with money normally has a paper trail somewhere.” You might be able to tie your ancestor to a specific place and time by finding a transaction of some sort.
Specialized Libraries and Archives
Taylor suggested tapping into the collections of state archives and historical societies, many of which have original manuscripts that can provide essential information to any research project. “Records from state archives and historical societies will not be easily found through internet search engines, as they are often contained within a catalog or proprietary system inaccessible by search crawlers,” Taylor said.
Simple online searches will turn up archives and societies that you can go and explore. Just type in your state followed by the keywords “state archive.” For example, you might search for “Alabama state archive.”
You might be surprised by what you can learn from paying your ancestor’s hometown a visit. Taylor recommends contacting locals before you get there if possible. “It never hurts to make an advanced contact, and sometimes you’ll find a very, very nice volunteer or a nice archivist that will actually work to do some of the research ahead of time.”
Taylor shared a funny story about visiting a home in Illinois one Sunday afternoon that he believed belonged to his second great-grandfather, taking hundreds of pictures of the home, and having coffee and tea with the current owner. The next morning, he decided to visit the town’s public library and encountered an unexpected surprise. When he began to tell the librarian about the lovely afternoon he’d spent in his second great-grandfather’s home, the librarian gave him what he called “a very, very interesting smile, which kind of looked like [she was thinking,] ‘You’re an idiot.’” She proceeded to tell him he’d visited the wrong house and that the streets had changed in 1906. She then offered him a guide she’d created that showed those changes. Later that day, he found the correct home, took more pictures, and had another lovely afternoon. His takeaway from the experience: “That’s the type of value you get with heading on-site and talking to someone that actually knows the process rather than trying to do it on your own.”
You might be surprised to consider an antique store as a place to conduct research, but visiting an antique store in the hometown of your ancestors can turn up exciting information and, of course, antiques!
Taylor shared another story of visiting an antique store in Deposit, New York, the hometown of some of his ancestors. After some pleasant conversation about estate sales and the family name of Stiles, Taylor ended up with several schoolbooks that had belonged to his third great-uncle and found out he had just missed the opportunity to purchase a portable farm bed that had been owned by his fourth or fifth great-grandfather. Now, Taylor says, “I walk into an antique store every time I get a chance in a local town, because you never know what will have ended up there.”
If you’re visiting your ancestor’s hometown, don’t pass up the opportunity to pay the local library a visit, “even if the public library wasn’t established until they had been dead and buried for 150 years. Public libraries are, of course, a center for research, and they might have a lot of information about families that lived there in the past.”
Local Museums and Genealogical Societies
Again, in the hometowns of your ancestors, visit any museums, and see if they have manuscripts and written materials that you can research. Sit down and have conversations with the locals. Try to collect objects or information that might tell you more about a person’s past or life story.
Colleges and Universities
Collections often end up in colleges and universities because they have significant archives or because a faculty member was interested in a particular subject.
For example, an incredible archive of the medical histories and treatments of Confederate soldiers exists in Boston, Massachusetts, because during the 1940s a professor studied the treatment and the medical treatments of Confederate soldiers in the Civil War. Finding Confederate history sitting up in Yankee Massachusetts was an unexpected discovery
! This brings up another important point Taylor shared: archives can travel. You won’t always find collections and information you’re looking for where you think you’ll find them. It’s often beneficial to approach your research with an open mind.
American Antiquarian Society
The American Antiquarian Society, or AAS, in Worcester, Massachusetts, is also a valuable resource. “This organization collects … items printed before 1820 anywhere in the United States or elsewhere in the world, in some cases. And so if someone printed a broadside or a pamphlet in the year 1800, it’s very possible there was a copy of it at the AAS library.”
Keep in mind that to use this resource, you have to go through a local or public library, because you can’t subscribe as an individual. But it’s worth checking into. The society has newspapers, imprints, fliers, recipes, funeral sermons, genealogies, and more. “It’s resources like this that make a repository, like the American Antiquarian Society, a very important resource if you’re looking for families in the U.S. before 1820.”
Now you’re ready to tackle some of the more challenging and often exciting research involving your family history. Try something new, take a drive, plan a trip, visit an antique store. You never know what you might find!