Oregon Historical Society building

Using archives, libraries and historical or family history societies

It can be hard to remember that not everything has been digitized and made available online due to the constant flood of new data collections being released by databases.

However, these represent only a small fraction of the records and other items of interest that may help you in your family history research.
These bodies offer access to books, databases, collections of letters, official documents, photographs and much more.

  • All of which may offer hard evidence in your genealogical search or…
  • May add local colour, fill in the informational cracks and tell you what was happening in your ancestors’ world.
  • They may also give good advice for other places to search and experts to consult.

What are archives?

Archives keep records of individuals or organisations with significant historical, cultural or administrative value. Often these are unique ie. the information was only recorded in one place and thus can only be accessed at the archive holding that record collection.

Archives are created:

  • for the specific purpose of maintaining and preserving important records,
  • to provide access to records for reasons of historical scholarship or for
  • the accountability of the organisation creating the records.

What about libraries?

Libraries keep a range of different materials and resources, including published works, which are not necessarily unique. They allow public access to published works and other resources such as images, maps and newspapers and sometimes they also hold unique manuscript collections.

Historical or Family History/Genealogical Societies

These societies promote and encourage the study of local and family history in the area in which they are based though they can be family, religion or topic based such as the Bunker Family Association or the American Jewish Historical Society. They are often volunteer organisations comprised of individuals who love genealogy and history. Do not assume that because a body is called a ‘historical society’ that they will have no interest for genealogists. As an example, the Historical Society of Pennsylvania says that they are,’ one of the most complete and professional genealogy centers in the nation.’

Societies engage in projects such as recording memorial inscriptions in graveyards and transcribing a variety of record sets. Increasingly, they provide access to digitised records via society websites and membership is usually available which typically gives access to these record sets as well as the expertise of other members.

Being in the company of people who are passionate about your hobby can be quite intoxicating particularly if your spouse or friends tend to glaze over upon hearing your latest genealogical finds!

Finding and accessing archives, libraries and societies

There are lists of archives, libraries and societies available online which give contact details and links to websites for further information. Many also belong to umbrella organisations such as the Federation of Family History Societies and these often also give contact details.

There are online catalogues available for many archives, libraries and societies and some of these will be covered in greater depth elsewhere on the course. However, it is often the case that these are made available on a country wide basis such as ArchivesCanada.ca which is a portal for archives across Canada.

The resources in the ‘See Also’ section below can be consulted for more information on the topic.

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This article is from the free online course:

Genealogy: Researching Your Family Tree

University of Strathclyde