Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Creating a Personal Finding Aid
for Local Research

One thing I learned from growing up at the far reaches of one of the world's largest cities is that cities have really neat historical resources. Like libraries. And museums.

It took me a little longer than my childhood years in the New York City metro to realize there were other repositories that come in handy for research, as well. Words like "archives" had to get added to my growing lexicon as my interest in family history expanded. The coming of digitized records seemed to flood me with additional resources, but sometimes blinded me to the possibility of finding tucked-away gems in real life.

Now that I'm living in a much smaller city—our town's population ranks us just above Saint Louis, Missouri, in size—it seems I've forgotten how much can be found locally to help with local research. In my own town, for instance, I've known about the private collection at the Haggin Museum, our local art and history museum, and, of course, the county's record collection at the county historical society's museum.

But how many other things do we know because they got lodged in our brain seemingly by osmosis? The drip-by-drip learning that comes with living in a community for decades is a type of learning we take so much for granted that we dismiss the value of it. And yet, it took me a visit to the bank our genealogical society uses for our financial business to get my memory jogged about their hundred and fifty year history, despite being aware for who knows how long that this bank has a phenomenal archive of local photographs and other memorabilia. I just didn't think to put two and two together.

There are several such research gems tucked away in our county—the kinds of places you just gotta know about. They aren't places with a world-class public relations program; in fact, they often operate on a shoe-string budget powered by true believers who provide the energy and determination to kick-start a noble mission. Sometimes, the only way people find out about such places is to stumble upon them.

Over the course of the years I've worked with my local genealogical society, for instance, I've been introduced to our city's chapter of the Filipino American National Historical Society, and the Chicano Research Center. I've learned about the history and heritage-preserving missions of several other local organizations, as well. That's what comes from living in the same community for so many years.

But let's suppose we need to learn about such tucked-away gems in another community. Say, what about researching in a place where we've never tried our genealogical hand before? Like Council Bluffs, Iowa, home of the Sherradan photography studio where the portrait of our mystery Mr. and Mrs. Albert Roberts was taken, well over one hundred years ago.

To proceed in searching for my answer on the identity of the right Albert Roberts, it would help if I knew more about the research resources tucked away in the Council Bluffs area. Of course, I can contact the local library's reference librarian, scope out the local genealogical society, determine whether there is a historical society with a photography archives—and all that, I have done.

But we can push beyond those usual first stops on the research circuit. I've had excellent success, in working on research projects in other regions, by just posting an inquiry on those old-fashioned online genealogy bulletin boards, where some kind soul has mentioned a local research gem not generally known by outsiders. I've also learned, once finding an answer, to also ask, at that location, where else I can find more stuff just like what I've just found. After evaluating all the tips myself and eliminating those which really didn't pan out as useful leads, I've added the useful discoveries to my own list of finding aids, just in case my family history questions lead me back along that path again in the future.

You may hear the term "finding aid" used by archivists, and it may sound like a far-reaching notion for the "little ol' me" researcher. But don't put yourself in that box. The family history questions you are tackling are just as informative as any other researcher's history quest. Despite perhaps having a more limited sphere of influence, the information you find on the actions taken by your ancestors still can be discoveries that make a significant difference for you and your generation of their descendants.

Creating your own personal finding aid for new locations you are researching doesn't have to be as complex as this example from the Society of American Archivists, but the format can give you an idea of what people generally find helpful in such a researcher's guide. While places such as the United States' own National Archives consider finding aids as indispensable tools, even the National Archives acknowledges that finding aids can be created by "private organizations and parties." Why not us?

So, as I struggle with this research roadblock in identifying just which Albert Roberts is the right identity for the antique photograph I found, I may as well lay a foundation for return trips for further research in Council Bluffs. One never knows when such a tool will come in handy again.

Besides, in the making of it for this first attempt, it will enable me to broaden my horizons and reach out to people with pockets of specialized knowledge that I may never otherwise have encountered. I'll be out there, asking questions about where I can go to find answers about my specific research question. The path may take a few twists and turns, but at the end of the process, if I keep both my research journal and a record of the resources I've discovered, I'll be better prepared to tackle such a problem again. Better yet, I'll also be able to pass along the advice to others who could use the help. 

Research as if you lived there all your life. Then share, when you finally stumble upon the answers.


  1. Your mention of "bank" reminded me of a little community bank in Timberville, Virginia, my husband's hometown. Today Timberville looks like nothing much, and one would think it never was much. Surely there is no history there. Wrong. In the center of the bank is a glass case filled with old photos, the most interesting old photos you can imagine. So you are right - don't underestimate the devotion of local citizens when it comes to their small town. They will keep that past alive.

    1. Yes! And what a treasure trove a find like that can be! Interesting example, Wendy. Thanks for sharing this. It's very encouraging.

  2. Good advice, I know there are many references that are hands on and not on the internet. I need to keep a journal also, I do have a find wa grave journal but I need to organize it.

    1. If anyone would know that, it would be you, Far Side!

      Lately, I've been going for easiest-to-maintain plans. No muss, no fuss...only the online version. I've taken to saving links, records, notes and other items in a filing system, both in Word docs and in my email program (just saving the emails to those topic folders). I figured if it isn't an easy system, I would end up not using it.


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