Family Foodways

Merriam-Webster’s dictionary perhaps says it best. Foodways are the “eating habits and culinary practices of a people, region, or historical time period.” Foodways include the growth and production of food, methods of cooking, spices, who cooked the food, social occasions, and special events. Even the intangibles such as aroma, food’s association with memories, folktales and Read More

October is American Archives Month

October is American Archives Month, and institutions throughout the country are celebrating! Here are seven ways you can get involved: 1) Attend an event Many archives will be having special events throughout the month. These might include open houses, lectures, tours, exhibits or other activities. Check the websites of nearby repositories, including college campuses, public Read More

Strike it Rich with Freedman’s Bank Records

By now, many researchers may be familiar with the massive collection of federal records produced by the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands (BRFAL), more commonly known as the “Freedmen’s Bureau.” But a frequently overlooked source, with a very similar name, holds a wealth of detail as well. Records from the Freedman’s Savings and Read More

5 Hidden Questions in the U.S. Federal Census

It doesn’t take long for even a beginning genealogist to recognize the value of federal population census schedules. Tracing a family or individual back through censuses, taken every ten years, makes building a family tree or pedigree relatively easy. But within these schedules, even experienced researchers may forget or overlook these “hidden” questions from certain census years. Read More

“Prologue” Magazine

Guest post by Linda Barnickel Whether you are exploring National Archives records found on Ancestry, planning a research trip to our nation’s capital, or just want to know more about American history, Prologue, the quarterly publication from the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), is an outstanding resource. For decades, Prologue has guided researchers, authors,… Read more

5 Tips for Getting the Most from City Directories

City directories are useful for the year-by-year portrait they can paint of our ancestors. They document their moves, changes in occupation, and may note the widowed status of a wife who has recently lost her husband. All of this information can be obtained by simply looking up an ancestor’s name. But consider the other types of information… Read more

Archives Month: Celebrating and Capturing Oral History

Her voice is raspy, at times, nearly impossible to understand. At 105 years-old, Alice Mikel Duffield had seen her share of living. Though her hearing and eyesight was failing, her memories remained strong. She could tell me with pride about the new outfit she got when she left the service in 1918, when she had been an Army nurse at Camp Pike, Arkansas.

She grew up in the countryside near New Jenny Lind, Arkansas, not far from the town of Fort Smith. She could still remember her family’s arrival at a log cabin which was to be their new home. Her father was a coal-miner.

As a young woman, Alice vowed never to get married after a breakup with a beau. She decided to go to nursing school in Fort Smith. She was there when the United States entered World War I, and after a time working for the Red Cross, she joined the Army as a nurse.

While at Camp Pike, she tended to wounded soldiers and was there when the great influenza epidemic struck, killing so many men that the morgue ran out of space for the bodies.

In the course of a two-hour interview, recorded in 2002, Alice recalled her childhood and youth, two marriages, raising a family, voting for the first time, and a lifelong career as a nurse, much of it working for the VA Hospital system. Her lifetime spanned over a century, from 1896 to 2002, and she died just a month after her interview.

Of course, this oral history, conducted as part of the Library of Congress’s Veterans History Project, would be a treasure to any of Alice’s descendants. But it could prove useful to any number of genealogists who are not related to her.

Did you have an ancestor who was involved in coal mining in the early 1900s? Someone who lived in a rural area near Fort Smith? Someone who was a nurse? What about a soldier who was hospitalized at Camp Pike during World War I? Alice’s own personal experiences, recounted in her oral history interview, could provide valuable context to your own ancestors’ stories.

We have often heard the genealogical adages to “start at home” and “speak to your older relatives.” But have you considered how other people’s relatives might be able to tell your own family’s story?

Oral history is a rich and rewarding resource for contextual information about places, living conditions, and similar experiences. More and more oral history resources – as audio or as written transcripts – or both – are becoming available online.

Veterans History Project

Veterans History Project

The Veterans History Project at the Library of Congress is just one (very large) example. But countless universities, state and local historical societies, public libraries, and other institutions hold innumerable interviews on a wide range of topics.

In most cases, oral history interviews conducted by these types of organizations will have some sort of theme or focus. It may be specific to a certain geographic area – as broad as an entire state or as localized as a single neighborhood. Particular occupations or certain demographics (gender, race, ethnicity, age, religion, etc.) might be a focus. Participation in certain historic events, such as the Holocaust or the Civil Rights Movement might be emphasized. The themes are virtually limitless.

So how does one go about identifying an oral history project that might prove relevant to your own family history? First, think about what it is you want to search for. Use an internet search engine to try some locality searches, accompanied by the term “oral histories.” Then change the focus of your search from location to topics, as you would when you would seek out any other type of contextual information. Try occupations, military service, sports, fraternal organizations, labor unions, or any other type of situation where you could learn something about your own family’s experiences by listening to others who had similar experiences.

Here are a few examples, emphasizing localities, occupations, or historic events:

The Giles County Oral History Project was conducted in 1995 and 1996 to mark Tennessee’s Bicentennial, and today these interviews are located at the Tennessee State Library and Archives.

Ten years later, a different project from Humanities Tennessee and the Elkton Historical Society concentrated on just the southeastern part of Giles County. A brochure provides an overview, and locations discussed in the course of the interviews were mapped using StoryMapper.

The Baltimore Neighborhood Heritage Project from the Maryland Historical Society not only documents some specific neighborhoods in detail, but also serves as an excellent resource for immigrant history because so many nationalities settled in ethnic, religious, and cultural enclaves.

Did your ancestor work in the lumber industry? Try a Google search using the terms: lumbermen “oral history” and explore the results.

Perhaps your family endured the Dust Bowl of the 1930s on the Great Plains. This oral history project from Oklahoma State University will help you learn what it was like to experience a “black blizzard” (dust storm), and much more.

Finally, check out the Oral History Association website, which has links to numerous institutions throughout the country that have large oral history collections or discover a robust collection of oral histories from New York City, Ellis Island Oral Histories, 1892-1976 on Ancestry.

Capturing your own personal history? Visit Ancestry’s list of suggested interview questions to help your research.


Archives Month: Anatomy of Finding Aid

This is a guest post by Linda Barnickel

What are Finding Aids?

Finding aids are documents which are created by archives staff to assist researchers in learning about, navigating, and using individual archival collections. Many are available online from the institutions’ websites; others may be only available in hard-copy format for on-site use at the repository. Finding aids can vary considerably in their format and detail. Some may be simple lists, often just reproducing the headings contained on folders within a collection. This finding aid for Record Group 111 from the Tennessee State Library and Archives is one example.

Other finding aids may appear complex and detailed. Examples from the Wisconsin Historical Society and the Tyrrell Historical Library provide similar types of information, though the layout and display of the documents is quite different.

Let’s take a look at each of the major sections that are typically found in modern finding aids.

Descriptive Summary

One of the first sections a researcher may encounter is a summary section that provides the basic information about a collection. Usually this consists of title and creator information, the date span of materials, and the physical extent of the collection, often expressed in cubic feet or linear feet. It also will usually have a very brief abstract describing the subject matter of a collection.

Organization and Arrangement 

Another portion of the finding aid may be labeled “Organization and Arrangement.” This will often appear in the form of an outline, and may refer to groups of records called “Series.” Think of a “series” as a “chunk” of records that were created by the same source and that document the same or similar activities. For example, if I look at my own personal record-keeping, my household financial records might form one series; my personal correspondence with friends and family might be another series; and my genealogical research might make a third series. Series in archival collections may be broken down further into sub-series and even sub-sub series. Although it can be easy to skim over in a finding aid, paying attention to how a collection is organized into series may save you time and will help as you delve further into the details of the finding aid itself.

Historical Summary

This part of the finding aid provides helpful background information. This may take the form of a biographical sketch or, in the case of government, businesses, churches, clubs, or other organizations, an administrative history. Typically, important dates, places, and events will be highlighted. In a biography, this can include birth, death and marriage dates; spouse and children’s names; moves; significant activities such as starting a business, holding elected office, or serving in the military; and other noteworthy occurrences. For institutions, it can include information about when a particular business or club was organized, name changes and mergers, dates of important events, like a plant fire, labor strike, or dissolution; and much more.

For instance, let’s say we have a collection created by attorney Juris Prudence. He was notable for his work lobbying for veterans’ pensions after the Civil War, and served as a county court judge for eleven years. When he died in 1893, he was secretary of his state bar association. This is some of the basic information that would form his biographical sketch.

Scope and Content

Another section of the finding aid will be labelled as “Scope and Content.” This is the part of the finding aid that tells you about the actual materials in the archival collection. It is one of the more important parts of the finding aid, and is worth taking the time to read. While the biographical sketch provides you with much background information, keep in mind that it may or may not have any direct association with the contents of the collection. That’s why the scope and content statement is separate from the biographical sketch.

In the case of Mr. Prudence, the archival materials that make up his collection may scarcely discuss his legal career. Instead, they concentrate on his fondness for hunting. There are photographs taken of hunts in four western states, correspondence with hunting buddies and his hosts, and letters to his wife and son while he was away on hunting trips. This could be a useful collection for persons researching recreational hunting, how attorneys spent their leisure time, including issues related to class and leisure, the lessons Juris sought to teach his son about manhood, courage, and the great outdoors, and what he saw as priorities for his wife while he was away from home. The collection may prove a rich resource for these subjects, but someone seeking to learn about the legal profession and Prudence’s role in it might come away disappointed. That’s why scope and content statements are so important.

Administrative Information

Another section is usually labelled “Administrative Information.” This will indicate the status of intellectual property rights (copyright), and any special physical conditions or special handling notes, such as “some pages torn” or “no photocopies due to fragile condition.”

Index Terms

This section of the finding aid is a list of keywords or “index terms” that help describe the contents of the collection. Sometimes these lists may be quite long. Scanning these lists can be useful to gain a greater understanding of the topics discussed in the collection.

Contents List

Finally, and often occurring at the end, is a detailed “Contents List” or “Box and Folder List”. This is the heart of the finding aid, allowing a researcher to identify which folder in which box she would like to examine. The box and folder list of a finding aid is what enables the researcher to submit a specific request to the archives staff, and is what ultimately brings the original archival documents to her for her examination.

Finding aids can seem intimidating, especially if you are new to archival research. But if you take some time to review them, or ask for guidance from reference staff on how to use them, your search can be made easier. It can be a worthwhile exercise to look at some online, just to become familiarized with some of the terms and common content of finding aids, regardless of institution. That way, you will be better prepared the next time you visit an archives to conduct research in original sources.

Learn more about conducting archival research in this brochure from the Society of American Archivists:

Using Archives: A Guide to Effective Research

Archives Month: Searching by Context

This is a guest post by Linda Barnickel.

Hundreds of thousands of records and manuscripts in their original form are housed in archives throughout the country. Archives, as used in this post, refers to unique, unpublished records of government, organizations, businesses or other institutions.


So, how do you go about identifying a collection of interest? Archives are all about context, so it is important to construct your search in a contextual manner.

Without realizing it, many genealogists may already be using a similar process. Have you used county records in your research? Maybe a will, deed, or court record? If so, then you have already used a contextual method of research, even if you don’t realize it. Let’s break it down into steps, as illustrated by the following diagram:



If you’ve done much genealogical research, you probably already know to focus your search on a specific county. Then you limit your search further by identifying the office which created or controlled the record of interest, in this case, the Register of Deeds. From there, you identify the type of record, such as a deed, and you may limit your search to a specific time period or volume. Creating your search in this manner may have been almost unconscious, but the point is, you did not begin your search by looking for an individual’s name. Yes, eventually, once you got to the record book, you likely consulted an index which directed you to a page where you could then find your relative’s name – but in reality this was nearly the last step, not the first.


Likewise, when seeking information at an archives, search based upon the context of your ancestor’s life. Was he a barber? a dentist? a professional wrestler? States, counties, or cities may have required these occupations to be licensed. A list of licensed occupations from the Archives of Michigan serves as one example.


Let’s look at another example of using a contextual search. Instead of searching directly for my ancestor’s name, Jonathan Griffith – I’ll try a broader search, just looking for the county where he lived, Smith County, Tennessee.


His signature was found on an 1834 petition to the Tennessee legislature from residents of Smith and neighboring counties, seeking the creation of a new county. In this particular instance, a short summary of the petition’s purpose is available at the Tennessee State Library and Archives (TSLA) website. This alerted me to the existence of this petition, helped me locate it, and guided me in determining that this might be a promising resource to check. Although the summary from TSLA did not provide a comprehensive list of names for the 200 people who signed this document, because I knew my ancestor lived in an area of Smith County that later became part of the new county of DeKalb, I knew there was a good chance that I might find his name on this document. (Source: Petition #46, 1834, Legislative Petitions (microfilm), Record Group 60: General Assembly Original Bills, Petitions, Reports, etc., Tennessee State Library and Archives.)


Did you ever consider looking for your ancestor of modest means in the papers of the governor? The case of Dolly Adcock, of Walterhill, Tennessee provides an example.


In May 1918, she beseeched Governor Tom Rye to get her husband, Eddie, out of the Army. She was in poor health and had just had a baby. She wanted Eddie to come home to care for her and their growing family, and work on the farm. Dolly’s cramped script and unorthodox spelling allow us a glimpse into her world.


Gov. Rye’s businesslike, typed letter is in contrast, and his reply makes it clear that he was powerless to fulfill her plea, even if he had been so inclined. Military service was a federal matter, not one subject to the governor’s influence. It’s not known what happened to Dolly, her children, or her husband – but her faded letter speaks volumes.

How did I find it? How might you go about finding something similar in any state or time period? Then, as now, ordinary citizens often made their opinions known to government representatives, including the governor of their state. Today, most governors’ papers are to be found in individual state archives. Most of these archives have also created what are called “finding aids,” which serve as a guide to research.

In the case of Dolly Adcock, because the governor’s correspondence is filed alphabetically by correspondent’s surname, I simply went to the governor’s correspondence from 1918, found the appropriate file for her part of the alphabet, and searched there. (See page 7 of the finding aid, which refers to microfilm roll 8, box 18, folder 4. These two letters mentioned above appear on frames 1008-1010 of the microfilm.)

Other governors in different places and times may have filed their records by topic or county. If that had been the case here, I might search for the topic of World War I or the draft, or for Rutherford County, where the community of Walterhill is located.

To be sure, finding an ancestor’s letter in governor’s papers or other archival records is a long shot. It requires time, effort, and often, expense and travel. Still, pleas like that of Dolly Adcock, or letters from other people in the community where your ancestor lived can provide excellent contextual information, even if your own ancestor is never mentioned by name.


Learn more about conducting archival research in this brochure from the Society of American Archivists:

Using Archives: A Guide to Effective Research

ArchiveGrid, containing descriptions of thousands of archival collections, is an excellent place to begin your search.

4 Things to Know Before Visiting an Archives

Guest post by Linda Barnickel.

October is Archives Month, and archival institutions throughout the U.S. are celebrating! This is the perfect chance to take the plunge if you’ve always wanted to go to an archive, but have hesitated to do so. Many institutions plan special events including open houses, exhibits, programs, and a variety of other activities. Whether you visit a local repository or travel a long distance, here are a few guidelines for first-time visitors to archives.

National Archives, Washington D.C., Library of Congress

National Archives, Washington D.C., Library of Congress

1) Familiarize Yourself with Policies

It is wise to spend some time at the website for the archives you plan to visit. Most institutions will post their policies and procedures, and it is worth your time to read through these documents in advance. Doing so will help you be better prepared, know what to expect, and save time during your visit.

2) Travel Light

A corollary to item #1 is to travel light. Most archival institutions have guidelines about what kinds of things researchers can bring with them. Big bags, briefcases, purses and coats are almost always prohibited in the reading room, though lockers are often provided for their secure storage nearby. File cases of any type, such as those made out of hard plastic or on wheels, may be prohibited entirely. Some institutions may limit your personal reference materials by format or quantity. Even note-taking materials are limited – pencils are acceptable, while pens are not.

3) Plan Extra Time

Archival institutions are different places than libraries, and researchers at any level of experience will find that research in archives simply takes more time. Allow yourself plenty of time to go through the registration process, secure your personal items, and learn the procedures necessary to request an item from the archives. Take a bit of time to familiarize yourself with the reading room, and to learn more about the catalog and other access tools, such as finding aids.

Even the process of examining archival materials during your research can be time consuming. You may have to examine the contents of an overstuffed folder page-by-page, or the documents may be extremely fragile, requiring a slow and delicate hand to turn them over without damage. It may be necessary to read slowly, in an effort to decipher faded handwriting or ornate script. Any number of circumstances may make for slow going, so plan accordingly.

4) Archives Are About Context

Archives, unlike libraries, do not arrange their materials by subject or Dewey Decimal number. Instead, documents and other materials are kept together as a unit, based upon the circumstances of their creation. In archivists’ lingo, this concept is known as provenance. Provenance essentially boils down to, “Who created these records and why, and what actions do they document?”

Another key concept relating to archives is “original order.” This means that however the records’ creator chose to organize those records, that organizational scheme will remain intact once those records come to an archive. That’s why sometimes you may encounter records that are organized in ways that may not be conducive to genealogical research – but were organized by a method that was perfectly appropriate and efficient given the original purpose of the records at the time of their creation.

Both provenance and original order are about context. Archivists believe that knowing how and why records were created, and maintaining the original order of records when they were actively being used, provides context that otherwise would be simply lost. This context, then, is important for any researcher to be aware of, and use to their advantage.

Future posts in this series will cover some of these subjects in greater detail. This post is only a quick introduction. Meanwhile, search the internet to see what activities in your community might be going on relating to Archives Month. Commit to visiting a local repository, if only to explore.

Don’t Suffer From Library Anxiety: How to Best Research in Libraries

Guest Post by Linda Barnickel

There’s a name for it. “Library anxiety.” We learned about this in library school.

BOSTON, MA - APRIL 7, 2012: Interior of Boston Public Library. The library was the first publicly supported municipal library in the United States.

Interior of Boston Public Library.

Symptoms: anxiety, uncertainty, sudden shyness, fear, worry that one might seem woefully ignorant, embarrassment, bewilderment, lack of confidence, and perhaps even shame that one should “know better” or already know the answers before the questions are even posed. If not treated, additional more-severe symptoms may develop, including: frustration, despair, a spirit of defeat, giving up, bitterness, and a vow to never do this again (whatever “this” is).

Most often, onset occurs when new genealogists enter a library for the first time in many years. Sure, they may have taken their children to storytime, or gone in to grab a beach read for summer, but it may have been since high school or college, years ago, since they last visited the library to conduct research.

“Library anxiety” can be prompted by several things:

1) Feeling ignorant, fearful of asking what the researcher believes are “stupid questions.”

2) Lack of familiarity with the individual library, or libraries in general.

3) Not wanting to “interrupt” a library worker’s other activities.

4) Uncertainty about how to begin one’s research, and thus, being unsure about what questions should be asked of the librarian.

Let’s take these one by one.

Fear of appearing ignorant

This should never be a concern, at least from a librarian’s point of view. The cure for ignorance is to ask questions, and seek the answers. The entire purpose of having libraries and librarians is to “aid information-seekers.” This implies that people have information needs (or questions) and the librarians are there to help. If everyone “knew the answer” before they walked in the library’s doors, most librarians would be out of a job. We love people who ask questions!

Lack of familiarity with libraries

Libraries have changed a lot over the years. If it has been just five years since you last visited a library, you may find a completely different environment from what was there at the time of your last visit. If it has been longer, like a decade or more, the changes will be even greater. The physical layout may have changed, technology is omnipresent – it may be unclear how to even go about locating or checking out a book. This can prompt feelings of fear and intimidation.

Again, however, the solution is to ask! Librarians are used to giving basic orientations to their collections and library catalogs. You may even be surprised to find that many genealogical libraries still rely heavily on microfilm – something you might vaguely remember from high school or college. A surprising quantity of material is not digitized, and must be used in person at a library facility. If you are used to doing an internet search or relying exclusively on the vast digital holdings of Ancestry, you are still missing out, despite the wealth of these resources.

Most libraries long ago got rid of their old catalog cards – literal paper index cards – housed in small oblong drawers. They replaced these card catalogs with computers, enabling keyword or free-text searching, and long-distance searching via the internet. This vastly improved access to their collections. However, even today, some institutions may still use a card file system for accessing some of their materials. If you haven’t used a card catalog in some years, you might be surprised at how spoiled we have gotten by being able to use keyword searching. Using a physical card catalog may take some patience, at first. Furthermore, some headings in these old catalogs might be odd or use obsolete terminology. For instance, one institution still had the term “European War” in their old catalog — because these cards were created after 1918 and before 1941 – when America had only experienced one war in Europe. Although they had a cross reference directing researchers from the heading “World War I” to the cards headed “European War,” some less-careful researchers could have assumed that no World War I materials existed at all. If you can’t seem to find what you are looking for – again, the solution is to ask!

Not wanting to interrupt a busy librarian

No librarian will tell you that he or she is not busy. After the economic downturn, coupled with the misguided assumption by some politicians that libraries are becoming obsolete due to the internet, many libraries have fallen on particularly difficult times. Staffing and hours have been slashed. Many librarians have found their work doubling or tripling. Yes, we are busy. But the heart of our job is to serve the public. All of our tasks revolve around this one ultimate responsibility. And the public includes genealogists. No matter what activity a librarian might be doing while they are seated at a reference desk, they are there to serve you, and to answer your questions. Sure, it may be a busy day, and the librarian may be fielding questions from three other patrons while taking a phone call – but we are good multi-taskers. If we are unable to give you our immediate attention, we will acknowledge you, and ask you to wait patiently while we assist others.

Genealogists can help by asking focused, specific questions. Unless your family was notable for some reason (founder of a town, prominent government official, etc.) librarians seldom require knowing your full family history in order to assist you. Typically, we simply need to know when and where (not whom), and perhaps the type of information you are seeking (such as a marriage record, or deeds). Then it is often a simple matter of us directing you to the appropriate materials in our collections.

To be sure, sometimes research questions are more complicated, and we’re happy to help with these types of inquiries as well. Once you ask us a question, we will probably ask you a series of further questions in order to aid us in directing you to the proper materials. Don’t be intimidated by this questioning on the part of the librarian; it is not a judgment of you or your inquiry, and you should not feel self-conscious about it. It is simply a routine process performed at countless reference desks across the country every day. And the ultimate goal is to help you find the information you need.

Uncertainty about what to research or ask

Beginners can be especially prone to feeling overwhelmed by the resources available. There may be a sense of “not knowing where to start”. Sometimes the best way to overcome these feelings of anxiety is to simply ask the librarian to give you an orientation to their collections. Genealogy collections vary widely from institution to institution, and even basic procedures, such as making photocopies, use of scanners or cameras, and general access to materials are governed by different policies at each facility. A typical orientation from a librarian will give you an overview of the various formats and subjects of materials that they have, and will also inform you about the most important policies and procedures for use of the collection. Often, after this initial overview, you will be able to identify a general area of interest – such as wanting to look at their newspapers on microfilm, for example. From there, it is simply a matter of asking to learn about how to use the microfilm readers and identifying the specific newspaper of interest. And you’ll be on your way!

Sometimes, you may have plenty of research experience at a particular institution, and the issue is not how to use their collections, but more “where do I go from here in my research?” Maybe you’ve checked for a marriage record, and come up empty-handed. Ask the librarian on duty if they have other ideas for your particular research problem. They might be able to suggest other records to consult, or they may be well enough informed that they may refer you to another institution.

All staff can be assumed to have basic knowledge about most of their holdings, and this is usually sufficient for most researchers’ needs. But if you find that your first inquiry with a staff member doesn’t lead you to productive sources – try asking another individual, later. Some libraries have a rotating staff attending the reference desk throughout the day, and chances are good that they will all have different perspectives on your research question. One staff member might specialize in 20th century immigrant research, for example, while another is especially good on the Revolutionary War. Clearly, if you are doing detailed research on these subjects, one individual will probably be of greater assistance than the other.

The Cure for Library Anxiety

There’s a saying that we must face our fears in order to overcome them. Therein lies the cure for the affliction known as “library anxiety.” Most librarians I know are genuinely friendly, and we want to help our customers. We can’t read minds, and we can’t answer questions that are not asked. If you say you don’t need help or just want to browse, we’ll respect that. But don’t feel like you should know it all, just by walking through the front doors. Always ask. That’s what we’re here for.