02 April 2014

Are you using manuscript collections for your genealogy research? If not, the gems you might be missing!!

Robin Foster recently wrote a neat post for the examiner.com, Records among manuscripts document the former owner and enslaved where she talks about ...

Manuscript collections probably stand first in line among records least utilized in genealogical research. Two reasons for this could be:
1.      Researchers do not know how to access manuscript collections.
2.      Researchers do not understand the types of records found in manuscript collections.

Though the focus of her article was African American research, most of what she talks about holds true for anyone’s research.  All of the types of records she has mentioned, I have found these in manuscript collections.  Additionally I have found court records (loose, minutes and dockets), tax records and much more. There are such hidden gems to be found in manuscript collections.

The really nice part is that it’s getting easier and easier to access these collections in terms of determining what records they include.  Many finding aids are being put online and increasingly, content from collections is being digitized and made available.  It used to be that you physically had to visit these university libraries and access their old-fashioned card catalog to even determine what collections they held.  Nowadays, I can determine online for many manuscript collections what their holdings are and sometimes even access what I need directly.  If I’m not able to personally visit a particular manuscript collection, I have found that most will provide a “researchers” list upon request or I use the Association of Professional Genealogists (APG) directory to find someone local.

I have easy access to several university libraries including NC State, Duke, and UNC (Chapel Hill).  All of these have excellent manuscript collections not just for NC records.  I have accessed audio tapes, civil war diaries, Texas railroad records, the records for a British publishing house, church records, plantation account books, doctor’s records, court records, Cherokee Indian documents, etc.

Though it’s always good to look and see if a manuscript collection for a particular surname, don’t give up when you don’t find a match!  Any records created in the county or community or by a neighbor can be invaluable.  Not too long ago I wrote a piece, Alcohol -- Legal and Illegal has a long history in the U.S. -- Did your ancestor's imbibe? where I talk about the extant account books of a Burke County (NC) businessman which tells all about the local citizenry and it’s purchases of alcohol in the community.  Talk about getting a personal glimpse at your ancestors!

Additionally, I have acquired records from these collections that are currently being abstracted (or transcribed) for the Wake County Genealogical Society including church records, a diary, an African-American family’s private papers, a plantation book, and volumes created by a local physician and in the past we found loose court records, registers of a local business and other materials where many many names of the local citizenry can be found.

All of the mentioned university collections have easy ways to search their finding aids and determine what material has been digitized.

Duke                Search Finding Aids                  Digital Collection
NC State          Search Finding Aids                  Digital Collection
UNC                 Search Finding Aids                  Digital Collection           Digitized Southern Historical Collection (alphabetical list)  

And, manuscript collections aren’t limited to university and college libraries.  State archives, religious archives, historical properties, county history museums and many other facilities have manuscript collections.

Check out those where you live and also check out those where your ancestors lived. Recognize that “where” a descendant ended up often becomes the “last home” for collections which may not have any connection to that locale!  So, knowing where the other descendants ended up might provide access to invaluable records when you search those local manuscript collections.  After all, here in NC I have researched Texas railroad records, read letters received from relatives who lived outside of NC, examined plantation records from Alabama for a family with deep NC roots, etc.

What’s your favorite manuscript collection?

Do you have a particular “type” of record found in manuscript collections that you find invaluable?

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