Category Archives: Austin Repositories

Accessing Archives from a Distance

I’ve tantalized you with what you might find in an archive in previous posts here and here. And I’ve given you some tips on how to find a collection that might apply to your personal research through the use of ArchiveGrid. Now, what happens if you find a collection in a repository that is far, far away?

You have three options:

  1. Create a research plan or list, saving all of the information you need to access that collection someday when you are nearby. I do this quite a bit for areas I think I might be visiting in the next 1-3 years and if it is on a personal project that is not time-sensitive. Save the URL to the collection, repository name, address, hours, and so on. I use Evernote for such a task. I have notebooks for various locations or repositories titled “Family History Library,” “Ohio Research Trip,” or “Washington DC.” And I just drop notes in there to access later. A word processing document, spreadsheet, or even a spiral notebook would work as well.
  2. Hire an on-site researcher. Many repositories have lists of proxy researchers because they do not have the staff or resources to do research for individuals. If a repository does not have such a list, check the directories for the Association of Professional Genealogists (APG), the Board for Certification of Genealogists (BCG), or International Commission for the Accreditation of Professional Genealogists (ICAPGEN). These directories allow you to search by location or by specialty. You might also consult with the state or county genealogical society for the area of interest as well. You might also find a cousin, hobbyist genealogist, poor college student, or some other person who would be willing to go to the repository for you.
  3. Ignore it. Now, I don’t recommend this one, especially if you are interested in not only the coolest possible finds out there, but also in conducting “reasonably exhaustive research.” I would at the very least put items in a list and get to them eventually.

I hope this series has convinced you to visit archives and manuscript collections. And if you weren’t sure about how to even go about it, I hope I gave you some helpful tips to quell your anxieties. Where else would you find a petticoat worn by Lizzie Johnson from 1865-1870? (The answer, of course: at the Southwestern University Special Collection in Georgetown, Texas.)

Use ArchiveGrid to Assist Your Search

One of my absolute favorite websites for helping with the task of locating items of interest to MY research project is ArchiveGrid.

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You can read in detail about how ArchiveGrid works, its history, and so on, on the website. The summary from the website: “ArchiveGrid includes over 5 million records describing archival materials, bringing together information about historical documents, personal papers, family histories, and more. With over 1,000 different archival institutions represented, ArchiveGrid helps researchers looking for primary source materials held in archives, libraries, museums and historical societies.”

It is like WorldCat is to libraries. It is an online catalog of holdings from libraries, manuscript collections, and archives from across the globe. Of course, they have to be participating with the OCLC system to be included, but so many are! And some of the participating collections are not your typical collection you might think about in terms of genealogy. Just reading through the “recent additions” I see Indiana University’s Latin American Music Center, United States Marine Band Library and Archives, the American Bookbinders Museum, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and the Museum of Flight Archives.

ArchiveGrid is very easy to use. It employs a simple keyword search and then a filter system is available when you click on “Summary View.” There are also more advanced ways to search. As always, read the help pages and “how to search” instructions for better results. For example, if you remember the leather pocketbook from the last post, it belonged to Thomas Jefferson Johnson. If you search ArchiveGrid for Thomas Jefferson Johnson you will get all kinds of hits for the president Thomas Jefferson. However, ArchiveGrid, like many databases, allows you to put the name in quotes. When I did that search, I found a collection of papers down at the Austin History Center that includes family correspondence dating back to 1853. It is very likely that some of those family papers complement the collection I viewed at Southwestern University’s Special Collection.

Access ArchiveGrid, enter some family names or topics relating to your research, and see what you find. You might be pleasantly surprised!

How to Visit an Archive

Some of you might be intimidated by the thought of visiting an archive or manuscript collection. I mean, they aren’t like a regular library usually. They tend to have a lot of rules and they will get after you if you don’t follow them. You can’t always bring in items you want to bring in. Why would you want to subject yourself to all of that hassle? I did feel this way in the beginning…when I was a “baby” genealogist. But I hope the last couple of posts (here and here) have convinced you to get over it and get in there!

Most (if not all) will have a website (such as that for the Briscoe Center for American History on the University of Texas Campus). Be sure to read it! It will prepare you for what to expect, the rules in terms of what you can bring in, copy policies, photography fees, parking, hours, closings, and so on. They will often have a catalog or finding aids on that website. Some archives have a system with which you can make an account and order your items ahead of time so they are ready for you when you show up. Often you will have to register as a researcher, showing your ID, filling our a form, or some other way for them to identity you. Also, do not be afraid to email the archivist with any questions. Sometimes a repository is behind in cataloging and not everything is listed. The archivist will know more about what is in the collection, or if you are having trouble locating something, they can help you find it.

Briscoe Center Website

Most often the rules are: no loose papers unless they look at them and stamp them with a stamp indicating it was something brought in or they provide you with a colored sheet of paper for notes; no pens, pencils only; laptops are usually ok but they will want to look inside it before you leave; usually photos are ok, some repositories have a photography fee; no drinks. I might have forgotten some, but those are the main rules I’ve experienced.

All of those rules are in place to protect the collection. No one is accusing you of anything when they ask to see inside your laptop or at your papers. Over the years, as you might imagine, items have been stolen, ripped, marked on with pen, had coffee spilled on them, and so on. These items are unique, one-of-a-kind, priceless, historical items. We don’t want to lose them and therefore they are in “protective custody” and you are required to follow these rules so they can survive for many generations to come.

The best advice I have is to read ahead to understand the rules then follow them without complaint, and you will have a great time at the archive. You never know what you will find but you will definitely have a great time in these original records!

Archival Finds

I wanted to share a few more finds from my visit to the Southwestern University’s Special Collection from last week’s blog post. I had so much fun and got to see and hold so many cool things!

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Leather pocketbook belonging to Thomas Jefferson Johnson

This is probably one of the best examples for visiting the archives…you truly never know what you are going to find! This leather pocketbook belonged to Thomas Jefferson Johnson. On the inside:

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The inside of Thomas Jefferson Johnson’s leather pocketbook.

The transcription: “Thomas Johnson’s pocket book living in St. Louis County state of Missouri this 4th of July 1829 –– Thos. Johnson was born Oct. 8th 1805.”

Ok… when you are looking for those vital records for your ancestors, did you ever think to look in their leather pocketbooks? I didn’t.

Now, will you find your ancestors’ birth information in a leather wallet? Probably not. Will you find some other cool items in an archive near you? Most definitely!

Go to an Archive!

I had the absolute pleasure and surprise of being invited to visit the Special Collections at Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas. The archivist, Megan Firestone, found my name on a list of researchers and invited me up…and of course I accepted! She is an absolute gem and I’m so glad I visited.

I received a lovely tour of the reading room and a peek into some of the backrooms!

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This week I visited again with a goal in mind. I asked if they had any old scrapbooks or autograph books. I was not disappointed. After looking at the finding aids and emailing with Megan to decide on what I’d like to see, I made another visit to the archive where they had a large cart of items waiting for me.

I will share a few exciting things here:

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Natha Pritchett Scrapbook
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Inside Natha’s scrapbook
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Lunch pail

I saw so many cool and interesting items. More than I can really share in one post. I will likely highlight some other items in future posts.

I really want to encourage genealogists to visit an archive near you. You do not need to have a research project in mind. Check their website for a catalog or finding aid. Find a topic of interest to you, whatever it might be. Communicate with the archivist, as they might know of items that haven’t been cataloged yet. But go and look at these lovely original treasures.

There is nothing like looking at old letters, scrapbooks, and ephemera that delves into a person’s life in much more detail than a vital record or census enumeration. You get a sense of people’s personalities and some really specific details about their lives. Of course, the trick is finding the items, boxes, and papers that apply to your family, but I believe your research experience can be enhanced by looking at any item in the archive. Rather than looking for a person, search by topic, such as scrapbooks, farming, women’s issues, and so on. Give it a try.

Get out there!

Moving Part 5: Learning to Research in a New Community

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Travis County Archives

When I lived in Colorado, I knew where the records I needed were located. I frequented the Denver Public Library, the Colorado State Archives, the Colorado History museum’s research library, the Boulder County Courthouse, the Carnegie Library for Local Research in Boulder, and more. Moving to a new city has brought on many challenges, one of which is vital for any genealogical business: learning to research in new repositories. In Colorado, I also knew who to ask when I ran into a snag. Building a new FAN club (Friends, Associates, Neighbors) for research purposes is just as important as it is for your personal life.

The first time you walk into a new repository can be a little intimidating. You may not be familiar with the building, the parking, the streets (which ones are one way in the right direction…?), the policies and procedures of using the collection (though most of the time this can be found on the repository’s website), and you never know if the person you need to ask for help will be friendly, helpful or totally flustered because he/she is overworked and underpaid. Believe me, I’ve run into all types over the years and I still get a little intimidated visiting a new repository.

I wrote in a previous post about my plan to “adopt” a Texas ancestor in order to learn about Texas records and repositories. Well, I didn’t have to do that. A client with Austin research needs found me! I am very grateful for this new client. Because of her request, I have been to and learned the quirks of the following repositories in Austin:
Travis County Clerk’s office (at a different location than the courthouse)
Travis County Archives (still another location, this time located in the Travis County Sheriff’s building)

[Author’s Note: I want to publicly thank two colleagues, Teri Flack and Randy Whited, for giving me a tour and driving me around to a few of the above repositories, which really helped me understand which records are where around Austin. Thanks to the internet, attending national conferences and getting recommendations from other professionals in the field, I was introduced to these two genealogists in the Austin area and they have been so generous getting a newly relocated genealogist accustomed to the repositories in the area. Thank you! ]

The Austin History Center (AHC) is probably my favorite. The parking is easy (although not free), the staff are the friendliest of all I’ve met so far, the microfilm equipment actually works (big plus) and it reminds me a bit of the Carnegie Library in Boulder (although it’s not a Carnegie building). It is a manuscript archive so you must only bring in your laptop, phone and some loose paper. They provide a locker when you check in. They provide scratch paper and pencils (no pens). They have a fantastic collection of both manuscript materials as well as microfilms of mostly Austin-specific but also other Travis County items.

The Briscoe Center for American History is a primarily a manuscript collection pertaining to Texas history and people. It is located on the University of Texas campus next door to the LBJ Library. Like the AHC, Briscoe provides lockers and does not allow much to go into the facility (computers, loose paper and pencils only). The parking is free but you have to go in, check in, get a parking pass which you must run back out to your car. (Not a big deal except for the day I went and it was over 100 degrees and I had to cross the hot parking lot several times. I’m from Colorado. 100 degrees is too hot, but, I did survive.) This collection has many great items as can be seen in their catalog. I got to read original slave narratives on the day I was there. Very interesting, sometimes sad, reading. I also got to look at a box of all of the notes and research that went into writing a book on Texas slave history. It was fun to sort of see the thought process an author went through in constructing the book.

The Travis County Courthouse and Criminal Justice Center is located across a small park from the AHC. It is a bustling building, very busy with people navigating the legal system. There are two buildings: the county courthouse and the CJC building which houses the District Court. Finding records here has its challenges, one of them being the aforementioned hustle and bustle. The old records through the county court are not publicly accessible and have to be requested. The REALLY old records are still being searched for after my request for some from the 1880s. The District clerk does have a publicly accessible computer index to their microfilms, so once you’ve found a case number, you tell the attendant and they pull the microfilm for you. All of the clerks and attendants were friendly and helpful when I visited them. They were also busy with current events, so my request for OLD records was a little surprising to them since they are usually dealing with more recent records requests.

The Travis County Clerk’s office is located a little ways north of downtown Austin. It is easy to locate and parking is free. It seems as if the county purchased an old shopping center and converted it to county offices. (In my opinion, that is an environmentally and economically responsible move.) The Clerk’s office has several counters for requesting marriage licenses and taking care of other county business. To the right of this is the public research area, mostly containing microfilms of deeds and a few early landowner maps, complete with 6 microfilm readers. However, only two work, if you can get the pay-with-card machine to work. The first time I arrived it took me and the information desk attendant about an hour to navigate all of the quirks of the system. All of the staff were helpful despite the challenges to getting the machinery to work. They seemed to be at their wit’s end with the equipment as well. For everyone’s sake I hope new equipment is in the future budgetary plans for that office.

The Travis County Archives is a separate facility from the courthouse records office. This one is located within the Travis County Sheriff’s building, which is a new location for them and they are still unpacking and labeling shelves. This repository is a little more difficult to access. You can’t just show up, there are not set office hours. It is a closed facility and an appointment must be made to use it. You can email ahead of time to the archivist (a very helpful and friendly lady) and let her know what you are looking for. (She has been going above and beyond working with the County Court records office trying to locate those court records I’m hoping for.) When visiting, someone will meet you in the lobby and escort you through a maze of hallways, to the very back of the building where the archive room is located. It is a nicely lit, large room. When I arrived she had the old court minute books ready for me on a work table. It was a lot of fun to read through some of those old books.

One repository that I haven’t mentioned yet, is the Texas State Library and Archives. This facility has a vast collection of Texas materials. It is located next door to the state capitol building. Parking for this facility is a little more tricky than the other locations; there is a parking garage about a block away that may or may not be free depending on the events in the area. They have a great genealogy center, archives room, and a classroom. I have only taken a class and had a tour but have not done any research there yet.

I am still planning on adopting a Texas ancestor and I have my eye on a few people I’ve located in area cemeteries. I’ll keep you posted on anything that develops on those projects. Overall, having this client work has been quite helpful in getting familiar with Austin and Travis County repositories. I have also become acquainted with several of the archivists and employees at these facilities, perhaps garnering some new connections but definitely allowing me to build my FAN Club.