Undoubtedly, the most important repository for you is the one that holds the records you need. I gave some tips on finding records in previous blog posts such as “Accessing Archives from a Distance.” This post is simply meant to highlight some of the important onsite repositories for beginners. “But we are in the middle of a pandemic,” you say. And I say now is the perfect time to get your game plan ready. We can visit all of these repositories virtually and create a research plan, which I will discuss in more detail in a future post in this series, but you can read a previous post on the topic here.
Top repositories for beginning genealogists:
Family History Library, Salt Lake City, Utah – This is the largest collection of genealogical materials in the world. Much is being digitized and can be found on their website. Some is “locked” due to contractual obligations and requires you to be in the library or at a local Family History Center to access. They have a huge collection of books on site. This is an important repository simply because of the geographical reach one can get from working on site. You can work on several projects at once while at the FHL.
Allen County Public Library, Fort Wayne, Indiana – This library is possibly the second largest collection of genealogical materials in the U.S. As the creator of PERSI (the PERiodical Source Index), they hold over 8,000 titles of genealogical society journals, on site, in addition to many other genealogical books and materials from all over the world.
Your State historical society or genealogical society library – Find out where your state’s historical and/or genealogical society is and whether they have a repository. Their collection will most likely be tailored to the state you are working in.
Any large genealogical collection in a city near you – Many cities have large libraries, and many of those libraries have a genealogy or local history collection that focuses on that city and region.
Local public library with a genealogy/local history collection in the area of your research – When you are working in smaller, rural areas, finding a small public library will often be the treasure trove you need. Small public libraries have the granular focus of collecting and saving information for that area.
Get online and find the catalog on the website for each of these locations. Pick a research project and start searching the collection for sources that might be useful for your goals. Then create a research plan. Someday the pandemic will lift and we will be able to travel again. I hope you come away with a ginormous amount of research to do onsite because you will have filled your days with research planning.
Often there are “splashy” front page articles about criminal happenings in town or nationwide. Those headlines sell papers, even today. Beyond the front page, there might be information in the crime reports that is important to your research.
If your ancestor was in trouble with the law, they might show up in news articles such as the one above. If your ancestor was a lawyer, or judge, or worked in the jail, or was a policeman. What if your ancestor was murdered? These articles might be of interest.
Granted, there’s not a lot of information provided, mostly names and what they were charged with. However, it also states that these cases are pending in the First District Court in Louisiana. Most of the time, you will not find court records such as these digitized and available online. From home, how would you know where to look for the court records if it weren’t for news articles such as these? These can work like a substitute index when trying to locate court records.
You may be able to locate finding aids online, such as these from the City Archives New Orleans Public Library. They cover Suit and Case Records, 1846-1880 which are manuscript records of the proceedings in the civil suits and criminal cases filed before the First District Court. Their description states that…
“Individual criminal case records will contain some, but probably not all, of these documents (some cases, however, can contain little other than the indictment and final verdict):
indictment or affidavit–the criminal equivalent of the initial petition in a civil suit. It will set forth the specifics of the criminal conduct that caused the matter to be brought before the Court. On the reverse there will usually be recorded information on arraignment, final verdict or other disposition, and sentencing.
Copy of Cornoner’s inquest
Testimony and/or statements of witnesses, the accused, and police officers
Bonds (bail and/or appeal)
Documents from lower courts
Motions, exceptions, and other pleadings filed by the attorney representing the accouses and/or by the District Attorney
Orders, jury charges, and other rulings by the judge
Appeals and related documents
Other documents may also be included.”
There are so many records not available online. I look forward to the days when I can visit the repositories again. Until then, I’m keeping up on my “pre-research” and making lists of the repositories to visit and what to look for when I’m there.
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:
[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.