Rebecca’s Reel Hints: Your Next Summer Vacation at The State Archives

Planning your summer vacation?  Going to the mountains? The beach? Well, how about a visit to the state archive?

The state archive may not be the first destination to come to mind. But don’t overlook their importance. State archives are so full of information, and no two are the same.  Often, not only do they have extensive libraries of published indexes, but they have so many records that are not available anywhere else.  Before you jump in the car, however, there are a few things you might try first:

  • Check out their websites.  A great one-stop-shop for finding the state
    archive (and any associated contributing historical groups) is put together by the Council of State Archivists at http://www.statearchivists.org/states.htm.  Choose your state and off you go.
  • At the website, check for digitized records online.  You’ll be surprised to see how many different types of records are available – death, military, historic photos, and more.  Most archive sites have a link conveniently titled “Genealogy.”
  • At the website, check the online catalog.  Use the catalog to plan what you need to look at when you get there, how it is stored (textual records, microfilm, fiche, off-site), and any restrictions for use. Every archive website is set up differently, and some are a little more difficult to navigate than others.
  • Ask about the loan program. Did you know that many state archives participate with your local library in an interlibrary loan program?  For example, I knew it would take weeks to do line-by-line searches in old handwritten copies early of New York county tax records. When I checked the online catalog I found that the microfilm could come to my local library.  There are sometimes costs for this, but in my case, there was only a limit to how many films I could order at one time.  Those eight films took me four weeks to go through, but it was four weeks I was able to spend on my own time from home, and not a four-week trip to New York.
  • Don’t like the website?  Keep trying.  I used to hate the website maintained by my own state.  The problem was partially in the way records were named, but the problem was more about my own inexperience.  The more I used the site, the easier its navigation became.  If you need help, ask around.  Is there anyone you know at your local genealogical society who uses the site often who can tutor you?  It is worth the effort.
  • Plan the visit! Most archive websites have rules for using the facility, hours of operation, parking information, photocopy costs, rules for computers and cameras, and even short tutorials to help you.  Read up – you’ll end up frustrated if you go there and it is closed because of a holiday or you cannot find parking.  When you get there, ask if they offer tours of the facility.
  • While you’re there, look for county records. Sometimes the state archive may solve your burned county conundrum.  Many times counties were required to send copies of their records to a state facility.  Even if the county archive burned down (again!), copies of many types of records may have been obtained by the state archive.

Maybe going to a state archive isn’t your family’s idea of a good vacation destination or maybe you don’t have time to go right now.  Have a digital mini-vacation and visit the website of your favorite state archive and get familiar with its holdings.  Personally, I am bartering right now with my husband to go to any state archive near a baseball stadium – that way we can divide and conquer as we travel.

What works best for you?  What have you enjoyed or found at your state archive?  Write and share your ideas. Happy trails!