One of my favorite pieces of advice for genealogists who aren’t sure of their next research step or don’t know where to find a particular record is to browse around the website for the state library, archive or historical society, and just see what’s there. My “Best of” pick for 2003—Rick Crume’s article from the August 2003 Family Tree Magazine— explains why:
At libraries and archives on the state level, you’ll find birth, marriage and death records, plus state censuses, tax records, business records, county records, maps, family papers, and photographs and oral histories. Most state archives also have programs to microfilm newspapers dating back to the first issues published in the state.
While they usually focus on their own states, many of these libraries and archives also have important holdings for other states. The Sutro branch of the California State Library, for example, and the Wisconsin Historical Society (WHS) house two of the nation’s largest collections of genealogical books. WHS also boasts one of the largest collections of newspapers in the United States and extensive holdings of African-American and American Indian newspapers.
Every state has at least one organization in charge of preserving its heritage. Sometimes, a state library houses books, while a separate state archive stores records and artifacts. Other states preserve all these resources in a single facility, often called a state historical society. In addition to official state-run archives, some states, especially in the East, have other repositories operated by private, nonprofit organizations.
To take the best advantage of state libraries and archives, you’ll want to visit in person. But even if you can’t, you can still access many of these resources from a distance through interlibrary loan, the Internet and the library’s reference services.
Almost every state library and archives has a website packed with useful genealogical information. Some sites, such as the Library of Virginia and the Florida State Archives, feature searchable databases and document images—with just a few clicks, you might find an abstract of your ancestor’s will or digitized pages from the family Bible.
Before making a trip to the state capital, check the online library catalog for family histories, local histories and manuscripts. The site also may have a listing of newspaper holdings organized by county and town.
Many state libraries and archives make microfilmed newspapers and some books available for a small fee via interlibrary loan. Read the lending policies on the facility’s website, then print the references to items you want to borrow and request them at your local public library.
Just like local public libraries, state libraries and archives offer a range of reference services. Staff may accept research requests by phone, mail or e-mail. Usually, there’s no charge to answer a simple question, such as “Do you have Clay County court records from the 1880s?” But you may have to pay a fee to get an archivist to check indexes and make photocopies. Keep your question brief, and be sure to include a name, place and date, for example: “Can you check the index to the book Old Tioga Point and Early Athens by Louise Welles Murray for the name William Parry, and copy the pages where he’s mentioned? He lived in Athens from 1822 until the 1850s.”
Some state library websites have a form for submitting research questions. If you need more-extensive research than staff can handle, they may have a list of area researchers for hire.
Faced with budget cuts, many state libraries and archives are reducing their services and need your support. Let your elected officials know that you value these services and want them to continue. Of course, the best way to support state libraries is to use them.
Related resources from Family Tree Magazine:
- State Libraries Directory, Alabama to Lousiana
(these directories of state libraries are free articles)
- State Libraries Directory, Vermont to Wyoming
- State Research Guides available on Family Tree Shop as digital downloads, in a book or on CD