Tips for Finding Ancestors in State Archives: Use Guides

Tips for Finding Ancestors in State Archives: Use Guides

In this seven part series, you'll learn how to dig up the genealogical treasures awaiting you in your ancestors’ state archives. In this fourth article in the series, we're discussing using finding aids/guides to get further information about what a collection contains.

state archives guide

The third part of this series discussed how to use the online catalog to further your state archive research. This time, we’re discussing how to make use of the finding guides.

Tip 4. Find a finding aid

Catalog descriptions tend to be short, and can leave you wishing for more details about the records. If that’s the case, look for a finding aid or guide to the collection. This type of guide explains how the records were created, what information they include, and how they’re organized at the repository. They usually list the precise localities and time ranges covered, so you can better pinpoint the particular volume, file or microfilm you need to view.

Look for an expandable listing or link in the catalog description, with a prompt such as “Learn more about this collection.” The Library of Virginia’s website, for example, has a convenient landing page titled Using the Collections. This page offers a Guides and Indexes link for easy access to its many excellent research guides, arranged by topic. Some of these guides lead to databases you can search with your ancestors’ names. Clicking on Births, Deaths, Marriages (Vital Records), for instance, expands the menu to show “Marriage Records, Index to.” This link takes you to a detailed explanation of the records and their sources, as well as a database searchable by the bride’s or groom’s name.

Alternately, the catalog description could note that a finding aid is available at the archives. Many states have compiled helpful files in their reading rooms that serve as guides to unique archival collections. Be sure to make a note of this, and ask about it when you arrive on site. In some cases, you may be able to obtain a copy of the finding aid ahead of time by emailing the archives and asking if one is available.

Next up, we’re digging into digital collections!


NARA’s new catalog, Online Public Access, makes it easier to find documents that could shed light on your ancestors lives. Learn tricks for tracking down the records you need in a single search. Become an expert today!

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