Many genealogists simply pick the low hanging fruit – the easy to find documents and details – that touch their ancestors’ lives.
Of course, there are also a lot of researchers who dig deeper, poring over unindexed records, page by page, looking for a familiar name.
However, most genealogists never take the final step – seeing out record sets in local historical societies, museums, state libraries and archives and universities.
To be fair, one might not think there were any records of interest in those places. Without searching catalogs, though, there is no way to be certain.
It is also possible that less-experienced researchers are unsure how to access collections, usually unindexed, held by those entities.
That’s where FINDING AIDS come into play.
The U.S. National Archives provides a clear, comprehensive definition of “finding aid”:
Finding aids are tools that help a user find information in a specific record group, collection, or series of archival materials. Examples of finding aids include published and unpublished inventories, container and folder lists, card catalogs, calendars, indexes, registers, and institutional guides. Formal publications that help a user find information regarding a record group, collection, or series of archival materials are also finding aids.
In other words, finding aids explain how and where to find information in a specific collection and may even list contents of a record collection.
One source that many researchers never tap into is a local historical society. If your ancestral family lived in one location for an extended time – several years or decades – or longer – then a local historical society might have records that pertain to your individual family or the time period in which they lived in that town or county.
My family lived in Passaic County, New Jersey for close to a century, so I decided to take a look at the holdings of the Passaic County Historical Society on their website.
The home page had a LIBRARY tab and the drop down menu listed multiple choice. Notice that one of them is FINDING AIDS:
The new page both defined the term AND provided links to 89 (!!!) collections.
Several were of interest to me, including Passaic General Hospital (where I was born), and several photograph collections.
These collections are not accessible online, but contain some interesting items. In the Passaic General Hospital grouping, there are historical descriptions of its founding and services.
95% of the hospital folders include photographs and most pictures are identified.
This statement caught my eye: “Of particular interest are the 12” X 14 ½” journal ledger books found in the collection from the Operating Room, the Morgue, the Emergency Room. Also included are ledger books from the Labor and Delivery Ward. All loose newspaper clippings from the ledger book were photocopied and discarded.”
I’d love to browse through that collection!
Let’s move on to the Missouri State Archives. I simply searched for “Missouri state archives finding aids” and the first result brought up this page:
There are 201 finding aids in this list. I would be over the moon if I had Freeman Barrows and his family in my tree. the Barrows Family Collection contains 2 1/2 cubic feet of paper! Here is a partial description in the finding aid:
The U.S. National Archives (NARA) also has a lengthy list of finding aids:
Take the time to search out finding aids to collections in repositories located in the areas where your ancestors lived. The aids will explain the time period covered in the collection, the types of documents, photos and artifacts that might be housed there, the size of the collection and how the collection was obtained.
If you are lucky, like descendants of Freeman Barrows, you might find a treasure trove of information directly pertaining to your own family. At worst – and this isn’t a bad thing at all – you just might learn much more about the places your ancestors called home.