Last week I wrote about what to expect when visiting an archives or special collections department for the first time. My tips included checking the researcher policies ahead of time and bringing pencils, rather than pens. This week, I will focus on utilizing the "undiscovered" repository.
When new researchers look for a starting point, their first stop--after online resources, of course--is probably going to be the local library. And this is a terrific place to begin. There they will have access to reference staff, microfilm/microfiche readers, and, in many cases, a state or local history collection. As an added perk, with a valid library card, researchers can request needed materials from other library systems through inter-library loan (ILL).
If you are a researcher, you may have asked yourself, "Where can I go besides the local public library?" Some of the more common options include state libraries, local historical societies, and state archives. Once again, these are all great choices. But don't stop there. Broaden your search and look for smaller, perhaps lesser known repositories that may have useful specialized collections.
I can think of two examples where this approach has benefited my own research. When I was working on a project in Kansas City, I naturally visited the Missouri Valley Special Collections at Kansas City Public Library and the Midwest Genealogy Center at Mid-Continent Public Library. And I was fortunate to find a wealth of information at both of these repositories. However, when I became stumped on a few questions, I looked for other sources of information.
For this particular project, I was looking for background information and dates (or date ranges) for various artifacts. The items in question ranged from typical kitchen implements and household furnishings to farm equipment.
To research the household pieces, I visited the archives department at Union Station. (An experienced museum consultant with whom I had been working made this extremely helpful suggestion). There I was able to pour over a collection of old catalogs dating back to the Late 19th Century. Getting a sense of what products and styles were popular in given years helped me to narrow down the date ranges for some of the artifacts. (Note: The research policies and collection availability may have changed in the last few years. Contact the Collections Department before planning a research trip).
Another hidden gem turned out to be the Agricultural Hall of Fame. This facility had books and catalogs that helped me to identify some of the farm equipment. Being that antique farm machinery was not one of my specific areas of expertise, this small but specialized collection proved to be a great service.
The genealogical research applications of the above examples are pretty clear. You may find yourself in the position where you need to identify and date heirlooms that you have acquired in the course of your family history research. You may also need to date photographs of people in your family tree by using context clues in the backgrounds of those pictures. (I will post more about using clues in photos next week).
In the broadest sense, the lesson in this week's tip is that the answers to your research questions can lie in unexpected places. Look for the unique collections in your area. Ask the librarians, as well as your fellow researchers, what other research centers are available that might help you in your search. You may be surprised to learn that the perfect "undiscovered" repository was right under your nose all along.