Genealogy Research In Special Collections

by Amy Coffin | Dec 16, 2010

Amy Coffin

Genealogy research often revolves around birth, marriage, death and census records. Find those details and move back to the next generation, right? You can choose that option, but it's not the best path. These records provide important details, but there's more to be learned about our ancestors. Much of what's available is not found online, but clues to its existence can be found on the Internet.

Where can one find unique historical information? The answer is special collections, which hold every type of historical information imaginable, including a few birth, marriage and death records. If you're stuck on a particular research problem, or are looking to fully examine the life of an ancestor, consider the treasures to be found in an institution's archives.

What Can You Find In Special Collections?

The special collections of an institution contain anything and everything including historical artifacts and items that are of great value in genealogy research. You may find photos, letters, maps and more. Files often have newspaper clippings, obituaries and other records of local interest. If you have an ancestor who was a prominent community member or had a large role in a significant event, check the special collections. Remember that "prominent" doesn't necessarily mean wealthy. If you ancestor played a part in the development of a community through charity, profession or circumstance, he or she may be found in special collections.

Who Has Special Collections?

Chances are there is at least one special collection somewhere in your location of geographic interest. Even if you don't live in the area, check for these institutions:

Colleges And Universities

Our institutions of higher learning have wonderful libraries and many house special collections that are of research value to the community. Houston's Rice University has a real gem in the Woodson Research Center, which houses the special collections within the library.

Public Libraries

Many public library systems have special archives outside their circulated collections. If your library is part of a larger system, check the main branch. The Hennepin County Library James K. Hosmer Special Collections is an excellent example of the treasures one can find within a public library, with over 25,000 items of national historical value.


The preservation and storage of great treasures often falls to museums. Many of these institutions also hold special collections of relevance to genealogists. The Mariners' Museum in Virginia maintains a significant collection of maritime research materials. During a visit to the museum library you can browse collections like Steamships and Passenger Liners, Immigration and Slave Trade, and Naval History and Naval Vessels.

Regional And State Archives

The Arkansas History Commission is serious about preserving the state's treasures and sharing them with visitors. Collections include a newspaper database and Arkansas Confederate pension records. Their Plan Your Visit page tells you everything you need to know for your trip into town.

Scour The Online Catalog For The Special Collections

Determining special collections in your location of interest may take a little work on your part. Think about the local colleges, libraries, archives and museums in the area. Once you find an institution, visit its web site. Utilize these steps to locate and review special collections online:

Hunt For Hidden Treasures

Sometimes information about special collections is tucked away in a website. On an organization's home page, look for words or phrases like "collections" or "archives." Examine the links from the home page carefully, so you don't overlook any archival collections.

Finding Aids: Like A Map Of The Archive

Many special collections have finding aids that describe the items in a given collection. If you find these online, read them thoroughly as they will tell you what is in a particular file or record group. Here is an example of a finding aid found at the Duke University Library: Guide to the Mary Alice Baldwin Papers, 1863-1961. It includes a descriptive summary, access information, biographical notes on the subject, and an overview of the collection. This particular finding aid also includes "related material" which shows exactly what is in this collection, making it easy for genealogists to determine its value to their research.

Make A List And Check It Twice

Be sure to check the finding aids for each record group in the archive. If it is a big institution, this could take a while but it is worth your time. Look at the records and determine which ones you'd like to view in person. Make a list of the files including the title of each, collection numbers (if shown) and any information that would be helpful in locating the items on site.

The importance of this step cannot be stressed enough. Write down what you want to see in the archives before you visit the building itself. You want to devote every minute on site to the research at hand, and not waste time searching for information you could have found at home.

Make Contact With The Staff:

Once you have determined that a library holds a special collection of interest to you, call or email the staff and determine the following:

Confirm access to the special collections you want to view - Most institutions grant public access, but it's best to make sure before you make the trip.

Hours of operation - The special collections area of a library may have different hours than the main library. Also, if you're going to a university, make note of breaks in the school term or holiday hours.

Determine what materials are permitted in the special collections area - The rules of each institution vary, so it's best to confirm what you can and can't bring. Some archives allow only a pencil and paper. Others may permit a laptop or camera. Many institutions provide lockers for belongings, so pack your research bag carefully and leave valuables at home.

Observe the technological landscape - Ask if there is a scanner for public use. Can you bring a flash drive or CD? Are copy machines available? If so, make sure to bring coins or paper bills for a copy card.

Determine Visitor Parking Locations And Rates

If the special collections you are visiting are in a big city or university campus, study the parking situation before you go. Colleges and large metro areas usually have parking maps available online. Print one out for your trip. Determine where public parking or visitor parking is located and how much it costs.

You can also use the online map to scout out any locations to purchase food and drink, or a nice spot on the grounds to enjoy a break.

Onsite Considerations

Performing the steps listed above will prepare you for your visit to the archives. Once you're on site, locate a staff member to assist you in attaining the items of interest.

The standard "mind your manners" rules for libraries apply to special collections as well. Be respectful of others' time and space, as we are "guests" in their house. Genealogists are wonderful people, and it's important to maintain that reputation in the research world.

Parting Thoughts

Hopefully this long "to-do" list does not scare anyone from utilizing special collections in genealogy research. Careful preparation beforehand will improve the success of your visit and allow for better time management once you're there. Remember, each collection is unique so it's best to know before you go!

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