Locating genealogical manuscript collections in the U.S.

Working with the papers of so many prominent genealogists here at NEHGS, I've developed an interest in the history of genealogy in America. An offshoot of this personal research interest has been an informal effort to identify the repositories where various prominent genealogists donated their papers. Over the years, this interest has broadened to a general interest in identifying “sizeable” genealogical collections and the repository where they are preserved. Data from this personal interest has supported several projects of the NEHGS Special Collections and vice versa.

The finding aids produced by the Special Collections team include a section for “related collections.” For example, the finding aid for the George Henry Preble Papers notes the letter book of Isaac Hull, also held by NEHGS, and additional collections of material produced by Preble at the Massachusetts Historical Society and the Navy Department Library. The finding aid for the Henry Augustus Peirce Papers lists related collections at several New England repositories as well as a collection in New York and three items held by the University of California at Berkeley.

The Special Collections team also receives e-mails by individuals seeking the papers of a particular genealogical author. When I first started in the department, this kind of inquiry took a day or two of searching through several card files and multiple paper inventories. As more and more collections have representation within the library catalog database (http://library.nehgs.org), it has become easier to check if the NEHGS holdings include the papers of a particular genealogist. If a genealogist’s papers are not held by NEHGS and they do not appear in my records, the search begins in OCLC’s WorldCat (www.worldcat.org), Archivegrid (http://beta.worldcat.org/archivegrid), and Google. A successful discovery is pleasing to our staff, the patron, and adds data for my research. It is frustrating, though, how often no record can be found. Was the genealogist’s collection destroyed? Was the collection saved, remaining inaccessible in private hands? Was the collection donated to a repository that doesn’t produce catalog records for its local history/genealogy collection?

Donating your genealogical collection to a repository ensures that it preserved and made accessible to researchers. It is important to find repositories that use discovery tools like catalog records and online finding aids so researchers can locate the repository that has your collection. It is also very useful for those of us trying to identify genealogical collections that support the study of the history and practice of genealogy in America!

Timothy Salls

About Timothy Salls

Timothy Salls managed the R. Stanton Avery Special Collections Manuscripts Department, which includes the Society's manuscript collections and archives, until 2020. Tim received a B.A. from the University of Massachusetts at Lowell and an M.S. in Information and Library Science from Simmons College’s Graduate School of Library & Information Science with an Archives concentration.View all posts by Timothy Salls