State Secrets

By Rick Crume Premium

Sign up for the Family Tree Newsletter Plus, you’ll receive our 10 Essential Genealogy Research Forms PDF as a special thank you!

Get Your Free Genealogy Forms

"*" indicates required fields

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

When you think of going to the library, you usually head for your city or county public library. Those local repositories can be treasure troves for genealogists, but you shouldn’t forget to check libraries and archives on the state level, as well. There, you’ll find birth, marriage and death records, plus state census records, tax records, business records, county records, maps, family papers and even photographs and oral histories. Most state archives also have launched ambitious programs to microfilm newspapers dating back to the first issues published in the state.

While they usually focus on their own states, many of these libraries and archives have important holdings for family history research in other states as well. The Sutro branch of the California State Library and the Wisconsin Historical Society, for example, house two of the nation’s largest collections of genealogical books. The Wisconsin Historical Society also boasts the second-largest collection of newspapers in the United States (after the Library of Congress) and the most extensive holdings of African-American and American Indian newspapers in the country.

Every state has at least one organization in charge of preserving its heritage. Sometimes, a state library houses books, while a separate state archive stores records and artifacts. Other states preserve all these resources in a single facility, often called a state historical society. In addition to official state-run archives, some states, especially in the East, have other facilities operated by private, nonprofit organizations.

To take the best advantage of state libraries and archives, you’ll want to visit in person. If you can’t do that, though, you can still access many of these resources from a distance — through interlibrary loan, the Internet and the library’s reference services.

Almost every state library and archives has a Web site that’s packed with useful genealogical information. Some sites even feature searchable databases and images of original documents — with just a few clicks, you might find an abstract of your ancestor’s will or digitized pages from the old family Bible. Before making a trip in person, check the online library catalog for family histories, local histories and manuscripts. The Web site also may have a separate listing of newspaper holdings organized by county and town.

Many state libraries and archives make microfilmed newspapers and some books available on interlibrary loan for a small fee. Read the lending policies on the state library’s Web site. Then print the references to the items you want to borrow and request them at your local public library.

Just like local public libraries, state libraries and archives offer a range of reference services, often described on the library’s Web site. Library staff may accept research requests by phone, fax, mail or e-mail. Usually, there’s no charge to answer a simple question, such as “Do you have Clay County court records from the 1880s?” But you may have to pay a fee to get an archivist to check indexed materials and make photocopies for you. Make your question brief, and be sure to include a name, place and date. You might ask something like: “Can you check the index to the book Old Tioga Point and Early Athens by Louise Welles Murray for the name William Parry and copy the pages where he is mentioned? He lived in Athens from 1822 until the 1850s.” Some state libraries’ Web sites have a special form for you to submit research questions. If you need more extensive research than they can handle, most state libraries can give you a list of area researchers for hire.

You may find it worthwhile to join the state historical societies where you live and where your ancestors lived. Membership benefits usually include a subscription to the society’s journal and discounts on research and copies.

Faced with budget cuts, many state libraries and archives are reducing their services and need your support. The Maryland State Archives and the Oklahoma Historical Society have discontinued interlibrary loans, for example. Let your elected officials know that you value these services and want them to continue. Of course, the best way to support state libraries is to use them. 
From the August 2003 Family Tree Magazine