Genealogy 101: Historical Societies & Your Family History

Introduction: In this article – part of an ongoing “Introduction to Genealogy” series – Gena Philibert-Ortega explains how local historical societies can be a great help to your family history research. Gena is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.”

Have you researched at a historical society? It may be obvious why a genealogist should visit a genealogical society – but why visit a historical society? There’s a whole list of reasons why historical societies are an important resource for family historians. Historical society benefits span educational meetings to publications and library collections. Have you visited a historical society near your or your ancestor’s home lately? Here are some reasons why you should start planning your next trip.

Educational Meetings

Societies, genealogical and historical, typically hold regular educational meetings featuring speakers who present on a variety of topics of interest to the group and the local community. Your local historical society most likely invites speakers who present on topics about the local community, but they may also address larger historical topics (such as Civil War medicine or homesteading) that might be helpful to your own research.

Consult your local society’s website for upcoming meetings focused on topics of interest to you. You may also want to plan a visit to a historical society meeting when you travel to your ancestral homeland. That meeting might connect you with local historians or those knowledgeable about local history who can provide you some suggestions for your own research.

Publications

Historical societies have a variety of publications that can be of use to your research. Smaller societies typically publish a newsletter which on the surface may seem only of use to members – but a closer look may reveal transcriptions, indexes, historical images, and articles that can be beneficial to your genealogical research. Remember that knowing more about the history of the place where your ancestors lived can help you not only understand their lives, but might reveal additional records or documents for your research.

Larger societies might publish magazines or journals that are a bigger version of a smaller society newsletter, including stories about early settlers. These articles are often written by those passionate about the local history, and although not “genealogically” focused they can still provide genealogical information.

Remember that these types of society periodicals are most likely a benefit of membership. You may want to consider a membership in order to have access to newly published materials and the publication’s archive of past issues.

Historical societies might also publish books about local history, settlers, and other noteworthy topics. Check the society’s website for possible publications that could help inform your research. For example, consider this list from the Wisconsin Historical Society Press that includes histories of life in Wisconsin.

Library and Archival Collections

One of the best benefits of a historical society is their research collections. Not all historical societies will have such collections, but larger societies may house library and archival materials. These collections may be indexed on the society’s website, providing you with the opportunity to compile a to-do research list for a future trip.

On my recent trip to the California Historical Society, the librarian was able to help me with my research based on a search of their catalog and her knowledge of the collection. She also directed me to the online library catalog and a digitized photo collection so that I could research from home. Make sure to always ask about digital collections. These online images can include photographs, maps, and books.

Obviously, pre-planning a research trip is always best and helps you make the most of your limited time at the facility. Peruse the library catalog for materials that might be of use to you. Make sure to search by the name of the place where your ancestor lived, their occupation, religion, or membership group name. Library materials are most likely not catalogued by your ancestor’s name, unlike genealogy website databases. Note any archival materials that may require extra time to retrieve or may have restrictions on availability. You don’t want to arrive ready to research, only to find that archival materials require three days to retrieve, time you had not built into your trip.

Keep in mind that a historical society library may have limited research hours. So, make sure that you familiarize yourself with their website and hours of operation as well as any restrictions around visiting the library, such as photocopy rules, minimum age of researcher (if you plan to bring a child or grandchild with you), and use of personal scanners or computers.

I think the most important thing to do when researching at a repository is to take time to share your research with the librarian or archivist. Why? They know their research collections the best and they can help you find a treasure that might not be obvious to you in your search through the library catalog.

Historical Societies: The What and Where

Just like genealogical societies, historical societies can be found on a city, county, state and regional level. One state can have numerous historical societies that potentially have collections for the area your ancestor lived in. In addition, don’t forget that historical societies might be topical, or they may preserve the history of an ethnic group, occupation, or other historical subject.

How do you find historical societies for the areas or interests in your family history research? There are several historical society listings online, including the PreservationDirectory.org, Cyndi’s List, and Wikipedia.

Good luck with your family history research!

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2 thoughts on “Genealogy 101: Historical Societies & Your Family History

  1. Very good summation. I have visited numerous historical societies and have always been happy with the range and diversity of the materials each place had. Whether old picture, postcards, even church records, there is a lot to be mined from these troves.

  2. I agree Larry! We need to explore historical societies whenever we get a chance. There’s so much great stuff housed in these institutions.

    Thanks for taking the time to read and comment on my article. –Gena

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