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Tuesday, July 19, 2016

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Seven Highlights of Historical Societies that Boost Genealogy

Thank you so much for the recent correction and update to this post:

Patricia Meagher: 
Thank you for including The Georgia Historical Society in your list of genealogical repositories. One correction to your post is that GHS is an independent, non-profit institution (we are not affiliated with the University of Georgia). Founded in 1839, we are headquartered in Savannah and our collections encompass all of Georgia’s rich statewide history. We have three freely available online catalogs where you can begin exploring our collections including our digital image catalog with thousands of digitized photographs and artifacts from our collection, ( and genealogy guides to get you started ( We hope your readers will contact us by phone or email if we can help them to navigate our resources, and that they will visit the GHS Research Center in Savannah to view and do research in the collection. We welcome the opportunity to assist your readers in finding their Georgia ancestry.

The Virginia Historical Society 2011 Civil War exhibit

Do you need a little boost in your genealogy research? Every state has a historical society, and if you are lucky you may find one in the county or parish where you are researching. It may be difficult at first to understand how to glean the information you need, so this article will help you learn a lot about useful resources available through historical societies by reviewing their websites.

Finding aids
The South Carolina Historical Society has created a list of finding aids which can be found under the “Research” tab on the home page. The finding aids describe the contents of collections and how they are arranged.
Find out if finding aids have been published by the historical society that you will be contacting. You may discover finding aids to collections about families, organizations, military, or immigration in a particular area.

Digitized materials
It is always nice to find digital collections because most of the time they are made available for viewing right on the website. The Washington State Historical Society has made past issues of COLUMBIA Archives available online. Clicking on “Research” then collections will take you to online collections.

Historical societies often make manuscript collections and photographs of people and local places available through online collections. For example, Virginia History Explorer: Civil War, is one collection made available online by the Virginia Historical Society. This collection contains letterhead, photos, a diaries, and more.

Research guides and resources
It is helpful when historical society websites include a section listing resources for conducting genealogy research. The genealogy resources listed on the Oregon Historical Society website would be great places to check if you had ancestors from Oregon.

Research guides are usually based on topics such as African American, newspaper, or military history. They help you identify the resources within a collection as well as how to access and use in your research. Guides can also be found as .pdf downloads or as printed resources. Scroll to the bottom of the New York Historical Society Research page to see the following research guides:

  • American Revolution Guide
  • Architecture Guide
  • Newspaper Guide
  • Military History Guide
  • Recommended Websites Guide
  • Slavery and the Underground Railroad Guide

Manuscript collections can consist of rare books, loose papers, journals, personal papers, photographs, maps, etc. These collections can lead you to more clues about your family history.

Historical societies may have manuscripts as a part of their collections. In this case, the Georgia Historical Society linked to the Hargrett Rare Book & Manuscript Library "GHS is an independent, non-profit institution." See comments below.

Search the catalog
You should search the card catalog on the historical society website if one exists, but do not assume all resources are listed online. Search for family surnames, local history, churches, or other organizations that your ancestors patronized. Sometimes people who lived in the same area and time period as your ancestor may have mentioned your family members, so widen your search to include other friends or relatives.

See the results of a search for the Smith surname in the Kentucky Historical Society Catalog (click here) to get a feel for the type of resources that exist (journals, compiled genealogies, election documents, family papers, etc.).

Reviewing the collections available on the historical society website can give you a broader understanding of the types of resources that exist in an area that may be helpful to your genealogy research. For example, review the collections listed by the State Historical Society of Iowa. You will notice that they have partnered with FamilySearch to make the 1885 and 1895 Iowa State Censuses available online. This gives you a clue to always check to see if resources you discover have been made accessible online.


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