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Where Can Teachers Find Historical Records?

Historical records surround us.  One of the most exciting things about teaching with historical records is that they are so plentiful.  Each of us possesses personal historical records such as a birth certificate, driver’s license, social security card, tax returns, land records, immigration and naturalization papers, or military service records.  We may also have family photographs, report cards, drawings, school science projects, postcards, greeting cards, scrapbooks, diaries, ration coupons, political paraphernalia, and theater programs.

Repositories of historical records are also plentiful; they are located throughout the State and in every community.  They are not difficult to locate and visit, affording teachers a convenient way to supplement the personal records they already may possess.  In recent years, many repositories have begun digitizing their records and posting them to the internet, where specific records can easily be found with a search engine.  The Library of Congress alone provides online access to millions of digital items in its collections.  Section ___ of this book will give additional instruction in how to access and use digitized copies of historical records.

Schools are good places for teachers and students to find historical records with a personal, familiar feel.  In cooperation with the administration, teachers may be able to locate and use old attendance records, school rules, school board position statements, blueprints, yearbooks and literary magazines, school newspapers, audiovisual recordings of choral and dramatic performances, films of old athletic contests, and award certificates.  Identify your school district’s records management officer and inquire about what type of historical records are available for copying.  The school library or media center may also have historical records related to the school or community in its collection.

Historical records about a community may be held by local libraries, historical societies, universities, museums, churches, businesses, or local government agencies.  Libraries often have local history collections that contain historical records.  These collections may include records related to area families, businesses and institutions such as diaries, letters, photographs, account books, maps, and drawings.

Local government repositories hold records generated in the course of official business.  Local government records may include such official documentation as minutes of town meetings, maps with land use information, taxation and assessment records, plans for parks and roadways, building permits and architectural drawings, and environmental impact statements and bid specifications for major community projects such as mall and shopping center development.  Local government records also include court cases, census records, citizenship applications, veterans’ discharge papers, militia records, records of slaves and manumissions, elections records, and ledgers of livestock earmarks and brands.  For additional tips on how to find local government records, see (web address).

Diaries, personal letters, community and personal photographs, broadsides, maps, and drawings would more likely be held by an historical society and/or a municipal librarian.

Museums are likely to have records relating to the functions of their institution:  documentation about exhibitions (such as catalogues, brochures, and photographs), educational programs, annual reports, financial records, and records related to their holdings including personal and community photographs, diaries, letters, maps, and drawings.  In recent years many museums have posted online exhibits of historical records.

University archives maintain documentation of the functions of the university.  This can include yearbooks, class lists and catalogues, papers of the university president and faculty members, documentation of student activities and cultural life, and annual and financial reports. They may also hold historical materials relating to other topics as well. Many university archives have established a presence on the internet, giving fast access to digitized collections.  Two university sites that are particularly helpful include Yale’s Avalon Project, a collection of both digital and transcribed documents in law, history and diplomacy that spans from 450 B.C. to the 21st century, and the Scripps Library Digital Archive at the University of Virginia, which makes available an enormous amount of data covering U.S. politics and public policy.

Church records often include documentation of baptisms, lists of members and officers, annual and financial reports, and information on community activities and special events.

Records of businesses can include correspondence, bills, ledgers and account books, personnel records, and advertising and product information.

In addition, local chambers of commerce, charitable organizations, union and veteran groups often maintain files of historical records that provide a variety of perspectives for viewing the past life of a community.

Death, birth, and marriage records are generally found with local registrars of vital statistics and the State Department of Health.  Wills, inventories, and other probate records are available from county Surrogate Court offices.

The New York State Archives (NYSA) preserves and makes available historically valuable records of the state government, ensures the preservation of local government records, and provides advice on the preservation and use of historical records.  It holds records related to state government that date from the colonial period to the present.  The number of digital historical records available to researchers is impressive and consists of thousands of primary source documents.  The number of digital images that are available through the (NYSA) website continues to grow every day. The website also includes document based resources for classroom teachers and students. Historical records and lessons are selected and developed by New York teachers. Topics include: the Civil War, the American Revolution, colonial Dutch New York, slavery in New York, global history, immigration, New York’s Electoral College, World War I, the Erie Canal, Latino and Chinese community history in New York, and a bilingual resource La Escuela Electrónica.  

Manuscripts and special collections of interest to teachers are available at the New York State Library.  The Library’s collections of manuscripts, rare books, maps and atlases, prints and photographs, broadsides and posters, musical scores and ephemera document the history of New York State from the seventeenth century to the present.  Digital records available through the online catalogue of the New York State Library include census documents as well as, Civil War, constitutional history, state geology and flora/fauna, Native Americans, and New York State laws.  

Other states have online collections which may have information pertaining to New York, as well.  For example, the Florida Memory Project has material about Theodore Roosevelt and the Rough Riders who were deployed from Tampa to Cuba during the Spanish American War.

The National Archives and Records Administration is responsible for the preservation and use of the permanently valuable records of the Federal government from 1774 to the present.  The Northeast Regional Archives, in New York City, is one of several regional offices of the National Archives nationwide.  They make original and microfilmed Federal records relating to New York State available to the public.  The National Archives system also contains presidential libraries including The Franklin D. Roosevelt Library located in Hyde Park, New York.  Online, the National Archives makes available thousands of digital records that are accessible through searchable databases, exhibits and collections, and specially prepared resources for teachers and students.