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How Do Teachers Find and Work with Local Repositories?

We can easily find our own personal historical records like a driver’s license or social security card.  But how do you locate, handle and copy records that are held by local historical records repositories?  The following steps will provide helpful advice for teachers who wish to find and use local documents.

1. Decide where in the curriculum historical records can be used.

Review the overall curriculum and identify places where local or regional records would complement existing lessons.  Start small, identifying one unit that could be researched in the surrounding community.  For example, a Civil War unit could be augmented by records of local Civil War soldiers that are commonly found in historical societies, libraries, and museums.  The experiences of a local soldier will provide a touchstone for students and help them to put the national history of the event into focus.  Other areas that might easily be enhanced with local records include war service and home front activities, agriculture, education, occupations, labor history (including child labor), the history of local businesses, civic and legal issues and land use.

2. Identify repositories.

Once a topic has been selected, identify potential repositories.  There are a number of ways to accomplish this because each community has different organizations and individuals who might be of assistance in locating historical records.  Teachers might try one or more of the following approaches:

  • School library media specialists, reference staff at the local library and/or a nearby university library should be able to help teachers identify nearby repositories.  Regional library systems may include historical records in their catalogs, and can be a useful tool for identifying not only repositories, but also the records they hold.  The New York State Library and State Archives Excelsior catalog is available online and provides easy access to the Historical Documents Inventory (HDI).   This database contains more than 23,000 catalog records for archives and manuscripts collections housed locally at repositories throughout New York State, and may be searched independently of the holdings of the State Library and State Archives.   New York’s Reference and Research Library Resources Systems (3Rs) also offer tools for identifying records repositories across the state. Use a search engine to find your region’s library council and follow links to their list of member organizations as well as the online resource New York Heritage Digital Collection.
  • County or local historical societies can be a valuable resource for both records, as well as local individuals, who can assist in augmenting curriculum.  For a list of some, but not all historical associations in New York State, visit New York History Net’s online resource.  In addition, use a telephone book or online search engine and search on local or regional names to locate additional historical records repositories. Some historical organization names will be obvious, but others like in the town of Schodack, are not. The historical society’s name in Schodack is The Historical Society of Esquatak. 
  • Making connections locally can bring unexpected rewards. By contacting local libraries and historical societies and expressing an interest in finding historical records for classroom use, teachers can unknowingly set into motion positive and lasting collaborations with individuals and organizations. Through a town’s historical society, one teacher was connected with an elderly couple who brought their historical documents and artifacts to the teacher’s classroom.  This exciting opportunity for students to view and handle items from the past, while hearing from those who “lived history,” came as a direct result of a search for local historical records.
  • Most cities, towns, and villages in New York also have a municipal historian, and each county has a county historian.  These individuals are familiar with local historical records repositories, and often have access to local records that could prove useful to teachers.  To find a New York State public historian, visit the website of the Association of Public Historians of New York State.
  • Universities may also have collections of historical records, housed in their own archive or in a “Special Collections Department” within their library holdings. University libraries also have microfilmed records that can be researched and copied as well as digitized materials available on their websites. 
  • Museums may also have historical records. For example, the archives of the General Electric Company, a vast holding that includes photographs, documents, and patents, is housed in the Schenectady Museum, a private not-for-profit organization. Many museums have digitized materials available on their websites. 
  • Regional representatives of the State Archives Documentary Heritage Program and Local Government Records Services can also help a teacher identify repositories.  They work regularly with repositories and local governments and are very familiar with local resources. To find a State Archives regional representative use a search engine and search for New York State Archives Advisory Services.

3.  Contact repositories.

In first contacting a repository, look for a website for specific information on hours and procedures, or check the phone directory.  Find a contact link to send an email, or make a phone call, and ask to speak with reference staff or an archivist.  Some organizations have paid, professional staff; while others rely on volunteers.  It is often wise to make an appointment, rather than stopping by unexpectedly. With prior knowledge of a research visit, repository staff can have historical materials identified ahead of time and ready for research use when the teacher arrives.  If you are unable to connect with one repository, you can try others since many will have resources that would be of equal use to the teacher. Mention how-to videos on Archives website or put picture from video and caption about how to find records videos.

  • Identify yourself, and make your request a specific one!  When approaching an organization about potential resources, identify your purpose in calling, and detail the records you are seeking.  Include information on the theme or unit you are trying to enhance with records, as well as the types of records you think might be available.  Make it clear to staff that a specific item is not necessary, but that records representing certain eras, themes, or subjects would be useful.  The more specific you make your inquiry; the more likely you will be to empower the repository staff to assist you.  Narrow down your request as much as possible.  People who “ask for the world” are usually not as successful as those who target their goal.  For example, to support a lesson on the movement westward in New York, you might specifically ask for maps that show the change in the region over a certain period of time, census records, or early town meeting records for towns that were newly settled in the geographic area.  Someone who asks if the repository has a collection of maps from a certain era and gives a specific geographic location, will be much more successful than the person who asks for anything the repository has on “westward expansion.”  
  • Try to find out if the repository has a catalog, indexes, or finding aids to their holdings, and whether it is possible to obtain copies or otherwise access these finding aids in advance of a visit.  Many repositories use the terms catalog, index and finding aid interchangeably. This publication will refer to these types of research tools as finding aids. The purpose of a finding aid, in most situations, is to identify relevant materials about a specific research topic. Additional information on using finding aids is given in the next section.
  • Ask if copying or scanning facilities are available, and what fees would be charged; as well as whether it is permissible to bring in a personal camera to take photographs of the records or to bring in other forms of personal digital recording devices.  Ask whether laptop computers are allowed in the research area, if you intend to bring one.
  • If you plan for students to conduct some of the research for themselves, ask ahead of time whether this is something the repository can accommodate.  Some repositories have age restrictions and some limit the number of people in a group. Plan on bringing one small group at a time (not entire classrooms) so that you can directly supervise student efforts and their handling of the records.  Research areas are usually small, and there are often a number of researchers who must be accommodated, so keep this in mind when requesting a student visit. One method for providing students with a positive research experience is to meet with repository staff in advance of the students. Discuss with archivists the research topics of the students and identify appropriate research materials for students to use. This will mean that appropriate records are ready for student use as soon as they arrive at the repository, there will be no waiting while materials are pulled from storage areas; and instead of students having to work through 15 boxes of records in a limited amount of time, they may now have only 3-5 boxes. This does not mean that the teacher does the research for the student, but it can mean that students have a research experience that is efficient and productive. 

4.  Review finding aids.

Locating historical records usually is quite different from finding a book in a library.  Books in libraries are organized by the Dewey Decimal System, Library of Congress classification, or by author or title and they are individually cataloged. Libraries often contain thousands of books and have open shelving so patrons may browse books and make selections themselves. In an archives records are organized by the individual, office or organization that created them, and records are generally kept in a locked storage area, and are not available for researchers to retrieve or browse through on their own.  Records are most often organized in storage boxes, a box that holds one cubic foot of records may contain more than 2,000 individual documents. Most archives manage thousands of records.  In an archives reference staff bring the records out for use by the researcher.  Because of the vast quantity of records in an archive, finding aids are a vital component of a researcher’s initial search for historical records.

For example, because historical records are kept together in the way they were created by a person or organization; they are not generally treated as individual items.  As a result, all the letters that a woman wrote to her husband during his service in World War II would be kept together because, in order to understand her activities, concerns, and relationship with him, one would need to look at the whole group of records.  Similarly, records of a local government office are kept in the filing groups that the office created, such as tax assessment rolls, or the mayor’s correspondence.

Finding aids of several types may be available to the teacher. Some will include a summary description of the records and a box or folder list. Using a search engine and the following words in the search box will yield an example of a traditional style of finding aid: New York State Archives Rapp Coudert investigation files. Other finding aids will take the form of subject guides. To see examples of this second type of finding aid use a search engine and one of the following search terms: New York State Archives Guide to Records Relating to Native Americans; and New York State Archives the Lusk Committee. 

Teachers will find it useful to look over the finding aid to determine if there are specific parts of the records that would be useful, or whether the whole group of records needs to be reviewed.  Many times, the reference staff will be familiar with the records and might be helpful in indicating which records have good potential for classroom use. 

Some finding aids are available online, so it is worth a quick internet search to see if the finding aid for the collection you are interested in can be accessed and studied before the visit to the repository takes place.  This is especially true of finding aids for collections that have been microfilmed and published.  

5.  Handle historical records carefully.

Because historical records are unique, one-of-a-kind items, they require special conditions for research and handling.  Most repositories will inform researchers of special rules for using their resources.  Typical rules might include:    

  • Coats, hats, notebooks, purses and book bags are usually stored in lockers so that documents do not accidentally (or otherwise) leave the facility.
  • Protect the records.  No food, drink, smoking, or other substances that could do damage are allowed in research rooms.  Respect the repository’s rules for copying and scanning records. In most instances, staff will do the copying and scanning, and in some situations special permission may be required, especially if the records are very fragile or very old.  Use soft pencils, never pens, in order to prevent the records from being accidentally marked.  If white gloves are available at the repository, wear them to protect the documents from the natural oil and acid that is always on our hands.  We don’t see this residue with our eyes, but over time even a small trace can fade, yellow, or disintegrate documents and photos.
  • Keep records in the order they exist in the boxes, folder, or other containers.  Ask if the repository has a system for marking where records have been removed from boxes or folders.  If not, mark the spot with a strip of paper.   This will help insure that records are put back in their proper order.
  • If you bring students into a repository, make sure they are instructed in correct etiquette and the need for cleanliness.  Emphasize that no food or drink (including gum or candy) is permitted, and have students check their pockets before entering.  If lunch or other treats have recently been consumed, a visit to a rest room to wash hands is advised before entering the research area of the repository.  Remember that students are not adults, and they do not have your understanding of protective measures.  Explain procedures in a number of ways, and anticipate how students might misunderstand.  For example, one teacher had carefully explained archival procedures to a small group of students who were researching records in the New York State Archives.  As a student was working on Civil War records on the microfilm machine, the teacher noticed that the student seemed agitated and then discovered that he was desperately trying to clean up chocolate on the machine.  He explained that he didn’t consider candy as food unless it was open, so he had stuffed his candy in his pocket and it had “exploded” from his body warmth!  Thankfully, no records were affected.  Fully explain the reasons for rules, try to anticipate problems and be observant so documents are protected and students have a positive experience.  

6.  Identify teachable and useable records.

Doing research in historical records is exhilarating, rather like a child being let loose in a candy shop. It is better to start small, selecting only the most captivating historical record, and build up a collection from many sources over time.  Be aware that the enthusiasm a teacher has for a “special historical record” may not be matched by a student in the classroom.  Teachers focusing on the content of a record may overlook an important characteristic, its teach-ability.

Historical records are educationally neutral – they may be used in several disciplines and by students of widely varying ages and proficiencies.  How appropriate a specific record is for use, depends on how the record will be used in the classroom.  Look for historical records which offer the greatest degree of flexibility.  Some questions that you may want to consider when deciding on the classroom potential of records include:

  • Legibility.  How readable is the record, and how well will it photocopy or scan?  Will a transcription be necessary?
  • Is the length of the document appropriate for the instructional time available, or will a short excerpt from the document serve your purpose?
  • Is the level of reading difficulty appropriate for the students in your class? How much background knowledge is necessary for the record to be understood by students?  Are there vocabulary terms that will need to be explained?
  • How does the historical record relate to performance objectives, learning standards, or skills objectives?  Can it just be dropped into the curriculum, or would it need to be clustered with larger units of study for the most effective use of classroom time?
  • How compelling or interesting is the historical record?  How would the record be perceived by students?  Some historical records may contain violent images or language, or expressions now considered politically incorrect or offensive (for example, a racial epithet).  If the teacher believes that the record’s value to the curriculum is not diminished by these expressions, then students should be advised before its use that the historical record contains such material.  Take care to set the record in historical context, be sensitive to any student concerns that may arise, and be prepared to offer an alternative document when necessary.

7.  Consult staff about copying documents.

Most research facilities have copiers or scanners. Check with each facility for their procedures and fee schedule. Many repositories require researchers to complete a written request for copies and that staff members do the actual copying of records. If the facility has self-service copying, consult the repository staff if a historical record is bound in fragile bindings or is in danger of cracking along the edges or folds.  They may have alternatives to copying, or may know if these records are already on microfilm or available in another format.

A few facilities have copying or scanning machines that are capable of making full scale copies of oversized records such as maps or architectural plans.  In most cases, however, the researcher will need to special order copies of oversized items.

Inquire in advance of your visit about bringing in a camera to take photographs of records like drawings, photographs, or paintings.  Similar arrangements may be made to bring in tape recorders, camcorders, or computers for audio or visual recordings.  Be aware, however, that many formats available in the past do not transfer easily to newer technology.  A Betamax, or VHS tape or reel-to-reel film, for example, requires the right equipment for viewing and copying.   

Once the teacher has the copy of the historical record in hand, it is recommended that a complete citation of the location of the original source be written on the back of the record, or incorporated in another way that makes the citation an integral part of the copy.  Citing the source takes very little time and spares researchers from having to retrace their steps if they decide they need additional copies in the future. The information in the citation should include: 

  • the name of the repository; 
  • a record series, collection or accession number; 
  • box and/or folder number; and
  • a description of the type of document (map, broadside, letter, etc.) and the information it contains (date, author, subject).

It is extremely important that all researchers are respectful of and adhere to copyright laws. It is the responsibility of the researcher to make sure they are in compliance with these laws. Most, but not all, records that are in the custody of federal, state or local governments (towns, counties, villages, cities, public schools) are in the public domain. There are no copyright restrictions on the use of records that are in the public domain. However, always verify the status of the historical records you want to use with staff at the repository. Records that are in the custody of private institutions, which include: most libraries, historical societies, museums, colleges and universities, churches, businesses and community organizations, are not in the public domain. These records are covered by copyright laws. Permission must be requested from these private organizations in order to use these materials. 

When a copy of a historical record(s) is used in the classroom, for special projects or other activities, it is very important to credit the records repository where the document was found. A short caption with each document that states: From the collections of the New York State Archives, or Courtesy of the New York State Archives, or simply, New York State Archives goes a long way in increasing public awareness about historical records and the repositories that manage and preserve them.