Monday, June 18, 2012

Seriously, Not Everything is Online

Last week I wrote a two-part series on the complexity of using online records. With the easy accessibility of online records sometimes we get lulled into thinking that all the important records are online. Here's a story that will remind you that genealogical gold is sometimes hidden - deep.

Last week I was researching a beautiful Greek Revival home in Grafton, Massachusetts at the Grafton Public Library.  Sometimes, just like with genealogy, it's helpful to visit the town in question to find historical resources. I was looking for information about the house itself and its owners.

The Grafton Public Library has a little historical section that contains publications on Grafton history such as the very useful History of Grafton, Worcester County, Massachusetts by Frederick Clifton Pierce (also available online) as well as unpublished historical commission surveys about local houses.  The Pierce work is easily found in the library's online catalog. The unpublished historical commission surveys (easily 300+ pages worth) are not.

In the historical commission survey on the particular house I was researching there was a bibliography of resources. Two of the items intrigued me: "History of Some Houses on South Street" (1918) by Lucy Biscoe and "Old Houses and Places in Grafton" (1950) by Catherine Warren.  Both of these seemed like really good resources.

I first searched for them using WorldCat. Neither items were found in the WorldCat catalog. Nor were they found in the online catalog of the Grafton Public Library.

I knew that the items existed because they were referenced in the historical commission survey.  So I did what any researcher would do, I went to the reference desk and asked where to find the items in questions.

The Secret Stash

I came to learn that the Grafton Public Library has a secret stash of historical manuscripts. These are likely nearly all unpublished. Many of them were presentations to the local historical society and the author shared a printed copy of the talk.

The catalog for this secret stash is found in a small index card sized box full of about 100 index cards. They are cataloged with a very intricate, complex system - they are numbered individually 1 to 100!  The catalog box is not publicly available. It is kept behind the scenes in an office.  In order to get the catalog you need to know it exists and then you need to ask for it.  From the catalog you can select the items you want and the library staff will retrieve them for you.

Finding Gold

Are these items worth hunting for? Absolutely! They contain compiled information likely found no where else.  The information is rich in genealogical and historical details. You may need to confirm unsourced information in the manuscripts but they will point you in a direction that was unknown to you and save you hours of work.

Hidden Information

This story is just one example to help you realize that not all information is online or even cataloged online.  Is this so unusual? I don't know about the rest of the world, but here in New England it's not.  Many libraries have historical rooms where much of the contents are not cataloged.  They just haven't caught up with the backlog yet.  The case at the Grafton Public Library was the first time I encountered publications that were so deeply hidden.

Strategy Moving Forward
  • Pay close attention to bibliographies. If you find resources that look useful to you, make sure you hunt for them because they must exist somewhere.
  • Speak with (or email) the local library or historical society and ask them about local materials that may not be cataloged. Chances are they have some.
  • Offer to scan these resources (if they are in the public domain) for your local library so that they can be made available online. The ones at the Grafton Public Library were limited in quantity and probably could all be scanned in one day. If the resources in your area look like they could be manageably scanned by one person then offer to help.

Photo credit: photo by tao_zhyn and used under the creative commons license.


  1. Good points all, Marian--especially your last one, my favorite hobby-horse: if it's not online, find a way to be part of the solution and add to the online collection for the rest of us.

  2. Totally agree Marian. So much "gold" is offline that I've been writing weekly posts about the sort of information that's tucked away waiting to be found. I've called my series Beyond the Internet. Let's hope other researchers discover the delights offline too.