The Writings of the Working World

Author: Mark W. Swarthout
Published on: December 7, 2001

Most of us don't consider our relatives as being important to anyone other than ourselves and our relations. But every family tree has those members that have made good in some field or another. Many of our ancestors had importance to individuals other than the direct family. Records exist of professional associations, professional journals, and even governmental files that can provide information and records on our families.

There are two types of items that can provide valuable insight into their daily lives. The first are those things people used in every day life that may be safely preserved someplace. In the 17 and 1800's, many people kept a journal of their daily activities. It served as a reminder and a source of entertainment in the evenings. Nothing can make a relative come alive like a diary or a stack of letters. But, unless you inherited them, or your aunt has them safely tucked away in a box, how would you find them?

The second type of item are those documents associated with your ancestors in their everyday jobs. Ledgers and journals from offices and businesses often include little bits and pieces of their personal life. And many businesses advertised in local newspapers, phone directories and other opportunities. Old college and high school yearbooks might have pages sponsored by the local businesses.

One of the keys is to know the locations that your ancestors lived in during their lifetimes. Historical societies in local communities can be of great help! They often have collected the contributions of letters, documents, newspapers and other items into the local museum. The museum may be very low key, not having a web site, not being catalogued with national databases and may be known only to a small number of local patrons that are supporting it, knowing that there are people like us that are hoping to find it!

Most communities and their associated chambers of commerce mention the local historical museums and repositories. Schools and colleges will be listed also. Visit their web sites to get a start. Not only do they have vbolunteers, many will gladly provide photocopies and basic research in exchange for simple donations. Recently one such organization provided a photocopy of a relative's obituary (125 years ago!) to me in exchange for $1 donation. Such a deal! Don't forget the unwritten rule of genealogists, which I will write!

Give more than you receive. Even something as simple as transcribing a will or obituary and posting on the approriate web site could help someone out!

The first place to look, the key for possible records is the National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections (NUCMC) web site at This search location has a wide number of sites cross indexed that might lead you to surprising sources for information. Many archives have listed their holdings in the Archives and Mixed Holdings index, shown as the NUCMC Z39.50 Gateway to the RLIN AMC from their homepage.

Many GenWeb sites, county associations and other historical organizations have listed the diaries and letters they have on line. Here are a few locations as examples, but don't forget to use your search engines to put together possible sites! (See my article Don't Under Estimate Search Engines!)

Letters and diaries from the residents of Sullivan and Rutland Townships in Tioga County, Pennsylvania

The Brockway Diary Collection

Searchable Civil War Diaries from Franklin County, Pennsylvania and Augusta County, Virginia

Some Illinois Civil War Diaries

You might just find a diary or some other papers, letters sent to other people, perhaps even a picture. Good Luck!

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Updated on 10/25/2005