So, you’ve found all of the digitized records available online. Now what?

For some time now, I have been researching the family of my paternal great grandmother, Margaret Bernice Windt. Margaret’s grandfather, Henry Theodore Windt, left Toronto for the Cariboo region of B.C in 1894 to become a partner in a mine.[1]  He purchased property in Alexandria, B.C. and established a homestead for his family, still in Toronto at the time. Margaret’s father, Henry Gladstone Windt, was about 17 years old when he, his mother and siblings joined Henry Sr. in Alexandria in 1901. Over the next couple of generations, the family settled in Quesnel and Smithers.

Researching the Windt family was my ‘gateway’ into a serious addiction to genealogical research! I remembered my grandparents mentioning that our family had donated a collection of photographs to the Quesnel Museum and Archives. I began my research on their website, where I was excited to find sample images from The Windt Photograph Collection and a brief description of how the Windt family came to settle in the Cariboo. As copies of images were too expensive for my student budget and I didn’t want to waste an archivist’s time (or my money) on searching for information that could be found elsewhere, I decided find out as much as I could about the Windt family from online resources. After countless hours of research on genealogy websites and in archival databases, I uncovered digitized death records, census records, marriage records, images of headstones, and historical newspapers for three generations of the Windt family. It seemed as if everything was online – it was amazing!

After months of successful searching, the discoveries became fewer and fewer and I began to realize that I had exhausted all of the available online resources. There were a number of essential records that had evaded my search and so many questions that still needed to be answered! In frustration, I set the Windt family aside and moved on to easier pickings.

Recently, I began to research the family again. This time, my strategy was to focus on the data points in individual records and use them to identify areas for further research, online or offline. Before I go into my experience researching the Windt family, I’ll give you a quick overview of my strategy for finding the potential locations of analogue (original, non-digitized) records in archives:

Step 1

Analyze the record, or records, that you already have. Identify data points like place, occupation, or religion that could provide clues about your ancestor’s functions and activities.

A quick note on archival arrangement: Archival materials are arranged into aggregates, called fonds in the Canadian archival context, according to the functions of the creator. A fonds is “the whole of the records that a physical or juridical person accumulates by reason of its function or activity.”[2]  In this context, a 'person’ is an entity with the capacity to act legally and includes individuals, families, corporations, organizations, and institutions. As the highest-level aggregation in the archival hierarchy, within fonds you will find archival materials arranged into series, sub-series, files and items.

Step 2

Determine which archives serve the areas where your ancestor lived. Locate archives for surrounding towns or cities, provincial archives, national archives, and archives of religious denominations.

MemoryBC: the AtoM portal for all B.C. archives and special collections. Click image to visit MemoryBC. 

MemoryBC: the AtoM portal for all B.C. archives and special collections. Click image to visit MemoryBC. 

Step 3

Once you’ve located an archives that could contain relevant records, search for fonds that are related to the clues from Step 1. Read through fonds titles and descriptions. Titles are based on the name of the creator or the contents of the fonds. Most archives will include a list of their holdings on their website even if they don’t have any of their holdings digitized. Depending on the province or state, some archives and special collections will share fonds-level descriptions of their holdings with a central portal.

Step 4

Research in the archives! Contact the archivist or research assistant if the archives isn’t in your area. If you do this after conducting an exhaustive online search and identifying potential fonds, you will have a better sense of what is available and which questions to ask the archivist.

Back to the Windt family:

I had originally been discouraged from searching for analogue records for the Windt family because of the distance – Quesnel is an 8 hour drive away from Vancouver. Using this strategy, I found potential records located in Vancouver! In B.C., all of the archives and special collections that are members of the Archives Association of B.C. submit descriptions of their holdings to a portal called MemoryBC. MemoryBC uses the Access to Memory (AtoM) content management system, which organizes descriptions in accordance with the Rules for Archival Description. Each fonds-level description includes information about the creator, the repository where the fonds/collection is located, the dates of creation, a physical description, and the scope and content of the fonds. Often a biographical sketch of the creator is also included. AtoM also allows researchers to access the holdings through access points like subjects, names and places.

Henry Gladstone Windt and Nellie Lilian Carter marriage, 10 December 1910. British Columbia Division of Vital Statistics, Marriage Registrations 1872-1911, BC Archives. (Screenshot).

I started with the marriage registration record of Margaret’s parents: Henry Gladstone Windt and Nellie Lilian Carter, married at “Windt’s Ranch, Alexandria, B.C.” on December 27th, 1910. The record includes information about the parents of the groom and bride, their ages, place of birth, place of residence, occupations, religious denomination, who married them, and the names and residences of the witnesses.

Although I already knew this information, two pieces of data to stood out to me: the couple’s religious denominations and the location. The record gives both Henry and Nellie’s religious denominations as “Presbyterian.”  As I was unfamiliar with the denomination, I did a quick search and found out that the Presbyterian Church in Canada merged with Methodist Church to form the United Church in 1925. Although the merge occurred 15 years after their wedding, I was hopeful that the United Church archives would have pre-merge records in their holdings.

After doing a search of the fonds and collections held by United Church of Canada British Columbia Conference Archives, I found the description for the St. Andrew's United Church (Quesnel, BC) fonds. According to the scope and content description, the fonds includes records from the Alexandria Presbyterian Church and church records (baptism, marriage and burial registers) created between 1894-2001. As the only Presbyterian Church in Alexandria, this was most likely the Windt family’s church!

A search for "Alexandria, B.C." om MemoryBC directed me to the Alexandria School fonds, created from 1912-1919, held in the Quesnel Museum and Archives. Although Margaret (b. 1914) may have been too young to attend school within that time period, it is possible that she is mentioned in the records. I applied the strategy to Margaret’s own marriage record and found more potential fonds located in archives in Smithers and Kamloops!

Sometimes the key to breaking through your ‘brick wall’ is as simple as taking another look at what you already have. It’s easy to get caught up in the thrill of gathering digitized records without truly looking at the potential of each one. If you find yourself unsure of where to search next, select a few key records to analyze and treat each one as a jumping off point for further research – you never know what you might find!

What is your strategy for finding records about your ancestors in archives? If you have any tips, please share them in the comment section below. I'd love to hear from you!


Works Cited

[1] "Photograph Collection: The Windt Collection," Quesnel Museum and Archives, accessed August 13, 2015, http://www.quesnelmuseum.ca/photographcollections.html.

[2]  The InterPares 2 Project Glossary, s.v. “fonds,” current July 11, 2015, accessed August 2, 2015, http://www.interpares.org/ip2/display_file.cfm?doc=ip2_glossary.pdf&CFID=5873668&CFTOKEN=91206663.

To cite this post (Chicago Style):

Parker, Marisa. “So, you've found all of the digitized records available online. Now what?” The Family Archivist's Notebook (blog). August 14, 2015. http://www.parkerarchivalservices.com/blog/2015/8/so-youve-found-all-of-the-digitized-records-available-online-now-what.