Beacon Street Diary blog

How Did You Find That?: People

by Sara Trotta, Librarian

The surprised and delighted “How did you find that?!” is the sort of positive reinforcement that makes me tumble out of bed, stumble to the kitchen and pour myself a cup of ambition every day. I think this is the case for a lot of people in this field. My typical facetious answer is something like “librarian magic!” which people more readily accept than if I launch into a detailed explanation of metadata structures and optimizing search terms.

At the risk of angering the great cabal of librarians, I’d like to reveal some of our trade secrets (and if I mysteriously disappear as a result, you’ll know what happened). My hope is that this will help readers find more of the information they’re looking for, or hone their questions so we can help them more easily, and to shed some light on the skills and work necessary to come up with the magic answers. Additionally, some of these resources are particular to the Congregational Library meaning even experienced researchers may not be familiar with them.

This time I’ll be walking you through tracking down people in our records, one of our most frequent questions. How we go about this is highly dependent on who we’re looking for:

 

Clergy

Clergy are generally among the easiest types of people to track down, or at the very least determine whether we have any material about them. 

First there is the online catalog. By searching the name of a minister you may be able to sermons they may have delivered and published, other material they may have written, and sometimes even photos or portraits from our image collection. 

Then there is the obituary database which will provide citations for a clergy members’ obituary across a number of publications, primarily yearbooks, and include further instructions for online access. Most of the congregational yearbooks have been digitized on the Internet Archive up through about the mid-20th century. After that, these obituaries are still accessible in hard copy by library staff or researchers in our reading room. Obituaries will usually contain information about a minister’s birth, education, pastorates, and any other notable service in Congregational organizations. Living clergy can also be found listed in yearbooks. 

Less frequently, we will have a minister’s personal or family papers in our archival collections or in the records of a church where they served. If this material exists, it will show up in a search of our online catalog. 

 

Missionaries

The same tips when searching for clergy apply to searching for missionaries. They can often be found through their published writing, occasionally their personal papers and sometimes in the obituary database which also pulls necrologies printed in the Missionary Herald. 

The published guide to the American Board for Commissioners of Foreign Missions microfilm collection includes listings of all ABCFM missionaries organized by name and also by mission station. This can be an excellent resource for locating additional primary source material about someone or providing more context for their experiences. 

Annual reports of the American Board and other organizations like the American Missionary Association usually contain listings of active missionaries and reports of the activities of individual mission stations. 

The complete records of the American Board are held by Harvard’s Houghton Library. They often have personal correspondence and other manuscript material written by missionaries during their service. The Congregational Library has the microfilm of much of this material. 

The records of the American Missionary Association are held by the Amistad Research Center. They are the best resource for finding more information about missionaries who worked for the AMA. The Congregational Library also holds the microfilm of a large portion of their archival collection. 

 

Other Congregationalists

Tracking down someone who was not a minister or a missionary--or if you aren’t sure if they were a minister or a missionary--may prove more difficult. While this can be the proverbial needle-in-the-haystack sort of undertaking, there are a few things approaches that make this easier. 

If you have a good idea of what church someone belonged to--because their close relatives belonged there, or some other reason--they may be found in the church’s records, either in listings of vital statistics like births, marriages and deaths, or in the regular activities of the church which was often a center of community life. Membership lists were often attached to printings of a church’s covenant or articles of faith--you can find many of these for congregational churches all over the country in our local church history files, though the time periods covered are often spotty. 

If you know the general area where someone lived, you might be able to narrow down which church they attended and start your search there. The further back in time you go, the fewer churches there are to search through, but the more likely it is that their early records have been lost, damaged or destroyed over time. Typically, Congregational churches retain their own records while they are open, and if a church is closed and their records have not been deposited at the library, staff might be able to help locate them. 

It is an unfortunate fact that the details of the lives of “ordinary” people are generally not preserved in the historical record, but there are many local public history organizations, like historical societies, doing work to make the material that exists more visible, and new technologies (like OCR which makes digitized images of text searchable) making material more accessible from a distance all the time.