woman's hand going through a vertical file cabinet
Genealogy Resources

Vertical Files in the Archives – A Valuable Genealogy Resource

Vertical files in the archives contain valuable information on your ancestors. Find copies of family Bibles, previous family trees and more!

Sometimes the genealogy finds that cause us to do the genealogy happy dance 💃🕺 are found in unlikely places. Consider the vertical files found in archives and libraries.

I teach often on researching “out of the box” or uncommon genealogy resources and recently posed this question to a group, “Who includes researching in vertical files at the archives in their research plan?”

I was surprised not one person raised their hand!

Fellow researchers, if you are not checking the vertical files at the archives and the libraries where you research, you are missing out on a valuable resource!

Hands going through files in a cabinet. Brown box reading Genealogy Family history in vertical files.

What Are Vertical Files in the Archives?

Vertical files are collections of documents and ephemera relevant to the county and/or state but not necessarily meeting the criteria to be part of a state archives collection. The collections are usually housed in local and state libraries. Often the files are in a vertical 3 or 4 drawer file cabinet, thus, the original name “vertical files”.

The files will be arranged and labeled based on a topic or on a surname. For example, you may find a section for Cabarrus County churches with individual church files alphabetized behind it.  Some vertical file collections are simply alphabetized with topic and surname intermingled. The contents of each file are not usually cataloged or indexed, and a researcher must look through a file to determine its contents.

It’s a bit of a treasure hunt!

Vertical File cabinet

When beginning research into a repository’s vertical files, ask the librarian/archivist how their vertical files are set up. If you have a specific topic to research such as a county’s churches, let the librarian know. He/she will be able to quickly point you in the right direction and give you any pointers to researching their particular vertical file system.

What Can Researchers Find In Vertical Files?

Here’s where the fun begins!

Vertical files can hold just about anything.

Really. Anything.

Vertical files in archives potentially contain:

  • A previous genealogist’s notes including family trees and family group sheets
  • Genealogy related correspondence – Great for finding other researchers and family members’ contact information.
  • Maps – I love a good map!
  • Photographs – Usually these are copies of photos, but sometime originals.
  • Church directories and histories – These are critical for many of our research projects!!!!
  • Directories – Again, another critical genealogy resource!
  • Community event programs – Perfect for finding names and causes important to your ancestors.

On a recent trip to my hometown of Concord, North Carolina, I stopped by the Cabarrus County Public Library to visit the local history room known as the Lore Room. [The Lore sisters collected and compiled a tremendous amount of genealogical information on many of the local families and records. If you have ancestors in and around Cabarrus, North Carolina, you definitely want to plan a visit here.]

I delved into their vertical files – which are actually horizontal – to see what was possible to find. Take a look at a sample of what I discovered:


I found a map of Raleigh! Just to be clear, Raleigh is NOT in Cabarrus County, but 2.5 hours away.

Old map of Raleigh from a vertical file

I found a directory of maps, too.  (You know I love using directories for genealogy research!)This turned out to be an amazing resource.

Farm Maps Directory for Cabarrus County
Farm Maps Directory for Cabarrus County

The maps inside were sp detailed. You may not be able to tell, but the map below had the names of who lived where indicated. Ancestors are literally placed on the map. 

Cabarrus County, NC Map With Homeowners
Cabarrus County, NC Map With Homeowners

Previous genealogy researcher’s notes

Pedigree tree for Ancestors of Warren Oliver
Warren Shawn Oliver Family Tree

Copy of A Family Bible

Copy of Family Bible from Earnhardt Family Vertical File
Copy of Family Bible from Earnhardt Family Vertical File

Photographs and Images

Earnhardt Family Vertical File - Cabarrus Co. Public Library
From the Earnhardt Family Vertical File – Cabarrus Co. Public Library

Church Directories/ Records

Center Grove Lutheran Church, Kannapolis, NC Church History
Center Grove Lutheran Church, Kannapolis, NC Church History

Searching in vertical files is a bit like going on a treasure hunt. You never know quite what you will find, but these files should not be overlooked.

Researching in a county or state repository’s vertical usually must be done on-site. Few vertical files are digitized and online.

With that said, do not overlook a repository’s digital collection. The State Archives of North Carolina does have a  Genealogy Vertical Files Collection online. [If you research North Carolina ancestors, don’t miss this!] So…it is possible to find some online.

State Archives of NC Vertical Files Collection
State Archives of NC Online Vertical Files Collection

Now It Is YOUR Turn!

  1. Explore the vertical files area repositories for where your ancestors lived.
  2. Explore what and if any of the repository you are interested in has vertical files are online.
  3. If you are unable to visit a specific repository, reach out to the archivist or librarian for assistance.

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  • Sara N Martin

    Are those Earnhardts ancestors of the racing family? As a NASCAR fan, I’m curious. Good post! I recently discovered an archive in Illinois has a file for my family papers but I’ll have to get them copied as I’m out of state.

  • Jackie

    I learned something today and I’m very excited! This is the first time I’ve heard of libraries haveing vertical files that were accessible and even online is some cases. Hopeful of discovering many tidbits of information from the past related to a communities churches, education and business activities.

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