Stuck trying to find clues to your ancestors? Include the archives' vertical files on your research plan! You might find copies of a previous family historian's notes, family Bible pages, transcribed documents and more!
Genealogy Resources

Vertical Files in the Archives – A Valuable Genealogy Resource

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” 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!

Stuck trying to find clues to your ancestors? Include the archives' vertical files on your research plan! You might find copies of a previous family historian's notes, family Bible pages, transcribed documents and more! #archives #genealogy #ancestors

What Are Vertical Files in the Archives?

Vertical files are collections of documents and ephemera relevant to the county and/or state. 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. A researcher must look through a file to determine its contents.

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
  • Maps
  • Photographs
  • Church directories and histories
  • Directories
  • Community event programs

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:

Maps! 

I found a map of Raleigh!

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 was incredible. 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

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 do 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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