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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course United States: Institutional Records  by Amy Johnson Crow, CG. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).


Finding the Records

Records of government institutions tend to be easier to locate than those of private institutions. This is one instance where government bureaucracy can be a good thing. The reporting requirements coupled with record retention schedules of government agencies gives researchers a greater chance of finding extant records.

An effective strategy for finding the records (original or published) is:

  • The institution (if still in existence)
  • State archives (if a state institution) or religious or fraternal archives (if the institution was sponsored by a church or fraternal society)
  • State library
  • State historical society
  • Local public library
  • Family History Library, Salt Lake City
  • National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections (NUCMC)
  • Periodical Source Index (PERSI)
  • County USGenWebsite
  • County histories (for institutional histories)
  • State manuals (for institutional histories)

The Internet is an incredible tool for research, including institutional records. The websites of all of the above-named repositories may have incredible information. Most, if not all, state archives and state libraries have at least part of their catalogs online. This is a great boon to finding records in distant repositories.

The Institution

They say the beginning is a good place to start. The institution is the logical place to start.

If the institution is still in existence, they will be able to tell you if they still have the records you seek. If the records are no longer there, with some luck they will be able to tell you (accurately) what happened to them and where you can find them.

Institution websites are great places to begin. It is common to find histories of the institution and contact information. A growing number of institutional websites are adding records and finding aids to their sites. For example, the Ohio Veterans Home in Sandusky, Ohio has on its website the burial records for the cemetery located there, most with pictures of the tombstone.

Even if the institution no longer exists, it may still have a website. Alumni or ‘fans’ of the institution may have published a site devoted to it. Sometimes people make websites even for institutions still in existence. Birdie Holsclaw built a website devoted to the Pupils of the Colorado School for the Deaf and the Blind, 1874-1883. In it, she has photos, rosters, and family histories.

State Archives

You should consider the state archives for nearly all aspects of your research. This is certainly true of institutional records. State archives become the custodian of most state institution records. They also tend to have collections of records from non-government entities. Start with its website. Not only will you find contact information and hours of operation, you will more than likely find an online catalog and finding aids. Like nearly every other group, state archives are adding to their online offerings. One of the most robust state archives websites is that of the Illinois State Archives. Among its numerous online databases is an index of Illinois Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Home residents, 1887-1916.

State Libraries

State libraries, by their nature, tend to have more published material than original material. They are the perfect place to start looking for annual reports and city directories.

Not to be outdone by their counterparts at the state archives, state libraries are increasing their presence on the Internet with online databases. As an example, Indiana State Library website has an online index of children in the Indiana Soldier’s and Sailor’s Children’s Home.

State Historical Societies

It is hard to say what you will find in a state historical society, as their collections are widely varied. Many organizations donate their records to the state historical society when they cease operations, such as Hare’s Orphans Home, whose records are in the Ohio Historical Society archives. You won’t know what a state historical society has until you look.

Public Libraries

There is a movement in public libraries to add digital collections to their website. These digital scrapbooks feature photos and information about places in the area, including the schools and institutions. The Salem (Oregon) Public Library sponsors an online history project. This site features histories and photos of people and places in the Salem area, including the Marion County Poor Farm, the Glen Oaks Orphanage, the Reform School, and approximately 100 public and private schools.

Local public libraries are also excellent sources of published school materials, such as yearbooks. Some have begun online digital image collections, including pictures of schools in the area. Also look for scanned early yearbooks and class photos. The Kokomo-Howard County Public Library, the Greentown Public Library, and the Howard County Historical Society sponsor the Howard County, Indiana Memory Project. It has scanned yearbook images from dozens of Howard County high school yearbooks.

Family History Library, Salt Lake City

The Family History Library (FHL) in Salt Lake City, Utah is the largest genealogical library in the world. With millions of rolls of microfilm and thousands upon thousands of books, it is often referred to as genealogical mecca. Many of the microfilmed records are available to rent at local FamilySearch Centers. You can search the FHL catalog.

You can search by many different criteria, including location and keyword. Often looking searching the catalog by location, then browsing the resulting subject headings can give you a good idea of what is available. (It is sometimes faster to find records this way than by doing a search specifically for one item.)

National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections

The National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections (NUCMC, pronounced nuck-muck) is run by the Library of Congress and is a catalog of over 1,400 manuscript collections in the United States. The online version at contains more than 500,000 catalog entries. Obviously, a catalog of this scale needs to be examined.

It is important to realize the types of materials included in NUCMC. Manuscripts are unpublished, often one-of-a-kind. Original records— including those of schools and institutions—fall into this category.

The NUCMC search engine is simple to use. Include keywords, such as the name of the institution or the location and type of institution. A search for Philadelphia orphanage yielded two results—a collection of annual reports and records of the Pennsylvania Grand Lodge of Order Sons of Italy in America, 1916-1987.

When you find a record of interest in NUCMC, click on the link ‘More on this record’. This will provide you with the catalog entry and location. The full entry for the Order Sons of Italy in America listing shows that the collection contains correspondence and reports on the Dante Orphanage. Looking at the bottom of the entry, you will see the location of the records: University of Minnesota, Immigration History Research Center, 826 Berry St., St. Paul, Minnesota.

Periodical Source Index

The Periodical Source Index (PERSI) is a resource created by the Allen County Public Library in Fort Wayne, Indiana. It is a subject index of articles in over 5,500 genealogical and historical society periodicals. The current version has over 1.6 million citations.

PERSI is available on CD, through (as a subscriber database), and through numerous libraries and societies that subscribe to HeritageQuest Online.

To find an article dealing with institutional records in a particular location, do a search by Place. Select the state and county; select ‘Institutions’ as the record type.
A search for Putnam County, Florida institutions yielded three articles:

  • Patients and Inmates, County Poor Farm, 1916-39 (Putnam County Genealogical Society Quarterly Journal. Palatka, FL: Summer 1997. Vol. 2 Iss. 1)
  • Poor Farm Inmates and Patients, 1926-33 (Putnam County Genealogical Society Quarterly Journal. Palatka, FL: Spring 1997. Vol. 1 Iss. 4)
  • County Poor Farm Inmates and Patients, 1916-39 (Putnam County Genealogical Society Quarterly Journal. Palatka, FL: Winter 1997. Vol. 1 Iss. 3)

There are at least three ways you could get copies of these articles.

  • You can check with your local library to see if they have a copy.
  • You can contact the publisher of the periodical (in this case, the Putnam County Genealogical Society) to inquire on the availability of that issue.
  • You can order a copy of the article from the Allen County Public Library for a small fee. (One of the advantages of PERSI is that you know that even if you cannot find that article in any other library, it is available at the Allen County Public Library.) Order forms are available on the Allen County Public Library website.

County USGenWeb site

Another resource is the county’s USGenWeb site. From the USGenWebsite , click on the appropriate state. Each state site offers links to the county sites for its state.

The Waukesha County, Wisconsin GenWeb site has an extensive history of the Wisconsin Industrial School for Boys.

Remember to look at the county GenWeb site for the county where state institutions are located. The Knox County, Tennessee USGenWeb site has a history and roster of students for the site/schools/tsd/index.html. Tennessee School for the Deaf, 1845-1945.


Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online course US: Institutional Records offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at

We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.