The Archive Lady: DNA and Paper Records, Finding the Rest of the Story
Amy from Colorado asks: “With all that DNA can tell us these days, is there still any reason to go to archives and do old-fashioned paper research?”
When this question came in my email in-box, I was reminded of how much genealogy research has changed since I started almost 30 years ago. Back then, we didn’t have Ancestry.com or FamilySearch. We couldn’t access all the census records for free at 3 a.m. in the morning in the comfort of our own home wearing our bunny slippers and jammies. We had to travel to the archives and do hands on research or we had to write actual letters requesting copies of the records we needed. We certainly didn’t have DNA testing to tell us we are from Scandinavian or African descent.
Today, we have it so much easier due to the amount of information and digitized records online. I am just as excited as the next genealogist when I hear of a newly digitized collection of records that has come online and available free for anyone. Now, with DNA testing available to the masses, we are learning things about our heritage that we never dreamed possible.
So, does that mean we should stop doing the paper research? Absolutely Not! This is why Amy’s question is so important to address. DNA can only tell us so much about our heritage and ancestors. The records are where we will find the “rest of the story” as Paul Harvey would say.
Genealogy records that can be found in archives can tell us so much about our ancestors. They can tell us what happened during their lives that was tragic or victorious. They can tell us the mundane tasks they did and the exceptional tasks that they accomplished. We can learn more about our ancestor’s character, their reasons for why they did what they did and so much more.
I work at the Houston County, Tennessee Archives and process records every day that contain information that I could not possibly get from taking a DNA test. We have diaries that people have filled with hopes, dreams and the events of everyday life. We have scrapbooks that were painstakingly compiled to include mementos of a person’s life throughout many decades that help us to understand this person and what they experienced. We have old letters written by soldiers who were at war, college students away from home for the first time and normal everyday people writing letters to family members about what they were experiencing.
Maybe you have taken a DNA test and with the results in hand you are now wondering what your ancestors looked like. Archives have great photograph collections that could contain a photograph of your ancestor. Many of these photographs are not online and can only be accessed at the archives themselves or you can contact the archives and ask about their photograph collections.
DNA tests are a fantastic tool to help us understand where we came from but they can’t tell us if our ancestors owned property, were involved in a court case or held a local elected office. Records located in a local archive can help us to unearth all this and more.
These types of records are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to original records that can be found in an archive.
So, my answer to Amy’s question is: there is a really good reason to continue researching in paper records and that is to tell your ancestors story. Not just the DNA story, but their life story from beginning to end, the good and the bad, the exciting and the mundane. Learning our ancestors’ life stories can help us understand why our ancestors did what they did and lived where they lived. Knowing these life stories can help us to understand where we came from and the rich heritage all of us carry around in our genes.
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Melissa Barker lives in Tennessee Ridge, Tennessee. She is the Houston County (TN) Archivist and a Professional Genealogist. She writes the blog, A Genealogist in the Archives, and has been researching her own family for over 26 years. She lectures, teaches and writes about researching in archives and records preservation.
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