Indiana Genealogy: Where to Start, What to Do

Genealogy libraries and archives and other resources in Indiana

Researching family history in Indiana is easier than it looks. Numerous resources are available for the Hoosier genealogist, and here’s a quick rundown of the best.

The National Genealogical Society has just published Dawne Slater-Putt’s thorough and systematic guide to Indiana research, part of their series on “Research in the States.” NGS members get a discount and a choice between PDF and hard copy. The state historical society in 2007 published a useful collection of articles, Finding Indiana Ancestors: A Guide to Historical Research.

The state genealogical society publishes the quarterly Indiana Genealogist and the state historical society the semi-annual Hoosier Genealogist:Connections, giving the state two reputable general-interest statewide publications for those seeking Indiana ancestors. Many energetic local societies (such as the Marshall County Historical Society and the Northwest Indiana Genealogical Society) and local libraries (as in Porter, DeKalb, Huntington, Grant, and Jefferson counties) provide valuable resources.

And the state has four top-level repositories that no Indiana researcher can do without – three in Indianapolis and one in Fort Wayne. All offer finding aids and some information on line, and all have rooms full of material that is not on line and will not be any time soon.

In Fort Wayne, the Allen County Public Library is nationally known for its Genealogy Center. Researchers should be aware that the center has what are in effect six different catalogs, for printed materials, for microfilm and microfiche, for microfilmed newspapers, and for digitized Fort Wayne newspapers (18 titles, 1845-1970, most late 1800s), as well as the Periodical Search Index (at the library or via HeritageQuest) and its own collection of useful databases. The Genealogy Center is the go-to place for back issues of all genealogy publications. (Recent issues are not available, however; they’re being indexed.) For research likely to spill over into other states, this is the best place to start.  If you’re new to the library, consult Tina Lyons’ researcher recommendations.

DETAILS: Downtown. In-library parking and fast food, nearby diner and upscale eateries. Flash drives useable on microfilm and microfiche scanners. Copies from books and computers are still 10 cents each, but they can now only be made by using bills to purchase a copy card and then to put money on it — your change purse won’t help!

In Indianapolis, the names and missions are different, but they do overlap.

The Indiana State Library is a hybrid of library and archive. Its web site includes a catalog, plus listings of its two crown-jewel microfilm collections: Indiana newspapers and county records. Like ancient Gaul, the state library is divided into three parts: genealogy books and periodicals on the main floor, the aforementioned microfilm collections on the second floor, and manuscripts tucked away in another part of the second floor.

“Manuscripts” in this case includes most other holdings, even if some of them are books. Manuscripts is a no-nonsense, no-pen zone, with closed stacks; the card catalog is fun to browse and is not on line. Among the state library’s on-line offerings is a database of Indiana marriages before 1850. For research focused on Indiana, this is a great first stop because of the microfilms. It’s possible to chase a family around a dozen counties in original records and newspapers in one research session – although since the microfilms are upstairs and the index books downstairs, researchers may find themselves in transit a lot.

DETAILS: Downtown, across the street from the historical society. Bring quarters for microfilm and book copiers. On-street parking uses computerized meters and has become quite pricey. Structured parking a couple of blocks away.

The Indiana Historical Society is also a hybrid library and archive, but not a state agency. It is perhaps the hardest of these four to categorize, but its strengths include the visual collection, manuscript collections, Northwest and Indiana territories, Indiana women and African-Americans, Indiana Civil War life, and Midwestern railroads. Here’s a good on-line entry point to both the manuscript collections and catalog. The historical society’s physical facility is second to none, and its visual presentations of state history have the potential of entertaining and educating those not engaged in hard-core research.

DETAILS: Downtown, across the street from the state library. Free parking lot for library patrons. On-site noontime canalside cafe with sit-down food, pleasant ambiance, and discount for society members.

The Indiana State Archives holds primarily old state agency documents, including records of regulated charitable organizations, pharmacists’ registrations, defunct corporations, military activities from the Battle of Tippecanoe to Vietnam, and much more. Federal and non-governmental records do creep in, such as naturalizations, early land records, and surviving records of Indiana chapters of the Grand Army of the Republic. The growing Indiana Digital Archives can help determine specifically what’s available on site.

DETAILS: Seven miles east of downtown. Parking not a problem. Not a library, so arrange ahead of time what to view. They make the copies. Many very knowledgeable volunteers. For uncensored inside information on the archives from a dedicated former volunteer, read Ron Darrah’s IndyGenealogy blog.

Whatever the research problem at hand, each of the three Indianapolis repositories can probably help. For instance, each holds different valuable materials pertaining to the Indianapolis Orphan Asylum, a private operation that closed its doors in 1941. The bulk of the orphanage’s original records wound up in the historical society, where volunteers are now indexing them.

Of course not everything is in the Big Four. That’s where the fifth member of the Big Four comes in: the Indiana Genealogical Society has a thorough county-by-county on-line listing of societies, repositories, courthouses, and genealogists. These links help researchers zero in on which organizations or institutions in particular counties are most likely to help. Another reason to join the state society: it has hundreds of on-line databases covering all 92 counties, some public and some open only to members.

— Harold Henderson (updated 25 May 2012)

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