Elizabeth Shown Mills
History researchers are trained not to make conclusions about issues until their research has been reasonably exhaustive. They comb the published literature and archival catalogs in search of relevant materials. If their subject is local or biographical in nature, they know that public records need to be explored. But no biography or local study can ever be complete until we have identified and studied the works of that area's unofficial record keepers.
Oh? Who's that?
They're the lawyers, doctors, ministers, teachers, merchants, tradesmen, and similar professionals of the literate classes who, across the ages, have kept every community humming. The ones who created account books, wrote letters, kept diaries, created files, collected memorabilia, and checked out public records from courthouses and town halls and then forgot to return them.
They're also the men and women of wealth, leisure, or intellectual curiosity who did research before us for the histories they wrote. While we routinely use their published works, it's good to remember that no author of any book, article, or essay can use everything they have found on a subject. Much will remain in their working files.
When the person of our interest did not create the records we need to resolve a problem, we may find our solutions in the account books, correspondence, diaries, file notes, and similar records created by those "unofficial record keepers," even when no connection is known between them.
Do you make a practice of seeking out the papers of those unofficial record keepers?
PHOTO CREDIT: Masthead, "National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections" module, Library of Congress (http://www.loc.gov/coll/nucmc/ : accessed 1 April 2015), a public domain image. This site is always an excellent place to begin a search for manuscript collections left by Americans of yesteryear.
Posted 2 April 2015