Accessing Alabama History

The Alabama Department of Archives and History (ADAH) is the official archival repository for the records of various state government agencies. Established in 1901, ADAH is the first state-funded archival agency in the United States. The institution strives to “tell the story of the people of Alabama by preserving the records and artifacts of historical value and promoting a better understanding of Alabama history.” In addition to collecting government records, ADAH actively seeks and preserves private records, including diaries, estate papers, sheet music, photographs, and three-dimensional objects.

The bulk of the archival material is available to researchers. The EBSCO Research Room is open to the public Tuesday-Friday and the second Saturday of each month. In addition to visiting in-person, ADAH maintains a digital archive. The digitization component is meant to allow access to more individuals as well as to keep up with the growing digitization demand. The webpage is updated regularly with recently donated collections, frequently requested items, and material that is deemed too fragile to examine in-person, i.e. early statehood records and Civil War letters. Searchable databases, including the Civil War Soldiers Database, World War I Goldstar Collection, and the 1867 Voter Registrations, are available on the website. Researchers can also browse through indexes that highlight Alabama church records, maps, and newspapers that are available on microfilm.

Outreach is an important part of ADAH’s mission. Staff members meet regularly with various historical, genealogical, and local government organizations to discuss proper storage, retention, various laws, disaster preparedness, and preservation practices. With funding being an ever-present issue, ADAH also provides information on grants and administers federal government grant funding to local institutions. The reference archivists often conduct genealogical workshops to help both the novice and professional.

Social media plays a prominent role in promoting ADAH’s programs. Food for Thought, a monthly lecture series sponsored by the Alabama Humanities Foundation, brings in a wide variety of lectures on Alabama history. Book talks are another avenue that serve as a promotional tool for those authors who have conducted research at ADAH.

The Museum of Alabama is another component in which the archival collections are highlighted. One of the exhibits, Alabama Voices, tells the story of Alabama using artifacts and “diaries, letters, speeches, songs, and other sources” to tell the story of Alabama from the early 1700s to the beginnings of the twenty-first century.

Given the large volume of records, it can be overwhelming to know where to begin. Without proper identification and publicity, little-known collections have the potential to be left in the dark. ADAH’s current home website is somewhat outdated, but a newer version is in the works. Luckily, they have linked their new and improved searchable database to the underwhelming homepage. The software is easy to access and use, but certain collection finding aids are more detailed than others. A reason for this, of course, could be the collection’s complexity and volume, yet those with little additional information hinder their potential and ability to aid a researcher’s work. For the researcher’s use and for the sake of uniformity, the website does use the Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH). It is the author’s hope that the updated website will have an assortment of collection finding aids available to those who look to plan their visit.