Research and Documentation

Next stop: the county tax appraisal website

I’m working on a National Register historic district nomination and looking for correlations between changing lot sizes and neighborhood demographics. I got the current lot sizes from the tax appraisal district, and I’m using Sanborn maps to show how the lots were subdivided over time; then I’ll see if my city directory and U. S. Census data reveals any corresponding patterns in terms of changes in owners vs. renters, families vs. individuals, Caucasians vs. African Americans, etc. The data management aspect of this work can be challenging, but it’s also SO interesting. I don’t know what I’m going to discover for this district, but whatever the story turns out to be, I just really enjoy this process.

This is a good time to talk about tax appraisal information, which is generally available online here in Texas. (And, one would hope, everywhere else in the U. S.) I mentioned in a previous post that you can find legal descriptions in the tax appraisal records, but you can find a lot of other valuable information as well. Because it’s often available online, current appraisal district data is easy to get.

Depending on the county, the central appraisal district may provide a search function for deed records that goes back several decades — as far back as they’ve digitized the records, at least. I always check, because if they have this information online, it saves a lot of time when you’re researching chain of title. Williamson County, Texas, is an example of a CAD with a terrific website for looking up property history ( After a while in this line of work, you really come to appreciate a good county clerk’s office and CAD.

Towns and cities are usually platted — laid out by a surveyor — using blocks, which are subdivided into lots. Therefore, a legal description might be as simple as “City of Springfield, Block 24, Lot 2” or, as parcels are subdivided and re-platted over the years, you could end up with a legal description that looks like “City of Springfield, Block 24, Lots 2-4, 10 ft of Lot 5, plus vacant alley.” Additions to the town plat are often named for the person who owned the property, such as “Morris Addition.” For newer developments, the legal description might include the name of the subdivision or the person or organization who was responsible for it, such as “Crown Pointe West Section 4, Lot 27” or “Anderson Replat, Lot 7A.”

Whatever the legal description is, be sure you note it in its entirety.

One thing to be careful of, though … you can’t always trust the construction dates shown on the tax appraisal database. Maybe it’s right, maybe it’s wrong, but you really need to take that date with a grain of salt! Often these dates were estimated. They could provide a good start, but if a building was significantly remodeled — for example, a Queen Anne home changed to a Craftsman-style farmhouse in a recent survey that I did — the appraiser might have incorrectly dated the building based on its current appearance. This is particularly true for older buildings; the dates for newer construction are usually correct.

If you’re working on a district nomination, it’s pretty easy to copy and paste the property information (current owner, current owner’s address, current street address of the property, legal description, etc.) into an Excel spreadsheet. Eventually you’ll have a lot more information to include, so it pays to become familiar with Excel or some other spreadsheet program that allows you to sort your data.

Legal descriptions can offer a great deal of useful information about patterns of community development over time. They’re an important piece of the research puzzle!

Libraries and Archives

Much of the best information about buildings and their people can be found in libraries, archives, and special collections.

Libraries collect books, newspapers, magazines, maps, and other materials. Both public and college/university libraries often collect information about the surrounding region and its history. These materials are either circulating (meaning that you can check them out and take them home with you) or non-circulating. Circulating materials are shelved in the open stacks, which means that you can browse through the shelves and select the books, etc., you want to check out. Non-circulating materials may be kept in the Reference section, which you can browse but can’t check out, or in Special Collections, which are usually closed stacks (that is, off-limits to everyone except the library staff).

If the library has a collection of materials with a specific geographic or subject-matter focus, that collection is referred to as an archive. Archives are usually separated from circulating materials, either in dedicated rooms within the library, or if large enough, in a separate building altogether. Often, the historical information that you’re looking for will be of the non-circulating, archival variety.

Archives are all a bit different, but they have a certain way of operating, and it’s helpful to know what to expect, before you go.

When you visit a library or archive for the first time, take a few minutes to introduce yourself to the staff, tell them about your project, and ask them if they have rules that you should be aware of. You may be required to leave all of your belongings in a locker, except for a pencil and a page or two of notes. You may be asked to sign in and provide a picture ID. If you think you might want to make copies or take pictures of anything you find, be sure to ask about their policies. Some archives don’t allow flash photography or or photos of certain items or any photography at all. Some archives will allow you to make your own copies, and others require that the staff make all copies, or just copies of certain materials. Whatever the rules are for that archive, plan on following them to the letter.

Now, what should you bring with you? You’ll need a pencil, paper, and some notes to remind you what you’re looking for. If you have a laptop computer, you can type your notes directly into that, but I find that even with my laptop, I still like to have paper and pencil handy.

• The archive will probably require you to take all notes in pencil, so that they can make sure you aren’t marking their materials. Even if they don’t require it, using a pencil around archival documents is just a sensible practice. I like to use a mechanical pencil, so I always show it to the archivist right away so they can see that it’s not a pen.

• You may also be required to take notes on colored paper, so the archivist can easily distinguish your notes from the materials you’ve been using, and ensure that you’re not stealing anything. I always bring at least 25 or 30 sheets of my own yellow 20-lb. paper, in case the archive doesn’t supply it. Again, it’s just good practice.

• You should be allowed to bring in a few sheets of prepared notes. The archivist on front desk duty may need to stamp your papers to indicate that they came in with you and didn’t come from the archive. If you have file folders of materials that you need to have access but can’t bring into the archive, they will generally provide a locker for you to store these as well as your purse, briefcase, coat, umbrella, etc.

Don’t take any of these precautions personally! Remember that most of the documents in an archive are not replaceable. The staff must take the highest precautions to ensure that the materials in their care are handled properly and not damaged.

To begin your research, search the library catalog for the subject in which you’re interested. The library catalog will list items in circulation as well as in special collections and archives. I find it helpful to make a list of titles, authors, and call numbers. If you can access the catalog online from home, that will save time at the library.

Some of the materials that you’re looking for (such as biographies or books about community, regional, or state history) might be in the open stacks as well as in the archive. If this is the case, by all means use the books in open stacks, which you can check out and review at your leisure.

Archives don’t list all of their materials on the library catalog. Collections of loose documents — such as correspondence, legal documents, business records, advertisements, photos, maps, and other paper ephemera — are often organized in file folders, which are stored in file boxes or (less often) filing cabinets. This organizational system probably includes a numbering scheme, which allows the materials to be listed in a finding aid, or inventory of the collection. Finding aids may be available online or only on paper. You may be able to search the finding aid, or the archivist may have to do that for you.

Just like with the library catalog, I use the finding aid to make a list of the items that I’m interested in reviewing. The archive may have a form that you’ll need to fill out in order to request these items. They may only allow you to review a certain number of boxes at one time. Be patient! I find it helps to plan my visit so that I’m not rushed or running up against the archive’s closing time.

When you get a box or folder to review, you may be asked to wear cotton gloves, which the archive will supply. If you have a phobia about wearing gloves that someone else has just worn, bring your own. If the archive requires you to wear their gloves, at least you can wear yours underneath.

Be sure to keep the items in each folder (and the folders in each box) in order as you found them. Carefully turn each item over, making sure that you don’t damage it. Old paper can be very fragile; that’s why it’s in an archive in the first place! If you do tear a page or find something out of order, tell the archivist right away. Don’t attempt to re-order the files yourself.

The library staff is familiar with their collections and can be very helpful. Don’t hesitate to tell them about your project when you first arrive, and ask them for assistance if you need it — the sooner, the better. They will probably direct you to resources that you never would have found on your own.

Finally, how do you find archives in the first place? You can search online, but a really good place to start is your local library. If the library has a dedicated reference librarian, she or he should be able to give you some suggestions. When you visit those places, ask them for more suggestions! I like to keep a list of archives as I discover them, with maps, directions, information about their policies and hours, and a brief list of what I’ve found there.

Taking good notes … it really pays off!

So you’re in the library or an archive, and you’ve stumbled upon something really interesting, or just maybe related to your search, or (hopefully) exactly what you were looking for. If you find useful information, make sure to capture everything you need right then. Having to go back to the same source twice because you took incomplete notes is a big time-waster.

You can capture information in a variety of ways, but always ask the librarian or other staff member first. Many libraries have different rules for different materials, particularly when those materials are old or fragile. You may or may not be allowed to:
• Make a photocopy.
• Print a copy of the page, if you are viewing it on a computer or microfilm reader.
• Take a photograph of the page with your digital camera. Set the flash to “OFF” and set the focus to “MACRO” to get the best results.
• Copy the information by hand.
I find it helpful to make a note of the information from the front cover of a book and the copyright page (or take a photo or make a photocopy) before I capture the information inside, so that I can tell where the information came from.

Please be aware that you will have to pay for photocopies and pages that you print, so it’s helpful to call ahead and find out if you will need change or if you have to purchase a copy card. Sometimes a copier or microfilm-reader printer will only take quarters, or dimes. A library may or may not have a change machine; if they have one, it may only take $1 or $5 bills or it may be out of order. Do not expect the circulation desk to make change. It’s your responsibility to come prepared. Bring plenty of cash or coins with you; you don’t want to make a trip somewhere, find a whole bunch of information, and then be unable to take it home with you. (I’ve had that happen before!)

In some cases, only the staff can make copies, and this can take time. Be prepared and be patient.

Keeping a list of all the books and other sources that you look at (even the ones that do not yield useful information) is also a good idea. Your research will probably take weeks, if not months, and over time it can be difficult, if not impossible, to remember what you have looked at and whether each item was helpful or not. Having a list of what sources you have reviewed, where you found them, and what (if any) useful information they contained, can save you a lot of time. At some point, you probably will realize that you need some information that you previously found – somewhere – but you didn’t make a note of it at the time. Then you will have to go find it again. Or, you might spend time looking up a source, only to realize that you already determined that it was not useful.

Of course, it’s important to make your own work easier, but we always need to keep future readers and researchers in mind, as well.

In order to make your document usable for others, you’ll need to cite your sources; that is, use footnotes or in-text citations to tell the reader where each piece of information came from – title, author, publisher, publication date, and page numbers. This is required for many historic designation applications, and it’s just good practice. I like to use the footnote function in Microsoft Word and add the citations as I go, because that’s easier and takes less time than going back after the document is complete and trying to figure out where the information came from. Simply listing your sources at the end of your document is not really that helpful. If a reader wants to know more, but you haven’t cited your sources throughout the document, your reader will have to go through all of those sources until he finds the right one. What a waste of time!

One more thing: Good organization is worth it!

Historical research can generate quite a bit of data. You’ll probably find information in a wide variety of sources, and you may return to the same source several times before you have everything you need. I’ve learned – the hard way – that you’ll enjoy the process more and experience less frustration if you start with a plan, take complete notes, and keep your data well-organized.

Whether you save paper copies or electronic documents, try to organize the information you find into file folders. How you organize it is up to you, but I would start with one folder for deed research, one for other building information, one for people, and one for information about the community. You can add more folders as you need them. Happy hunting!

Plan your work, work your plan

I’m a list-maker, so I like to plan my work by making lists of the information that I need to find, where I plan to look for it, and what I find or don’t. If you are not a list person, use whatever system works for you. The important thing is that making a plan before you start your research, and adding to that plan as you go, will help reduce the number of return trips you make to the library or historical society or county records office because you forgot to look for something important the first time you were there.

Notice that I mentioned “adding to that plan as you go.” Whenever you’re doing this sort of research, the story sort of unfolds in front of you. I don’t ever know, going into a project, what I’m going to find. You will likely come across some scrap of information that gives you a new idea, something else to track down. Add it to your list! Historical research is an iterative process — you keep “going back to the well” until you’re done.

Also, it’s important to note that you might do all sorts of research into the past owners and occupants, only to determine that a building wasn’t associated with anyone special. That’s okay. The important thing is that you’ve learned everything you can and you’ve told the story accurately — whatever that story may be.

In future posts, I’ll walk you through the planning process and where to look for different kinds of information.

Information you’ll need and where to find it

Your research will break down into two parts: the history of the building as a structure and the history of the people who designed, built, owned, and occupied it. You’ll try to answer the following questions:

  • Who built this building?
  • When did they build it?
  • What did the building originally look like, and how did it change over time?
  • What style is it, architecturally?
  • Who were the previous owners and residents?

You’ll also learn about the city/town and its development, and how the building and its people fit into the larger community history.

Some of the resources that you may use for your research include:

  • Census data
  • County deed and tax records
  • The public library, particularly if it has a local history collection
  • Regional history archives, often found at colleges and universities
  • City directories, if available
  • Your city or county historical society
  • Sanborn Fire Insurance Company map books

It’s important to be aware that some of the information you find – even in books by reputable authors – may not be reliable. Try to verify whatever you find, as much as possible.

Now, your first steps will be to figure out what libraries or organizations (such as local museums) have these sorts of resources. As you’re assembling this information, might as well also make note of things like their hours of operation and how much they charge for photocopies.

Next time: Making a research plan! All you listmakers out there will be in heaven.

Getting started with architectural/historical research

One of the most basic components of historic preservation is the documentation of a building or landscape: establishing its age and significance, based on hard facts. The research component of this isn’t difficult, if you know what you’re doing and where to look for information, but for the layperson it can be daunting. It took me several years to learn how to plan and efficiently carry out this sort of research, and I’m still learning. Every time I do a new project, I think, “Holy cow. If I had only known this when I was doing the landmark nomination for that other building!”

As our website states, I believe that people are best able to preserve their historic buildings when they know what they’ve got, and helping people build that knowledge is one “leg of the stool” in McDoux’s mission. So, I’d like to share some information about how to do the research and document the history of a building. I hope that this will help you have a successful and enjoyable experience as you explore the history of the building that has captured your interest.

Why should you bother?

Investigating the history of a building can be a rewarding, albeit time-consuming, experience. It is a bit like solving a mystery or a puzzle. Along the way, you’re likely to discover interesting facts about the building, your community’s history, and the people who lived and worked there.
A well-prepared document of a building’s history is a valuable asset.

  • You may be able to use it to apply for an historic designation from your city or state or from the National Park Service, which oversees the National Register of Historic Places.
  • In some communities, being able to establish the historic significance of a building or site can make the owner eligible for a reduction in property taxes.
  • This information can help you market and sell the property.