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Recently, the Newberry’s genealogy department received an inquiry from a patron attempting to locate a transcript from a vocational school in Chicago that had since closed. In an attempt to direct the patron, Local and Family History Assistant Grace Dumelle scoured sources looking for an answer. As with most research questions, Dumelle was not certain where she would find the answer she was looking for, but with her years of research training, she knew how to develop a plan for her search.
When researching, Dumelle says that it is important to think “like a detective. Follow every lead, even if you think it might be a dead end.” For this particular search, Dumelle began online. Using the address of the former vocational school, she searched for which neighborhood the school was located. Understanding where a building existed might lead to answers about why it closed, or where any records may have went after it closed. Dumelle then searched the Chicago Tribune records in Proquest. She was able to find ads for the school, with locations in Chicago as well as other cities, printed until the 1970’s. This gave her a time frame for when the school may have closed. Dates of closure are important because they provide clues to retention schedules and policies for old records.
Her next search took her to the Illinois State Archives. The State Archives website is a great place to visit if you are looking for any records of a state agency. Searching the Archives “Descriptive Inventory,” she was not finding exactly what she needed, so she moved on to doing a basic online search, using terms like “Closed Chicago Vocational Schools.” These wider searches helped her find that the Illinois Board of Higher Education (IBHE) has a site for this patron’s situation. Under the Private Business and Vocational Schools page of their website, the IBHE maintains a list of schools that have closed in Chicago and have turned over student records. An abundance of information, with clear instructions on how to order your transcripts, is available by visiting just one page: http://www.ibhe.org/PBVS/PDF/ClosedSchoolList.pdf
Not every answer you need will be found online, but when used correctly, the Internet can be a powerful research tool and one that should not be overlooked. There is still work to be done after finding the location of the documents you need. Contrary to the popular belief that most records are online, in fact, only a fraction of personal records are available online. At this point, you will likely still need to reach out to the IBHE to obtain your records, but once you know where they are, the rest is easy.
[This article was prepared by Newberry volunteer and experienced genealogist Melisa Limanowski.]