Collegiate Records - Trinity College Library - Nic McPhee

Collegiate Records As Tools For Researching Your Ancestors

With the advent of May, many families are busily planning to attend the graduation exercises for various family members. Such occasions prompt us to consider the role of a college education in the lives of our ancestors. In my own family, my mother, father and I are the only individuals who have a college education, my father and I proceeding on to receive masters’ degrees. The generational immediacy of college attendance and graduation in my family may not be unusual. There are, however, families for whom the opportunity, and perhaps the expectation, that each generation would attend a college or university was commonplace, with offspring registered at birth.

Looking for college records may often be an overlooked step in family research, but it is an important possibility to entertain as we seek to learn more about our ancestor’s lives.

My first experience with collegiate records was during a trip to the National Archives of Scotland (then called the Scottish Record Office) some years ago. At the time I was actively compiling content for the Barclay One-Name Study (now the Barclay Genealogical Database). During the course of my several days in Edinburgh, I discovered a book in a reference section listing many years of graduates of Aberdeen University. As the northeast of Scotland is an area populated by many Barclays, I happily transcribed a long list of graduates for the one-name study (and somewhere in a pile under the eaves that transcribed list awaits the light of day).

What sources are available today if you wish to look for collegians in your family research?

  • School Alumni Lists. This online database is hosted by Rootsweb and includes 284,672 records that encompass 65,350 distinct surnames. The content derives by submissions from visitors to the site. In searching the site, one can perform both general surname and specific surname/given name searches. A surname search for “Barclay” provided a list of thirteen names dating from 1909 to 1979 from schools in Indiana, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Oregon, New York, and Minnesota. It is important to note that not all entries are at the collegiate level. Of the thirteen Barclay entries, only one was from an institution of higher education (VPI/Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia); the rest of the entries recorded high schools. A surname search for “Barkley” produced a list of ten names; again, the majority of the entries were for high school. However, one 1948 entry for Purdue University provided additional information including the residence of the individual; the date, time and location of the graduation ceremony; the name of the then president of the university; and the source of the information. I came by this additional information by clicking on the “more information” link.
  • School Alumni Lists at DistantCousin. This site provides access to a “free online archive of school alumni records (Yearbooks, alumni publications, etc.) and scanned images from publications concerning school alumni.” A surname search is possible or you can browse alumni lists by location. My standard “Barclay” surname search identified twelve entries including four Barclays (digitized full-text page images) who appeared on page 34 of the Directory of Former Students of Harvard Living in 1919. That entry included years of attendance and address. An entry in the 1913 Alumni Record of the University of Illinois for an individual from the class of 1887 included the individual’s degree, date and place of birth, parents’ names, marriage date and name of spouse, children’s names and birth dates, and address at the time of publication. I also looked for a Barclay cited in the Vassar College Class of 1925, but was unable to find the referenced entry.
  • Ancestry. A card catalog search for “alumni” provided a list of twenty-two links, not all of them pertaining to colleges or universities. Among them, however, are two interesting British databases spanning many centuries: Cambridge University Alumni 1261-1900 and Oxford University 1500-1886. The fifty-four Barclays included in the Cambridge database represented several colleges, with Trinity the most prevalent Barclay affiliation. By contrast only twelve Barclays were listed in the Oxford database.
  • Cyndi’s List. A search for “yearbooks and annuals” produced 156 links to sites, including yearbooks and alumni organizations and resources. One of the most extensive is the Dead Fred Genealogy Photo Archive. Some links point to school specific sites such as the Case Western Reserve University University Archives Student Yearbook Collection (Cleveland, Ohio), with yearbooks dating from 1867.
  • Family History Library. A subject search for “alumni” in the Family History Library Catalog  provided a list of forty-nine titles, including such interesting ones as Necrology of Alumni of Harvard College; Princetonians: a Biographical Dictionary; The Historical Catalogue of the University of Mississippi 1849-1909, and the provocative Yale’s Confederates: a Biographical Dictionary. If you happen to know your ancestor’s specific college or university, a Google search will assist you in identifying available resources.
  • Notable Alumni by College. If you have a famous person in your family, you will want to check this site. It claims to offer a “complete directory of famous alumni, listed by individual school. Photos and metadata are included in each famous student’s list – although to be clear, the lists are not definitive for graduates, but rather include all notable students who attended a school at one time, not just the prominent alums who graduated with a degree.” You can scroll through an alphabetical listing of famous and not-so famous colleges, universities, and high schools. Included are such surprising (at least to me) entries as Prince Albert II of Monaco, listed under Notable Amherst College Alumni/Students.
  • Printed lists and indices. In addition to the wide range of online databases and archival resources, you will also want to search for printed compilations of alumni information. A recent example is Jean L. Cooper’s Index of Students of the University of Virginia, 1825-1874 (Shortwood Press, 2011), which contained the following entry:

Surname: Barclay; First name: Shepard; Middle Name: _____; Home City/County: Saint Louis; Home State: Missouri; Session Number: 44 and 45.” (A table identifies those particular sessions as occurring between 1 October 1867 and 1 July 1869.)

Talking with family members and reviewing family documents and photographs may document a college or university graduate in your family. Then, with the help of available print and online sources, you may be able to tell the story of the academic life and experiences of your ancestor.

Photo Credit: Nik McPhee

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