What Do Library Vertical Files Contain?
By: Joan Whetzel
Libraries carry not only books, but a wealth of resources in other formats. They contain information online, in microfiches, and video and audio formats to name a few. But one of the hidden gem's in some larger libraries is the lateral files.
A library's lateral files store information on a range of local and regional topics. Librarians consult lateral files for quick answers to some patrons' questions or to locate people and organizations who may become potential library donors. They may also be explored by researchers looking for the perfect nugget of information for a story or paper. One of the main attractions for using the vertical files is not knowing what treasures you will find.
What Vertical Files Contain
In general, vertical files contain photocopies rather than the original documents. The information in the files are broken down by subject. Rather than containing comprehensive information, the files hold simple or basic information suitable for telling anecdotes and filling a few background details. Sometimes the information acts as a springboard to finding more detailed information elsewhere.
Types of documents include newspaper clippings and magazine articles, brochures, fliers and pamphlets, letters, speeches and sermons. Subject matter in vertical files consist of family histories and biographical information as well as topical subjects relating to the library's city, county and state or country.
Topical Vertical Files
Topical vertical files explore regional topics like local towns and counties, information about native Americans or other ethnic groups, local museums and libraries, or local history. Inventions or other novelties produced locally as well as events, both past and present, may also be found in lateral files.
The newspaper and magazine articles in these files frequently contain interviews with local experts who can be contacted for further information. Investigating the locations in these files can also add to the information being researched. In addition, if the library has a genealogy department, family histories can be filled out.
Biographical Vertical Files
Biographical lateral files contain genealogical materials and general biographical information on prominent people and families within the community. These files could cover governors, mayors and other politicians as well as authors, artists, and people who may be notable for their philanthropy, their crimes or perhaps even their eccentricities.
These of course are unbound genealogical pieces. The amount information available in the vertical files is usually quite small and should only be considered a starting point. So be prepared to do additional genealogical research through the genealogical part of the library, through online research, or through family interviews.
Accessing Vertical Files
There are several ways to access a library's vertical files, depending on the library's set up and rules. Ask the librarian about the library's preferences for vertical file access.
In some cases, library patrons may be able to access vertical files by themselves. The general rule in this case is that once the patron is finished, they are asked to return the files to an inbox either on top of the vertical file cabinets or at the librarian's desk, so that the librarian can re-file it correctly - a bit like re-shelving the books. Another method for accessing the vertical files is by asking the reference librarian for assistance or file retrieval.
Many libraries have their vertical files indexed on their website. The vertical file database is searchable, rather like searching the online "card catalogue" when looking up books. The database and the files are arranged alphabetically.
Copying Vertical Files
Libraries usually allow patrons to use the self-serve copiers for making photocopies of the materials in the lateral files. However, when patrons are unable to make a trip to the library, some libraries allow them to order photocopies online, provided they know which file and which piece of information they require. If your library has this set up, and a way to locate vertical file information through a vertical file database, they will most likely have a way to pay for this service online. Keep in mind that librarians probably will not wish to rifle through files trying to find a specific piece of information for you. So, if you haven't marked a specific item within the file you requested, they will probably copy the entire file - at the patron's expense.
The next time you need to do a little research for an article, essay, school paper or scholarly paper, remember the vertical files. Most larger cities have a main library with vertical files as do many major colleges and universities. Make use of them. You never know what little nuggets of gold you will find or how fantastic the treasure hunt.