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Kimberly Powell

Search for Sources, Not Just Surnames

By May 7, 2014

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Genealogy records and documents are easy to find online, but it is not uncommon for genealogists to overlook unknown resources in favor of sites they use on a regular basis. Even if you keep good notes and try to stay on top of new sites and databases, there are new resources coming online every day -- and not all of them are advertised to the genealogical community (every few weeks I seem to find a new U.S. county has put its current and sometimes historic deed records online). This is why your search for ancestors should always include a review of known resources and a search for new ones (i.e. explore the website for each of the suggestions on this list!).

It is important to note that the order and importance given to the resources in each of these lists will vary by country. Some countries, such as the United States, create and collect the bulk of their genealogical records at the county level. Others, such as Australia, maintain the most useful records at the state level. In France, important records are found at the departmental level. The goal here is to search for resources at all levels of government applicable to your country of interest - searching, for example, for records at the town/village/parish, as well as at the county/parish, state/department/district and even national level. A search may also start at one level (e.g. local church) and then end up at another level (e.g. diocese, because that is where the records of the local church are now stored). The goal is to research the availability of resources from each repository. These lists are not complete by any means, just examples of repositories/resources that you don't want to miss in your search.

At the Town/Village/City Level:

  • Parish or church records
  • City or municipal archives
  • Local library
  • Local newspaper(s) (check the newspaper website, as well as online historical newspaper databases)
  • Local genealogical or historical society
  • City/town hall or record office
  • Local cemeteries

At the County/Parish Level:
In many countries, the majority of useful genealogical records are maintained at the county or parish level. This could also be the district, department or some other political or geographical division.

  • County courthouse (check the Web site of each court division, e.g Register of Deeds)
  • County genealogical and/or historical society
  • County library (county-level libraries often have larger genealogical collections than small town libraries)

At the State and/or Regional Level:
In some countries many records are collected and maintained at the state level. In other areas, town or county records may have been transferred to the state level for safekeeping.

  • State archives (often a great source for online digitized records/indexes)
  • State historical society
  • State genealogical society
  • University libraries (these may be in neighboring states) - especially good for manuscript collections
  • Regional libraries (or those with regional genealogy and local history collections)

At the National Level:
Records maintained at the national level vary greatly by country. In the U.S., for example, the census and many military records are found at the national level, while in France these are often found at the Department level. England has a nationwide index of civil vital records, while in Australia these are found at the state level.

  • National Archives (or Record Office, etc.)
  • National genealogical society
  • National lineage organizations (such as Daughters of the American Revolution in the U.S.)

For records that aren't online, one of the best ways to start your search for available records is to browse the Family History Library Catalog by place to see what has been microfilmed. Again, be sure to search at the town/city level, the county/parish level, the state/district level, and the national level as various records will be found at all levels. The FHLC does not include ALL available records by any means, but it is generally a good place to start. Beyond that, check out the FamilySearch Wiki, to see what experts have shared about research and resources for your area(s) of interest.

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