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Genealogy Research Guides, Inventories & Finding Aids

Do You Really Know Everything That's Available?


Vintage family photo album and documents
Andrew Bret Wallis/Digital Vision/Getty Images
Large record repositories such as National Archives are home to a vast collection of records that may potentially help you answer your genealogical research questions. But do you know everything that is available to you and where to find it? Even the indexes, inventories and card catalogs available on the Internet don't always tell the whole story. Before tackling your research in a given area or repository, you should always turn to inventories, research guides and finding aids prepared and published by various repositories, societies and even individuals to learn what may be available to you.

Before you begin research at a new repository (or even in a new record group at a repository you're already familiar with), a preliminary search in published finding aids or inventories may provide detailed descriptions of records pertaining to your research and expedite your time accessing records once you arrive at the repository. Online card catalogs are often a good place to start, but once you've narrowed your search to a particular collection or record type it is worthwhile to see if more detailed finding aids also exist. Such finding aids may cover many record groups (these are often called Research Guides or something similar), or they may cover a particular record type or record group, or even a specific type of document within a particular record group.

Types/Examples of Genealogical Research Guides & Finding Aids

Research guide, finding aid, inventory and similiar terms are often used interchangeably, but here is a general feel for what you might expect to look for or encounter.

Genealogical Research Guides - These may take many forms, from general record inventories of multiple record groups available in a particular locality or from a particular repository, to how-to guides which cover both research strategies and at least some of the available records that cover the particular locality or topic addressed by the guide.

Inventories - Inventories generally offer descriptions of the holdings of a particular record repository. This may take the form of an inventory of all available records of an individual repository, or be more specific, as in the case of a series or collection-level inventory.

Finding Aids - A finding aid can be generally classified as anything that helps you to locate or find something. In this general sense, online indexes and databases can be classifed as a finding aid. More specifically, a finding aid may be written to describe in depth the available records of a particular collection, such as a manuscript collection. In this way they are much like an extremely detailed inventory.

A word about relying completely on online finding aids and inventories as your sole source of information on available records with potential genealogical information. In some cases the finding aids published online by a particular institution are the most detailed available, while in other cases the online version may be abbreviated, with a more detailed inventory or finding aid available in published form, or even from an alternate source. -

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