Locating Genealogical Sources (National Institute)

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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course Methodology - Part 1: Getting Started, Methodology - Part 2: Organizing and Skillbuilding, Methodology - Part 3: More Strategies, Methodology - Part 4: Effective Searching and Recording, Methodology - Part 5: How To Prove It, and Methodology - Part 6: Professional Preparation and Practice  by Louise St Denis, Brenda Dougall Merriman and Dr. Penelope Christensen. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).

Where to Find the Sources

Generally speaking libraries contain derivative sources such as family history books, transcripts and indexes. Original sources, such as civil registration, parish registers, probate and censuses, will first be found in the government departments or churches which created them. Later, when they have been declared historic, they are passed to the appropriate archives (national, provincial, state, county or town). However some places called ‘libraries’ contain both original and derivative sources, often where the former are microform copies.

Most notable amongst these is the FamilySearch Library in Salt Lake City and its 4,000 branches (the FamilySearch Centers). Likewise most archives also contain a certain amount of books and indexes which are derivative sources. For addresses of government departments, archives and libraries kindly consult genealogical texts specific to your area of research, or your public library. For your closest FamilySearch Center (FSC) look in your phone book under Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints or on the FamilySearch website

In this section reference is frequently made to films obtainable through the FSCs.

Finding Family Sources

The most productive method is to make an appointment to visit your relative, alerting them to get out the documents and photographs from the attic or basement beforehand. Make arrangements for audio taping of your complete conversation, for photocopying documents, photographing people and archaeological items, and for making copy negatives and prints of treasured photographs. Sometimes relatives are only too pleased to find someone who actually wants ‘all that old junk’ and you will go home heavily laden and joyful.

If a visit cannot be arranged, perhaps because of distance, then can you arrange for a proxy who lives closer? Arm them with a list of questions, tape recorder, plenty of blank tapes and anything else you would take yourself. Failing this, a telephone conversation followed by letters can be extremely effective. Do offer to pay for any expenses such as photocopying, postage and photography.

Each relative should be tackled individually, and this can take some time to arrange but will be well worth the effort. Many people do have material and information that they do not realize is useful to the family historian. It is up to you to ask the right questions.

Use your best diplomatic manner when approaching elderly or distant family members. Not everyone will warmly greet your personal questions. It may take time to establish trust and reassure them that information about living family will not be published and that you will treat sensitive issues discreetly.

Finding Civil Registration (Vital Statistics)

Records of Births, Marriages and Deaths are created by an agency of government; national, or provincial/state/county or city/town depending on the country in question. These modern records may have publicly-available indexes, but in some jurisdictions do not.

The indexes to civil registration are a priority for microfilming by the LDS church and therefore can be found through your local FamilySearch Center (FSC). Larger FSCs may have long runs on indefinite loan for the more popular countries. Certificates or Registrations of Birth, Marriage and Death are available from the appropriate government department for a fee ranging from $5-$50. They may be photocopies of the original records or transcripts of them. After a certain number of years these records are released, for example by Act of Parliament, to the appropriate archives as ‘historic’ material. A new, publicly-available index is usually then made by the archives, often with assistance from the local FHS. These indexes tend to be more comprehensive, as they are able to include amendments and late entries, and they are made with researchers’ needs in mind.

They are available at the holding archives (and perhaps contiguous ones also). Check with your local public archives or genealogical societies to find out where the documents you require are housed. Most often, they will also be microfilmed, viewable at the microfilm at the Family History Library or some family history centers. In all cases the certificates or registrations will contain more information than an index, and are the original source.

The original historic registrations will be available to view, transcribe and photocopy at the appropriate archives. Since they are now in the public domain they can also be microfilmed and eventually will be available from your local FSC.

Film #
Item #
Name of Individual
Title, parents/spouse etc
Event Type
Parish and volume #
Reg or page #

Ireland Civil Registration Birth Thomas BRENNAN /Mary
24 Jan 1868
Cork, Cork, Ireland


Mary Elizabeth G. DASHWOOD
Civil Registration Index to Births


Mary Elizabeth G. DASHWOOD
Civil Registration Scotland Birth
Fyvie, Aberdeens District

Alice Rebecca JONES
Vital Stats BC, Canada
2 Jun 1978
Quesnel, British Columbia


Finding Census

Most censuses available to the genealogist are from the 19th century, although there are earlier ones for certain countries e.g. Norway 1664, Iceland 1703 and later ones e.g. England, Wales, Ireland, Scotland and Canada 1911, USA 1940 (in April 2012). For later ones still held under Rights of Privacy Legislation there is occasionally limited access.

The original censuses are held by the government that created them until they are released to the archives to become available to us. Deterioration through heavy usage by genealogists is prevented by microfilming or microfiching by the archives themselves, or by the LDS church, and these formats will be the ones you will use. Unless you are able to visit each area archives you will find it easiest to view the microfilm at the Family History Library or some family history centers. Street indexes are often available for larger towns and cities both at archives and the FSCs.

Nominal indexes, some by surname and first name, others merely and less-usefully by surname, for many censuses have been made usually by volunteers from Family History or Genealogy Societies (FHS). These can be searched or bought through the local FHS that made them, and some are at your own FHS. The Society of Genealogists in London has most census indexes produced by local FHSs in Britain.

Important countrywide indexes available through FSCs include the AIS (1790-1870), Soundex (1880-1920) and 1880 online for the USA, and the 1881 index for Canada and Great Britain (except Ireland) online.

There is a large and growing commercial availability of census indexes and digitized original pages which is provided free at many FSCs.



Many census records are have now been digitized and can be found on government websites. See:

Library and Archives Canada - Censuses

The National Archives of Ireland - Census of Ireland 1901/1911

Finding Parish and Other Church Registers

Church registers are kept by the church whilst still useful for the living. After this they may be passed to the diocese or other regional church authority. Eventually most will be housed in appropriate conditions for preservation at a designated archives where they may be viewed.

In some cases microforming is carried out as soon as the archives can afford it, or the LDS Church will offer their services free and present the archives with a complimentary set of films of their holdings in return for having copies for use in their FSCs. The genealogist may find that they need to consult the incumbent, a church or other archives, or the FSC to gain access to the parish registers.

Various transcripts have been made over the ages, from annual copies to head office (e.g. English Bishops’ Transcripts and judiciary transcripts in Quebec) to modern computerized, professionally triple-checked and indexed efforts. These may be located in various libraries and archives, and microfilms will be available through archives and FSCs.

All kinds of indexes have been made to save the researcher time and effort, some are great, some are horrendously inaccurate. The student is cautioned that indexes are merely finding aids. Recourse has to be made to the original, first recording for final authority and preferably a photocopy.

Indexes are available for individual parishes, county-wide christenings, marriages, and burials, as well as for wider areas for example there are 7 million entries in Boyd’s Marriage Index for England 1500-1837. The researcher should read books and journals to find what is available for the location of interest. Generally speaking, local indexes will be found most readily at the relevant archives and Family History or Genealogy Society (FHS), but many are also available elsewhere, in particular on microfilm at the Family History Library or some family history centers.

Finding Probate

First a caveat: many wills have been written but never probated; unless you find them in family sources nobody will ever know they exist. In North America many non-probated wills are tied to land ownership, when a will is used to convey a property to heirs or beneficiaries. Once a will has been probated then it is a public document. This means that it is available to view and that photocopies may be made inexpensively. Most wills are probated within three years of death, but it is quite common for probate to take place after the death of the last surviving spouse. If you don’t find it within three years after the deaths—keep looking.

The actual wills are returned to the executors. The responsible court will retain “true” document copies and/or create a Registered or Register Copy which was professionally copied, in England, verbatim with all the spelling mistakes and nuances of expression in the original. Although the latter is a transcript it is usually counted as a reliable copy because of the thoroughness of the transcription process. The Grants of Probate and of Letters of Administration for intestates, (and in cases where the named executors did not act) are usually with the same authorities.

As with other sources, wills and all the other accompanying documents in a probated estate file, are usually passed to a national, provincial or state archives (or institutions that house historic records) after a certain period of time, or when the court itself can no longer store them. By determining their location you can have photocopies made.

All probate materials are considered a priority for LDS filming and huge collections are available through FSCs. You may view the microfilm at the Family History Library or some family history centers or use the inexpensive Request for Photocopies method outlined in this course, as records will be in either date or alphabetical order and hence easy to find.

Indexes to wills, admons, and other probate materials will be with the administering authority and can be consulted through them. Most are also microfilmed for use at FSCs.

Finding Land Records

Generally, land records can be found with the authority which created them, and in most cases this was a department of a governmental jurisdiction. Older ones pass on to the appropriate archives as they are deemed historic. Some smaller jurisdictions, such as English manorial court records, can even be privately owned and can be much harder to trace as after several hundred years the records could end up outside their place of provenance. Some British and European land records have a very scattered distribution, although there are bodies, such as the Historic Manuscripts Commission (now part of the National Archives) in Britain, who keep a master list of known extant materials.

That said, I’ll now console you with the fact that since land records are another of the LDS church’s priorities for filming you will probably find most of what you need through your local FSC. Anything is easy to find on the FamilySearch Catalog as items are catalogued by the place they refer to, and you don’t have to first determine which archive or even private attic it currently resides in.

Finding Other Sources

There is a wide range of other original and derivative sources which will not be discussed here. Smart family historians learn to ask themselves, “What did my ancestor do that would have caused a record to be made?”

Some examples include:

  • Payment, or non-payment, of taxes
  • Apprenticeship
  • Being licensed for a certain trade or profession
  • Misdemeanours
  • Falling on hard times
  • Accidents
  • Attending a school or university
  • Buying or leasing building
  • Investing money
  • Other records involved with marriage (licence, settlement)
  • Holding a parish position
  • Being a witness at court
  • Immigration and passenger lists
  • Naturalization

The list only ends when your imagination is exhausted!

It is wise to use broad indexes such as FamilySearch Catalog, and the Periodical Source Index (PERSI) and to remember that a certain amount of luck during general library browsing always helps.


Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online courses Methodology - Part 1: Getting Started, Methodology - Part 2: Organizing and Skillbuilding, Methodology - Part 3: More Strategies, Methodology - Part 4: Effective Searching and Recording, Methodology - Part 5: How To Prove It, and Methodology - Part 6: Professional Preparation and Practice offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about these courses or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at wiki@genealogicalstudies.com

We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.