Select Records to Search
Principles of Family History Research > Select Records to Search
Step 3: Select records to search.
Selecting a record to search is the most complex part of the research process. You will need to—
- Identify a category of sources.
- Choose a record type.
- Select specific records.
- Describe the record on a research log.
This is called a record selection strategy—an orderly approach for identifying the records most helpful for your research objective.
At the end of this step you will have a research log with descriptions of records you will search to meet your objective.
- 1 Creation of Records
- 2 Identify a Category of Sources
- 3 Choose a Record Type
- 4 Select Specific Records
- 4.1 Helpful Guessing Skills
- 4.2 Catalogs and Record Lists
- 4.3 Selection Criteria
- 4.4 Jurisdictions
- 5 Describe the Records on a Research Log
Creation of Records
| Because family history depends on finding records about individuals and families, it is important to understand the nature of the records that you will be searching. Most records used for genealogical research were not created for genealogical use. It is helpful to understand events, and why the records were created.
Creating the Records
Identify a Category of Sources
There is no substitute for learning about records in order to select the best records to search. The more you understand about the records used for genealogical research, the more effectively you will be able to select and use them. The first step to understanding the records used in research is to learn the genealogical classification of records You can then use that classification to help you select appropriate records. You cannot select an appropriate records unless your objective is clearly defined.
| You cannot select an appropriate record unless your objective is clearly defined.|
You cannot select an appropriate record unless your objective is clearly defined.Genealogical sources can be grouped into two divisions, each with two categories. The following chart illustrates the relationship of these four categories.
Genealogical records provide vital and biographical information on individuals and families (see Types of Genealogical Information). This includes information about—
Vital events. This information goes on your family group records and pedigree charts:
- Names and relationships
- Births, marriages, and deaths
Other events, such as:
- Military service
- Buying and selling land
- Paying taxes
- Migrating from one place to another
- Age, physical appearance
- Philosophy of life
- Social and economic status, etc.
Latter-day Saint Ordinances Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will also want to learn if temple ordinances have been performed for their ancestors.
The two categories of genealogical records are: (1) compiled records, and (2) original records.
Compiled records are collections of information about a person, group or family. Researchers and authors gathered information from original and other compiled records. Therefore, compiled records represent one or more researcher’s opinion of what the records say about an individual or family. A published family history, for example, is often compiled from vital records, census records, family papers, and local histories. Whenever you begin research on a new family, search compiled records before original records. This will help you learn what has already been researched.
Compiled records are arranged in two groups:
International sources may include persons and families from anywhere in the world. They include two record types, family histories, and collections including databases such as Ancestral File. Examples of U.S. collections on the Internet can be found at Databases Online. Each country may have similar collections.
Local sources are compiled records of persons or families of a specific place. The various record types include history, periodicals, genealogy, biography, societies, nobility, and heraldic visitations.
Compiled records can:
- Save research time. Someone may already have extracted, compiled, indexed, or documented information you seek.
- Provide family links not easily found in original documents.
- Give you the names of others researching your family to help you share information and coordinate your work.
- Provide family history information.
Caution: Information in compiled records is considered secondary (not recorded near the time of the event.) The information is only as accurate as its researcher. Carefully evaluate the information or verify it by sample testing.
| Search compiled records before original records.|
Original records provide information about events in a person’s life. This includes birth, marriage, immigration, military service, land purchases, and death. Most also document relationships. These records were usually created near the time such an event took place. Based on the information in them, they can be grouped as:
Vital events. Records of births, christenings, marriages, divorce, death and burial, created by families, governments, churches, or other institutions.
Residency. Records that show where people lived.
Property Ownership. Disposition of real estate and personal property.
Occupation. Records of employment, including military records.
Immigration. Documents showing the departure, arrival, or citizenship of a person in a country.
Civil Actions. Records of public or legal transactions such as court records.
Institutions. Records of organizations or establishments that care for a segment of society, such as a school or prison.
Special Groups. Records unique to or specifically about religious or cultural groups.
Personal Records. Records about an individual or family created specifically by the person.
Original records can:
- identify relationships between individuals.
- give primary information about a specific event.
- verify the accuracy of compiled records.
- provide information not found in compiled sources.
- provide biographical details about people.
Reference tools can help you find or understand genealogical records and the people in them. This includes information about:
Places, such as:
- its name
- the jurisdiction it is in
- prior jurisdiction
- a description of its location
- a history of its development, industry, community leaders, and other information.
- how to use the records about an ancestor
- where the records are located and what they contain
- where the person is found in the record
- research procedures and sources for a specific locality or topic.
Other facts, such as:
- the name, description and picture of an immigrant’s ship
- the laws about or contents of naturalization records
- how to read old handwriting
- the meaning of obscure or out-dated words
Reference tools include two categories: (1) background information, and (2) finding aids.
Background information helps you understand the settings in which records were created and the places, groups, or subjects used in family history research. In addition, they describe the circumstances of life in a particular place and time. Use background information when you need help selecting or using genealogical records. This category includes the record groups of—
- Geography. Books and tools necessary to locate and learn about places where ancestors lived.
- Instructions. Information about how to do research, either in general or specific to a time period, place or group of people.
- History. Information about the historical, environmental, educational, political, social, economic, and religious “setting” in which an individual or family lived.
- Culture. The customs of religious, social, or ethnic groups, including naming practices (such as patronymics).
- Facts about places and subjects.
- Language. Information about the handwriting and languages used where the family lived.
| Use background information when you need help selecting or using genealogical records.|
Background information is often needed to identify which records to search.
Finding aids can help you determine where information can be found. There are two groups of finding aids—
- Names, which locate a person in a record. This includes indexes.
- Records, which identify where records can be found. This includes directories, catalogs and inventories.
Use finding aids after you have selected a record and if you need help locating the record or finding a person in the record.
Choose a Record Type
Now that you know whether you need genealogical records or reference tools, and have selected the category of records (compiled, original, background, or finding aids) to search, you need to determine which record type will best help you meet your objective. The following tables can help you choose a record type.
Sources Useful to Genealogists
Compiled Records: Choices
Original Records Choices
Background Information Choices
Finding Aids Choices
Other Tools for Choosing a Record Type
Besides the tables, these tools can help you choose appropriate record types:
- Research Outlines published by the Family History Library published on paper and on the Internet and this wiki are available for the United States (including each state), Canada (and each province), and other countries such as Denmark, England, Germany, Ireland, and Peru. They describe record types useful for those areas and cite some specific useful records. The record selection table in the introduction to each national research outline shows possible research objectives, and the record types most likely to include that kind of information. For example, see the United States Record Selection Table. For a brief explanation of how to use this table in combination with the Family History Library Catalog, see Guessing a Record Type to Use.
If an outline is not available for your country, the outline for a neighboring country may be helpful. For example, much of the France Research Outline may also apply to Belgium.
- Handbooks generally identify record types for an area or topics to research. Some handbooks may use different terms for the record types (such as wills instead of probate records), but they give useful descriptions. Older handbooks may have out of date addresses and will not discuss newly available records or research strategies.
Select Specific Records
You have identified a record type. Now you are ready to compare information on your family group record with catalogs or record lists in order to choose which specific records you will search. First, look again at the family group record for information about where and when a selected event occurred. If necessary guess when and where it happened.
Helpful Guessing Skills
To find useful source documents, sometimes a researcher needs to be good at guessing information needed to find ancestors in documents. Each of the following involves being able to guess some additional information based on what is already shown on a family group record:
- Guessing a Place for every event on that family group. Usually you need to guess where an event happened to be able to guess where to look for records of that place.
- Guessing a Date for every event on that family group. You need to guess dates to narrow searches when indexes are not available or cover only limited periods.
- Guessing a Name Variation for every name on that family group. Your ancestors may have always spelled their name a certain way, but the clerks who wrote their names probably used some surprises. Learn to look for ancestors under unexpected spellings and names.
Catalogs and Record Lists
To select a specific record, it is most useful to review a list of records, such as a library catalog or bibliography. Most such lists organize the records they describe into groups and often use the same or similar groupings (or "Record Types") used above.
Many genealogists do much of their research in one or two repositories. You may want to select some record(s) for your objective from the collections where you do research. For a discussion of the many kinds of record repositories, see Obtain the Records.
However, since no library or archives has all possible records for your objective, you may need to use lists that best fit your research opportunities.
Experienced researchers who have used many different records will often be able to select a specific record based on past experience. However, use of a comprehensive list of records will help identify records that are often overlooked, forgotten or not previously available.
You can look for the record type you choose in the following sources—
Family History Library Catalog
This lists and describes the records in the Family History Library—the largest collection of genealogical records in the world. It is the key to research in the library and its family history centers. If the records from your locality of interest have been microfilmed or digitized, the Family History Library Catalog would usually be the most comprehensive list you could use to select the best records for your search.
The catalog, updated regularly, is on the Internet at http://www.familysearch.org/Eng/Library/FHLC/frameset_fhlc.asp
You may search the catalog by Surname (for family histories), by Place (for record types), by Subject' (such as Navajo Indians), or by Author or Title if known. The record types listed in Sources Useful to Genealogists are mostly the same as the headings used in the Place Search of the catalog.
For more information see the wiki article Introduction to the Family History Library Catalog.
Other Internet Sites
The Internet has search engines and lists to help find and select genealogical records:
- Google. Use this search engine to find records with search phases like Moffett genealogy or New Orleans marriages or Hamburg passenger lists or Quebec census.
- Cyndi's List is a large categorized list of tens of thousands of links to genealogical sites and records.
- Family History Library Internet Favorites are selected browser links (bookmarks) to identify good genealogical Internet sites.
Other Library Catalogs and Record Lists
Become familiar with your local library catalog. Ask the librarian or archivist about their records.
Many catalogs are available on the Internet. Many public and some academic libraries belong to the public and some academic libraries belong to the WorldCat. This catalog will show each library with a particular record, and how far that library is from your zip code.
Many other library catalogs have been published and are in the reference collections of major libraries, such as catalogs for genealogies at local histories at:
- Library of Congress
- Daughters of the American Revolution
- New York Public Library
Research outlines for specific countries may help you identify other catalogs for major libraries. Check the most recent versions of catalogs, as libraries are continually adding to their collections.
The Family History Library Catalog can be used to find descriptions of other libraries and their collections. Look in the Place Search, find the place and look for the topic Archives and Libraries. For example:
- Ireland, Dublin, Dublin – Archives and Libraries
- Pennsylvania, Philadelphia – Archives and Libraries
You may find a catalog or inventory from which you can select a record to search.
Handbooks and Instructional Materials
Handbooks explain how to conduct research for a particular country or state. They usually describe records in or from that area. Several include lists of major records to consider when researching that area or topic. Most significant handbooks are mentioned in the appropriate research outlines published by the Family History Library. Articles in periodicals also often describe records you may want to search.
These list books, articles, and sometimes original records about a subject. Many bibliographies are available that focus on sources for one or two record types within a locality such as Biography, History, or Military Records. An excellent example is—
Filby, P. William. American & British genealogy & Heraldry: A Selected List of Books, 3rd ed. Boston: New England Historic Genealogical Society, 1983. Supplement, 1987. (FHL Ref Book 016.9291 F472a). This bibliography and supplement list over 12,800 titles of published genealogical sources (primarily from the United States).
Bookseller catalogs usually identify published books the vendor is selling. Out of print books are seldom listed, except in specialty catalogs. Many English-language books are listed in—
Hoffman, Marian, ed. Genealogical and Local History Books in Print: General Reference and World Resources, 5th ed. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing, 1997. (FHL book 929.1016 H675g). Most of the sources you will use to select specific records to search can be found in genealogical libraries and repositories. You may also want to ask an experienced researcher or genealogical librarian for suggestions regarding possible records to search.
Most of the sources you will use to select specific records to search can be found in genealogical libraries and repositories. You may also want to ask an experienced researcher or genealogical librarian for suggestions regarding possible records to search.
Obtaining Record Lists
Major bibliographies, some publisher catalogs, and many instructional handbooks are also at most research libraries, and many public libraries.
To select a record, read its description and compare it to what you know or guess about the event you want to document. Make sure the record—
- has the content (information, location, and time period) you need, and
- is available.
Information. Does the record have the kind of information you are looking for? If, for example, you need to find out about a marriage, does the record give marriage information?
The Sources Useful to Genealogists table puts each record type with those having similar information. If the type you choose is not available, choose a type from the same group.
Location. Is the record from the place where you believe the event occurred? Are there other local jurisdictions that may have similar records that you should search? Did the boundaries of a jurisdiction change while or after your ancestor lived there? Did you ancestor move to nearby jurisdictions? Select records from every jurisdiction where the family lived and consider nearby jurisdictions. Sometimes you will need to do an area search (see Search Ranges).
Time. Does the record cover the time period during which the event took place? Be sure to establish broad ranges of time to search (see Search Ranges).
Obtain it. Is the record in a repository you can visit? Can you get a copy? Are you permitted to use the record?
Read it. Are there skills or knowledge you need to read the record, such as (1) ability to read foreign languages, (2) ability to read old handwriting, or (3) knowledge of terms used? Remember that—
- Records are usually in the language of the country.
- Many early records are in Latin.
Find information in it. Can you locate the information in the record? Do you have the information necessary to recognize the relative you are seeking? Will there be so many of that name (such as Smith) that you must know the first name? Will the search be too extensive if you don’t know a specific place? How many microfilms or volumes will you need to search if you don’t know the year? Before you select a record, determine if you may need—
- An index.
- The ancestor’s given (first) name.
- The name of the county or town.
- A limited time period.
- More specific information about the ancestor’s religion, military service, or occupation.
Interest, Inspiration, and Intuition
As you select a specific record, follow your best judgment. If you feel strongly interested or your intuition suggests a record not recommended by the strategy, then select that record.
Selecting More Than One Record
| It is usually wise to select and search several records that could provide the answer to your research objective.
However, in doing this you may find discrepancies. For example, the sources may not agree on Uncle Harry’s birth date. You will then need to evaluate the information you find as explained in Step 5.
Most records you search have jurisdictional limitations. That is, they apply only to a certain geographic area and to certain events and/or families. For example, marriage records in the United States are usually recorded by each different county. Many different jurisdictions exercise authority over what records are created or kept about our ancestors. For example, in the United States, naturalization records were kept by the federal, state, city and county jurisdictions. You must know which jurisdictions kept the records you are seeking in order to select the best records.
| Wherever people settle, civil, religious, and other leaders exercise authority over them.
Jurisdictions may have several levels. Large jurisdictions (such as churches or governments) may be divided into smaller ones: a nation is divided into states: a state into counties.
Geographical features such as rivers, mountains, and lakes affect jurisdiction boundaries.
Jurisdictions overlap. People usually live in many overlapping jurisdictions at once, such as school, church, or town boundaries.
Jurisdictions change over time. Today's boundaries may have changed many times since your ancestor lived there.
Those jurisdictions create or keep records useful to the genealogist:
All records have a limited scope that defines their coverage. The scope is usually limited by time and geography with a topical consideration (such as a list of Union officers in the U.S. Civil War.) As you select specific records to search, you will need to learn the different jurisdictions that may have kept a record, and the scope of the records they kept.
| You must know which jurisdictions kept the records you are seeking in order to select the best records.|
After selecting one or more record types that may contain the information you are seeking, consider which jurisdiction(s) are most likely to have kept those records. The research outlines for various states, provinces and countries can help you determine the most likely jurisdiction.
Locality Analysis. As you select records to search, it is important to learn about the localities where the family lived. In addition to the present jurisdictions that may keep records about the family, try to learn—
- about previous jurisdictions to which the locality belonged.
- nearby localities and jurisdictions that may have been more convenient for the family.
- some of the history of the place where they lived.
- the specific place the family lived within the jurisdiction, such as the township within a county or the street or ward within a city.
Several sources can help you analyze the locality, including maps, gazetteers (geographic dictionaries), local histories, city directories and some genealogical handbooks.
Some Modern Government Jurisdictions
| Some Modern Government Jurisdictions|
Staat or Land
County or Shire
| Town or City|
Town or City
Stadt or Dorf
Town or City
Gorod or Derevnia
Town or City
| *This level of jurisdiction does not exist in all areas.|
Describe the Records on a Research Log
Write a description of the records you selected on the research log. Write enough information so someone could readily locate the source and verify the information at a later time. See the example at Prepare a Research Log.
Decide which records you want to search first. Some records are easier to search while others may be more difficult to use because of the format, handwriting, language, lack of indexes or other reasons. Some records may be more immediately available than others. You may eventually want to search all the records you selected, but usually you should search the ones most likely to meet your objective first, even if they may be more difficult to search.