The purpose of this article is to provide a map and guide for online digital family history research. It is designed especially for beginning researchers, but may also be of value to intermediate level researchers. This article contains links to research articles, online training courses and research data bases. Work through the various steps, using this article as a map and guide. Happy hunting!!
- 1 Getting Started in a Digitized Online Era
- 2 Gather Family Resources
- 3 Organization
- 4 Search Existing Genealogy Collections
- 5 Use Census Records
- 6 Obtain Vital Records
- 7 Going Beyond Census and Vital Records
Getting Started in a Digitized Online Era
This is a wonderful time to engage in family history research. Every week, new resources are made available online.
For an introduction to online research, watch a 5 minute video: Find a Record in Five Minutes.
Now get started. Go to familysearch.org and search for an online record of one of your ancestors.
Tips to remember:
- Look for someone who was born before 1 April 1940.
- For your initial search, just enter the first and last names of the person.
- If your search yields too many names, narrow the search by:
- adding a life event (such as birth, marriage, residence or death) with a location and/or a time period to your search criteria; or
- using filters to narrow your search.
For guidance in using FamilySearch to locate digitized, online records see FamilySearch Tips.
Gather Family Resources
If you cannot conduct an online search for a record because you don't know the name of an ancestor born before 1930, you should interview relatives to learn more about your immediate ancestors.
In any event, before engaging in further online research, we recommend that you gather information closer to you. The reasons are to:
- Lay a solid foundation for further online research, based upon accurate information.
- Obtain information that cannot be found online because of privacy concerns.
Tips for obtaining family history information from relatives are in the popular 15 minute video: Getting Started with Family History; Step 1: Finding Easy Information.
Organization is key!! Obviously, you must organize your information. For success, you must also organize your research.
Organize Your Information
- For an introduction, watch the 5 minute video: Record What You Know.
- Fortunately, family history information is easily organized by using computer genealogy software. Free genealogy software is available and can be downloaded.
|For Windows Genealogy Software||For Mac Genealogy Software|
- Download and try various free software and select the software that best fits your needs. Once you find software that you like, you may want to purchase the commercial version of the software.
- Members of The Chuch of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will probably want to select software certified for New FamilySearch.
- For an overview of the process for obtaining and recording information, view the 12 minute lesson on Getting Starting in Family History Research.
Organize Your Research Efforts
- Most beginning researchers are tempted to skip this step. Don't!! A research log is essential to:
- plan your research;
- document your research.
- For a useful overview, watch the 21 minute lecture: Research Logs.
- Various formats and media can be used to maintain a research log:
- Paper Log: one can download and maintain paper logs.
- On your Computer: one can download a blank Word document that can be used as an electronic research log, stored and updated on your hard drive.
- In a Blog: one can use a blog as a research log; for information on creating a blog see Blog Your Way to Genealogical Success.
- In "The Cloud": one can store research logs on an internet site that can be accessed by any computer with an internet connection. The logs can be updated from your desktop computer or your laptop. Free space is available, for example, on Google Docs or Zoho Docs.
- In your genealogy software program: Some genealogy programs include "to do" lists for couples and individuals. These "to do" lists can be used as research logs. Planned research steps would be placed on the "to do" list. The results of the research (positive or negative) should also be recorded. This will document both your plans and your results.
Search Existing Genealogy Collections
To avoid duplication of effort, determine what compiled records already exist. For general information, see genealogy collections and Major Databases for Beginning United States Research.
Search online family trees
- Online family trees can found at:
Search online card catalogs
- Limited edition family histories can be found online. Try surname searches at the following sites:
- In addition, identify local libraries and archives where your ancestor lived and see if their card catalogs are online.
Cautions regarding compiled records
- Be cautious in using compiled records, particularly records that do not cite sources. Compiled records contain many errors. They should not be accepted as fact unless supported by reliable sources, but may point you in the right direction.
- Do not be discouraged if you find many compiled records without source citations. Remember:
- Each undocumented compiled record provides a clue for further research.
- Don't try to research every line; select a particular ancestor for further research. (For guidance in deciding where to start, go to Family History for Beginners.)
- You can coordinate your research with others researching the same name.
Use Census Records
As you begin to search for additional information about an ancestor, census records are generally the best starting point. Many indexed census records are now available online. Well-indexed census records are valuable because they can be used to:
- Locate the family geographically over time;
- Determine family relationships;
- Obtain details about lives of ancestors; and
- Find clues from the census to locate other records.
Through FamilySearch.org, one can obtain free access to indexed census records. For the United States, all censuses from 1790 through 1930 have been indexed (with the exception of the 1890 cencus which was destroyed by fire). Select the index you want to search from the tables below:
|1790 census||1800 census||1810 census|
|1820 census||1830 census||1840 census|
|1850 census||1860 census||1870 census||1880 census|
|1900 census||1910 census||1920 census||1930 census|
Indexes and images from the 1940 United States census are also available.
Click for tips in searching census indexes.
For other countries and for the various states within the United States, one can go to FamilySearch and browse by location.
Online Images of Census Records
Indexes are merely the starting point. For accurate and complete information, you need to examine the actual census records. Fortunately, United States census record images are available online. For years other than 1880 and 1930, census record images can be accessed from the FamilySearch index pages listed above. (The available 1860 images are provided by Fold3 and may involve a charge. The images for the 1910 and 1920 are provided by Ancestry.com and may involve a charge.)
HeritageQuest, available through certain libraries, has images of all available U.S. federal census population schedules from 1790 to 1930. Some public libraries provide HeritageQuest as an online resource that members can accessed by off-site computers.
Ancestry.com ($), a subscription Internet site, has indexes and images of all available U.S. federal census population schedules from 1790 to 1930. This site is available for free at certain libraries and archives, including the Family History Library and larger Family History Centers.
What can you do if you do not have access to HeritageQuest or Ancestry.com and the original census records are not available at FamilySearch? The answer: You can view free online images of U.S.census records at the Internet Archive of the Allan County Public Library.
- To locate 1860 or the 1880 images, write down the following from the index: census year, state; county; page number; and family number. Then on the Allan County Public Library website, select the census year and the state. Select the film with the appropriate county and note the location of that county's census records on the film. Open the film and from the window that shows the picture of the census record, click on the words "Read Online." Move the scoll bar at the bottom of the screen to locate the county of residence. Within that county, locate the page number and the entry number.
- To locate 1930 images, write down the following from the index: census year; state; county; enumeration district; family number; and line number. Then on the Allan County Public Library website, select the census year and the state. Select the film that contains census records for the county sought. Open that film and from the window that shows the picture of the census record, click on the words "Read Online." Move the scoll bar at the bottom of the screen to locate the appropriate county. Within that county, locate the enumeration district by number and then locate the family by number.
Guidance in the Use of Census Records
For a useful 45 minute online lesson on the use of census records, see Tiff's Census Class.
Extracting Information from Census Records
- To extract information from census records, you can download census worksheets.
- Remember to check out every census on which you expect to find an ancestor.
- For useful guidance in evaluating information on census records, click for tips on analyzing census data.
Obtain Vital Records
As you seek to identify and document your ancestors, you always want to look for primary sources. The most critical events in the lives an individual are birth, marriage and death. Thus, whenever possible rely on birth, marriage and death records (otherwise known as vital records).
Increasingly, states are digitizing their vital records and making them available online. Many such records are available on the FamilySearch Record Collection. For indexes and, in some cases, digitized records, go to Historical Records Collection and check the index by state.
Going Beyond Census and Vital Records
Use Other FamilySearch Resources
- Search other digitized FamilySearch historic records
- Go to FamilySearch Historic Records and select the appropriate geographic area. Remember to use the filters.
- Search digitized Family History Archives books
- At the FamilySearch home page, under the Discover Your Family History caption, select the tab for "Books". Then click on "Family History Books."
- Search by individual names, family names, geographic locations and topics.
- Use FamilySearch Research Wiki to locate online digitized record
- At the FamilySearch home page, at the top banner, select the tab for "Learn." Then click on the tab for Research Wiki.
- Select Browse by Country. Locate the appropriate geographic locations. Remember to check each governmental level, e.g., country, state, county, city.
- Search materials in the Family History Library
- At the FamilySearch home page, under the Discover Your Family History caption, select the tab for "Catalog".
- For guidance in the use of the catalog, see Introduction to Family History Library Catalog. Try various types of searchs. Within keyword searches, remember to use filters.
- Take online research courses
- FamilySearch offers a variety of free classes online.
- Use FamilySearch Discussion Forums
- FamilySearch offers numerous free research discusssion forums.
Use Other Cutting-Edge Online Resources
- For a popular overview of cutting-edge resources, view the lesson Genealogy Boot Camp.
- Google Books
- Review the Wiki article Google Books.
- Use this link to connect to the dedicated Google Books site (books.google.com).
- Internet Archive
- Review the Wiki article NewspaperARCHIVE.
- A membership fee is required, but your local library may offer access without charge. To connect use this link NewspaperARCHIVE.com ($)
- Facebook Research Communities
- For information and links, go to Join a Facebook Research Community