Obtain and Search the Records
Principles of Family History Research > Obtain and Search the Records
Step 4: Obtain and search the records.
If you have effectively completed earlier steps, you are now ready for the most exciting and rewarding step of finding and searching the records.
By the end of this step you should have:
- (1) your research findings recorded in your research log and
- (2) photocopies (or notes) of the records found.
You may be able to obtain most records from several different repositories. Also, understanding different search tactics can help increase your choices of success.
- 1 Obtain the Records
- 2 View the Records
- 3 Search the Records
- 4 Record the Results
Obtain the Records
When you selected a record (in Step 3), you may have learned at which library or archives the record is located.
Genealogical information can be found in libraries, archives, public and private offices and in various publications. You may visit or write to the repository or send a friend, family member, or paid researcher to search the records.
Family History Library
The Family History Library in Salt Lake City has the largest collection of genealogical information in the world. Even if you did not use the Family History Library Catalog to select your records, many of the records you select are likely available through the library and its branch centers. For more details about the library's services and resources see the FamilySearch Internet site at http://www.familysearch.org/Eng/Library/FHL/frameset_library.asp
Family History Centers
There are over 4,500 family history centers around the world where researchers can use most of the records in the Family History Library. Most records are available on microfilm or microfiche and can be used for a small handling fee.
Most centers are small facilities and are located in meetinghouses of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. These centers are sponsored by the Church for research. They are open to the public free of charge. The volunteer staff at the centers can help you use the collection, although they cannot do research for you.
Each center has microfilm and microfiche reading machines, access to the Family History Library Catalog, the International Genealogical Index, and in North America, other FamilySearch databases. Most centers provide Internet access and other computer programs to help with genealogical research. Each center has a small collection of reference books, often available on microfiche.
Most resources are not immediately available, but can be ordered from Salt Lake City or regional service centers. The centers do not collect records from their local area. They are circulating branches of the worldwide collection of the Family History Library. Check to see if a copy of the records you selected are in a local family history center; if not, ask the staff to help you order a copy.
You may obtain a list of family history centers near you on the FamilySearch Internet at http://www.familysearch.org/Eng/Library/FHC/frameset_fhc.asp. The same Internet page also has links to more details about center resources and services.
Because the library and centers do not have a copy of every genealogical record, you will need to check other sources for some records.
Other Research Libraries
Major research libraries with significant genealogical collections are found in every country. They include national libraries, such as the United States Library of Congress, or the British Library, private libraries such as the Society of Genealogists Library in London, and major public libraries such as the New York Public Library.
Major libraries are identified in the research outlines for most nations, each province in Canada, and each state of the United States. Most major cities have good private or public libraries. Libraries in the United States and Canada with genealogical collections are described in—
Filby, P. William. Directory of American Libraries with Genealogy or Local History Collections. Wilmington, Del.: Scholarly Resources, 1988. (FHL book 973 A3fi)
An Internet catalog for hundreds of U.S. and Canadian public and college libraries is available at WorldCat. If you find a source in this catalog, you can see which libraries have a copy, and how far that library is from your zip code.
Ask a librarian to help you use the library catalog, which is the key to the collection. Every research library has some collections not available elsewhere as well as records found in other repositories. Some libraries collect extensively for a specific area and may be the best source for that area.
Public and college libraries have many published and some microform records. They usually have a good family history collection for the town or county they serve. Most have a reference collection and can help you locate other records of interest.
Directories of public libraries are available for most major countries, for example see Libweb.
Make friends with librarians and archivists. Being nice to the staff at a library or archives often pays big dividends.
| Make friends with librarians and archivists.|
Most public and college libraries provide interlibrary loan services that allow you to borrow many records from other libraries. This is especially helpful if you live some distance from where your ancestors lived. These services are most useful for obtaining published books and microfilms of newspapers and city directories.
Books at the Family History Library which cannot be loaned (unless on microfilm or microfiche), are often available through your nearest public library.
Many libraries will not lend family histories. Some rental libraries (described below) include family histories in their circulating collection. One public library with an extensive collection of genealogical material that does make them available on inter-library loan is—
Midwest Genealogy Center, part of
Mid-Continent Public Library
15616 East 24 Highway
Independence, MO 64050
Original Record Holder
Many records you want to search may still be held by the organization that created them. As you learn who created the records, you may want to visit or write to the local vital records office, the town hall, the parish church, cemetery, or commercial and military organizations.
Courthouses and Government Offices
Many public or government documents are at state, county, city, or town courthouses or offices. The Family History Library has many records on microfilm, but many others are available only at these offices. Addresses are in the research outlines and instructional handbooks.
Many public and private organizations (such as societies and churches) have placed their older records in their own archives or other local archives. Often these records are not available elsewhere. Most federal or state jurisdictions have their own archives, with significant collections of genealogical records.
Very few archives will search the original documents for you, but, for a small fee, many will search an index and provide copies of the information they find.
Another option is to request a list of private researchers for hire at their archives.
For a directory of archives arranged by state, province, or nation, see Repositories of Primary Sources.
Many societies maintain small collections of records. Their collections may include membership information, local history, and query files that identify the interests of researchers. Many historical societies are open to the public. Others, sponsored by a genealogical society or a fraternal or ethnic group, may be restricted to members. Most are usually quite helpful to all researchers. Some surname organizations have extensive collections the names in which they are interested.
Research outlines published by the Family History Library identify major societies. For an Internet list of local United States genealogical societies see Historical and Genealogical Societies of the United States. Addresses and descriptions of professional societies, trade associations, labor unions, military, fraternal, nationality, cultural and religious organizations, veterans and lineage societies, fan clubs, and other groups of all types throughout the world are given in—
Encyclopedia of Associations, published in three series: National Organizations of the U.S. (22,200), International Organizations (22,300), and Regional, States and Local Organizations (115,000). Detroit: Gale Research, annual (FHL book 973 E4gr). Also available on the Internet as part of LexisNexis.
Publishers and Booksellers
You can purchase current books and reprints from the publishers. An increasing number of publishers are printing abstracts of original records, reprints, compiled records, and background records. A local book dealer or library can help you identify publishers. See also—
Hoffman, Marian, ed. Genealogical and Local History Books in Print. (5th ed.) 4 vols. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing, 1997. (FHL book 973 D23ho)
Genealogical journals and newsletters can be an excellent source of genealogical records. Periodicals publish compiled genealogies, as well as copies (transcripts, abstracts and extracts) of original records. Many also include background information, such as instructional material and finding aids, including indexes and bibliographies. Journals are available for many localities, and usually print records about local families. They are often published by a local society and are found in many public libraries. Genealogical periodicals are listed in—
Carson, Dina C. Directory of Genealogical and Historical Society Periodicals in the US and Canada. Niwot, Colo.: Iron Gate Publishing, 2002. (FHL book 970 D25c)
Many journals have their own excellent indexes. English language (and French-Canadian) genealogical periodicals are also collectively indexed on the Internet in the Periodical Source Index at Heritage Quest Online. This is a subscription site, but many Family History Centers and other genealogical libraries have a subscription and let visitors use it for free.
Strive to see the most original record with your own eyes. Never fully trust records selected or copied by someone else because they may have been overlooked something important.
| Strive to see the most original source with your own eyes.|
But, if you cannot visit a records repository, you may e-mail or write to archives or organizations to request a copy of the records you need. You may learn about other researchers who are willing to share their findings with you. For difficult problems, you may want to hire a professional researcher to help you.
When writing to request services, you will be more successful if your e-mail or letter is brief and specific. You will usually need to send a check or money order to pay in advance for photocopy or search services, although some organizations will bill you later. The Family History Library has published brief "Letter-Writing Guides" for some European countries.
Keep the following in mind as you prepare your correspondence:
- Be courteous and considerate of the person's time who will answer.
- Make your request clear and simple. Do not ask complex questions or request detailed searches.
- Keep a copy of your e-mail or letter and note it on your research log.
- Type your e-mail or letter in one page or less.
- Be sure your own contact information is correct.
- Be sure the information and address for the person or repository is correct. The Internet usually has the most current contact information.
- E-mail is usually better than surface mail. If you decide to use surface mail, enclose a self-addressed stamped envelope when writing within your own country. For letters outside you country, enclose International Reply Coupons (available from you Post Office) for postage.
- When contacting other researchers, offer to pay copy and postage costs.
For more information about how to write for genealogical records see—
"Correspondence 101" at Introduction to Genealogy [Internet site] at http://genealogy.about.com/library/lessons/blintro3e.htm [accessed 6 April 2008].
Genealogical Society of Washtenaw County, Michigan, "Guide to Genealogical Correspondence" at GSWC [Internet site] at http://www.hvcn.org/info/gswc/bibliography/correspond.htm [accessed 6 April 2008].
Cache Genealogical Library. Handbook for Genealogical Correspondence. Rev. ed., Logan, UT: Everton Publ., 1974. (FHL book 973 D27hk)
For contact information and addresses use search engines like Google or Yahoo, or see—
"Societies and Groups Index" at Cyndi's List at http://www.cyndislist.com/society.htm [accessed 8 April 2008].
"Libraries, Archives, and Museums Index" at Cyndi's List at http://www.cyndislist.com/libes.htm [accessed 8 April 2008].
Historical and Genealogical Societies of the United States [Internet site] at http://www.obitlinkspage.com/hs/ [accessed 6 April 2008].
Bentley, Elizabeth Petty. Genealogist's Address Book, 5th ed. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing, 2005. (FHL book 973 D24ben)
Professional Researchers. You can employ private researchers to search the records for you. Lists of professional researchers are available at not cost on the Internet at—
- [International Commission for the Accreditation of Professional Genealogists (ICAPGenSM)]
- [Board for the Certification of Genealogists®]
Similar lists are available from organizations in other countries. See the research outlines or handbooks for specific addresses. Local libraries and societies may also provide the names of individuals in the area who will search records for you.
For more information see Hiring a Professional Researcher.
Photocopies. The Family History Library (see Photoduplication Services) and many other libraries will make limited photocopies for a small fee. You will need to specify the exact pages you need. Many will also photocopy a few pages of an index or an alphabetical record (such as a city directory) for a specific surname.
If they provide any at all, most libraries offer only limited correspondence services, primarily to help patrons get access to the library's records. They do not offer extensive research services. Inquire about the services or fees before you send a request. Limit requests to one or two questions or topics. For detailed requests, you will need to hire a professional genealogist.
View the Records
Your research may be more rewarding and more effective if you can visit the library or archive and personally search the records. Examine the actual documents or exact microform copies when possible rather than abstracts.
Format and Equipment
Because genealogical records are available in a variety of formats (see Formats of Records), understanding those formats and the equipment necessary to use them will make you a more successful researcher. Microfilm or microfiche records can be viewed through special film or fiche readers available at most libraries. A librarian can show you how to use the machines.
When using a library catalog or records on computer or compact disc, follow the instruction manual and/or the instructions on the computer screen.
When using books, learn the cataloging and shelving system for that library so you can find books easily. Handle the books with care as many are old and in poor condition. Your consideration will be appreciated.
Actual documents may be difficult to use. There may be only one copy of a dirty, faded, or fragile record. Handle such records as little as possible. Skin oils can harm old documents. Turn pages or leaf through files slowly and carefully. Never write on or mark documents! Ask the archivist how to make copies.
Read and Interpret the Records
Each record may have peculiarities that make it difficult to read or to understand the meaning of the information.
Handwriting. To read handwritten records, you may need to understand the handwriting practices of the recorder. Many researchers have found that the best way to learn to read old handwriting is to learn to write in that style. You may want to study a book about handwriting, such as—
Kirkham, E. Kay. The Handwriting of American Records for a Period of 300 Years. Logan, Utah: Everton Publishers, 1973. (FHL book 973 G3k; fiche 6010036-37)
Terminology. Dictionaries can define unfamiliar words used in the records. Major libraries have comprehensive dictionaries that include archaic meanings and the origins of words. An excellent dictionary of genealogical terminology is—
Evans, Barbara Jean. The New A to Zax: A Comprehensive Genealogical Dictionary for Genealogists and Historians. 2nd ed. Champaign, Ill.: B. J. Evans, 1990. (FHL book 973 D26e)
Languages. Records from international countries and some from your own country may be written in foreign languages. While you do not need to speak a foreign language to do most research, you will need some understanding of the language and key genealogical words. Dictionaries that give definitions in your native language and a foreign language are available in most libraries and bookstores. Guide books that discuss reading foreign records are often listed in the Place Search of the Family History Library Catalog under [COUNTRY] – LANGUAGE AND LANGUAGES.
The Family History Library has published a series of genealogical word lists that give English meanings of about 900 key terms. Lists are available at the Library, its centers, and on the Internet for major languages including Czech, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, French, German, Hungarian, Icelandic, Italian, Latin, Norwegian, Polish, Portuguese, Spanish, and Swedish.
Formats of Records
Genealogical records come in a variety of formats, each with its own benefits and limitations. These formats are usually determined by the record's nature, creator, or repository.
Remember that extracts, abstracts and most databases seldom include all the information a researcher may want.
Search the Records
Following the careful, thorough search procedures below will help you learn more about your ancestors:
Look for Indexes
Indexes can be very valuable, but some may be incomplete and some records may have been misinterpreted. Some indexes include only the name of the main person the record is about and may not list parents, witnesses, and other incidental persons in the record. Some names may have been omitted. Most compiled and many original records have indexes. Some indexes are published separately, especially original records.
| Do not trust indexes that don't work.|
Do not trust indexes (that do not list your ancestor). If he should be in the index but is not, try an alternate spelling of the name. Or, search the record page-by-page until you find him. Even if you do find him in the index, thumb through the records for places they missed him in the index until you answer the research question.
Search for the Whole Family
Each person’s record may include clues for identifying other family members. Therefore, search for complete families, not just individuals in the record. For example, in passenger lists, search for your ancestor then seek parents, children, and siblings who may be listed. Sometimes other family members are recorded at a later date or on another page. Even if your focus is only on one individual, your research will likely be more successful if you keep the person in a family and community context.
In most families, children were born at regular intervals. If there is a longer period between the births of some children, search the records for a child who may have been overlooked. You may need to search other records and places to find a missing family member.
Search for one generation at a time and do not attempt to connect anyone who lived more than a generation before your proven ancestor.
| Search for complete families, not just individuals.|
As you search a record, you may want to make note of others with the same surname you are seeking. Often you will not know all the family members, so these may be relatives you will need later in your research. Keep your quest, goals, and current objective in mind so that you will be aware of persons of interest to associated goals.
Establish Search Ranges
| Establish reasonable ranges for your searches.|
Often you do not begin a search with exact information about you ancestor. The marriage date may have been approximated from the birth date of the first child; you may not know the town or native spelling of the place where they lived. To increase your likelihood of success, establish reasonable ranges for your searches. Learn to guess well. For example, identify the following:
- Geographic areas. Your information about an ancestor’s residence may not be correct or specific. Some residents near boundaries may be listed in several jurisdictions. Search all appropriate jurisdictions. For example, if you find children's baptisms in a church register, but not the parents' marriage, look in the records of neighboring churches.
| When searching original records, search every jurisdiction where the family may have lived.|
- Area search. You may need to look through the records of neighboring areas. Families often moved to nearby towns, or were recorded in records of neighboring jurisdictions, even those not charged with keeping records from their town. Local histories may help you determine local migration patterns.
- Time period to search. Determine the range of time in which the events could have occurred. For example you may want to search military records for the time period when the person was between 15 and 45 years of age. Dates obtained from some sources may not be accurate. Look several years before and after the date you think an event occurred.
Choose records that cover the range of years you determine. You may find it helpful to create a time line of key events in the person's life.
- Spelling Variations. The spelling of names and places may vary greatly from record to record and even within the same record. Spelling was not standardized in early records. Many names were not spelled as they are today. Look for the many ways a name could have been spelled. Most record keepers spelled names the way they sounded.
You may want to make a list of all the spelling variations to look for. For example, for the name "Tyrell" you could check for Terrell, Turrell, Terrill, Tyrel, Tyrol, and Tyral. Consider translations of the name or place or how persons speaking another language may have spelled the name. The German Johann Schmidt may be found under Smith if an Englishman made the record.
A minor detail in a record may be the specific information you need to trace the family further. Look for small clues. Note the occupation of the person and the names of witnesses, godparents, neighbors, relatives, guardians, and others. Search for references to prior residences. Knowing where the family came from is crucial to continued research.
The information you are seeking may be out of sequence or misfiled in a record. Perhaps it is a part of another file. Poor record keeping, improper preservation, or improper microfilming may have missed or misplaced the record. If you do not find information where it should be, check the catalog entry for any notations or explanations about the record.
If the catalog entry does not explain the arrangement of the record, look for introductory material in the record. The records may be arranged in alphabetical or chronological order or by geographical proximity.
Few records are complete, especially original records. Information may be missing from a record because:
- The record was not kept or not preserved.
- Pages may be missing or partially torn out.
- It may have been destroyed in a flood or fire.
- The record was lost, misfiled, or forgotten by the record keeper.
- Information may not have been recorded. Often it was several years after a law required a record before everyone complied.
- Some records were not intended to include every person.
- A compiler may have missed a person or not assembled the family correctly.
- The jurisdiction may have changed and excluded the person you are seeking.
Other problems with the record may limit the amount of information you find, such as:
- faded writing.
- illegible script.
- ink blotches.
- water damages.
- pages skipped during microfilming.
Learn as much as possible about the record, including who made the record, as well as when, where and why it was made. As you learn about specific record limitations, you will be able to search them more effectively.
On occasion, several different families you are interested in may have lived in the same location and therefore be in the same records. If you are searching for several persons in the same record (see One Research Objective at a Time), be sure to carefully watch for all of them. Don't try for too many. Describe the results on each appropriate research log.
Record the Results
Document and organize as you go! Record the results of every search, negative or positive, on the research log so you will not needlessly repeat searches.
| Document and organize AS YOU GO!|
If the Search Result Is Negative
| If the search result is negative (fails to find anything relevant to the family)—
If you did not find information about your objective in the record, note those results by your description of that record in your research log. Many researchers use a word such as nil or a symbol such as Ø in the results space on their log. This will show you do not need to repeat this search later for the same person. Also, the accumulation of negative evidence (shown by too many nils) may help you realize you should search a different area or another record type to find the information you are seeking.
| Keep at it. Do not give up on your research objective just because of one negative search result.|
Continue to pursue the same research objective by conducting a new search using a—
- substitute spelling of the name (for Batson try Batsen, Badson, or Patson)
- substitute record (for a cemetery record try a different transcript of the same cemetery)
- substitute record type (for a cemetery record substitute a funeral home record)
- substitute jurisdiction (for Knox County substitute Knoxville (town), Tennessee (state), United States (nation), or Jefferson County (neigboring county)
- substitute repository (from the county courthouse switch to the county historical society)
- or a substitute kin or associate (if you can't find George, maybe his son Bryan's records will lead to answers)
For further strategies to help with continuing research after some negative searches see:
If the Search Result Is Positive
| If the search result is positive do these nine tasks BEFORE starting another search—
Family Group Record
| Record every search, negative or positive, on the research log.|
When you find something, if possible, make a copy, preferably a photocopy. A photocopy preserves the information as it was presented in the original record and provides complete information for future reference. If photocopies are not possible, transcribe the information carefully and thoroughly. Seek to include the context with the copy.
At times it may be more efficient to abstract or extract (see Formats of Records) complex, lengthy documents, such as deeds or wills. Be sure to indicate the location of the original record you searched in your abstract. You may want to copy one of the records as an example of the others that were abstracted.
Putting the footnote information on the front of the copy helps identify it, and gets you started on evaluating the source. Be sure that the author, title, page number, repository, document date, and call number of the record you copied are on the copy and on your research log. Most researchers assign a file number to each document and write that number on their copy and their log.
When you find relevant information in the record, write a brief note summarizing those results on your research log.
Record enough information on the research log to show if the objective was accomplished or if more analysis is needed. See the example of a filled-in homemade log at Prepare a Research Log.
How you transfer the information from your source to update your family group record, and properly source footnote that information is described next in Transfer the Information.