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Identifying Repositories (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 ($).

What Outside Sources To Contact...[edit | edit source]

There are many, many resources available to you in your search, and you should make a point of visiting different resource centers, just to see what’s available. Again, don’t be shy, ask lots of questions, find out exactly what is available, how the research procedure takes place, what are the policies regarding inter-library loans, and finally, you don’t want any surprises along the way, so ask if there are any costs.

So here’s a list of outside resources which may be quite valuable to check into. Most resource centers and repositories of records now have websites with catalogs or finding aids:

  • Genealogical and Historical Associations
  • Public Archives
  • Public and Provincial Libraries
  • Private Libraries and Associations
  • The Family History Centers of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
  • Churches where family members have been baptized, married or have burial records
  • Cemeteries where family members are buried

We are fortunate to have had three inventions revolutionize the research of our ancestors, photocopiers, microfilms and computers. This has enabled us to find information quickly and at a much reduced cost and saving of time doing complicated research.

Genealogical and Historical Associations[edit | edit source]

Over the last many years, many local genealogical and historical societies have been organized to help those researching their ancestors. Many independent societies exist as well as organized provincial and state societies with chapters in local areas. My recommendation is to begin your research by contacting a local genealogical association. They can be an invaluable source of information. The volunteer members that provide assistance were once beginners like yourself. They are very excited about their hobby and want to help, because they remember the helping hand they received when they began their research.

Genealogical associations often specialize in certain ethnic backgrounds or regions. They often have their own collection of books and material with which they have become extremely familiar and they know which sources are the best for the results you want.

They will share with you their expertise in other geographical areas or ethnic backgrounds. And if they don’t know the answers, they will often provide the contacts you need.

Members of genealogical societies can also warn you of certain problems that await you and how to best resolve them. They’ve had that practical hands-on experience, researching their own genealogy. Seminars are often held and helpful new material is made available to you. Most associations publish some kind of a newsletter. There’s usually a section for questions.

Association members are involved in general projects, such as indexing census records, recording or identifying churches and cemeteries and then publishing their findings. You will also make rewarding contacts and many new friends who share your interest.

We recommend that you ask your local library about genealogical societies located in your area. You may also want to contact a genealogical society in the area your ancestors lived.

Two books to get lists of societies are the following:

  • Meyer’s Directory of Genealogical Societies in the U.S.A. and Canada, Mary K. Meyer, Editor.
  • Genealogical Research Directory: National and International, Keith A. Johnson and Malcolm R. Sainty (This book, published every year, also list addresses of societies in numerous countries.)

Once you’ve determined which society is best suited for your research, you may wish to write to them giving your particulars and asking if they are the appropriate society for your research or if they are aware of a society that would be more suitable for your needs. (They may also be aware of someone who is also researching your ancestral lineage.)

Public Archives[edit | edit source]

Next, you should investigate the information contained in Public Archives. We already suggested that you should speak to your older relatives for family memories. Think of the public archives as holding the older documented memories of our nation.

National Archives, located in Ottawa, Canada and Washington, D.C., U.S.A. have so much to offer that they are often referred to as the genealogists’ heaven. But, let’s not forget the provincial and state archives, as well as other local archives. Not only will you be able to discover names of unknown ancestors, you may be able to find new sources and receive answers to your questions.

A word of caution; no matter what type of record you’re looking at, check the beginning and the end for a list of omissions and corrections. Valuable information is sometimes missed by not checking these areas.

Records of Births, Marriages and Deaths[edit | edit source]

These are a key source for genealogists, but remember that registration of these vital statistics did not become the general practice until the nineteenth century. Even after registration became mandatory, records were often irregular, because many people were unfamiliar with the law. Minor errors in dates and different spelling of names may also cause some difficulties.

Marriage records can be interesting and informative. In the earliest days of settlement, many jurisdictions, such as colonial governors, military and naval personnel, town and county governments, churches and justices of the peace, were all involved in the recording of marriages. Many of these records are available at the public archives, others are found in churches and public libraries.

Different types of documents exist. If the bride or groom were under age, consent affidavits from the parents would be required. Declarations of intention were filed with the town or county clerks as well as the banns read or published by the church to give others the opportunity to object to the union. Bonds were sometimes posted by the groom and a male relative of the bride to defray cost of litigation should the marriage be nullified. If one or both parties were wealthy or were an heir to wealth, a marriage contract was often registered.

We often think of divorce as a recent act, but it has existed since the mid 1600s. The number of divorces was very low compared to today’s statistics, and the grounds were much more strict. Divorce documents can be found, not only in archives, but often the notice of filing a divorce and announcing the decree, were published in local newspapers.

Indexes[edit | edit source]

These are extremely valuable tools to help you access information; without an index the information is very time consuming. A simple index is taking a register and putting a list together in an order, either alphabetical or chronological, that makes the use of that document more manageable. The next step to indexes on a much larger scale, is taking all the smaller indexes and putting them together.

Hopefully, one day we will have a huge computer database, listing all the births, marriages and deaths across the world and that we will be able to access all of this information from our homes. Wouldn’t that be pleasant! Coming back to reality, there are many indexes now that can be helpful, and they are constantly being updated and expanded.

As you are looking though an index check for the various ways of spelling the surname. Be creative in how the name may have been pronounced or changed. Remember that indexes are tools to assist you; they may have errors or omissions. They are derivative sources and not a substitute for the original record they may refer to.

Examples of Available Indexes

  • The International Genealogical Index (IGI) lists millions of births and marriages.
  • The American Genealogical Biographical Index lists people in articles, books and brief biographies published in newspapers, county and local histories, collections of biographies, magazines and other sources from the eighteenth century onward.
  • The Biography and Genealogy Master Index list biographical sketches found in hundreds of dictionaries.
  • The National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections lists manuscripts found in libraries and archives and has a special genealogical section.
  • The collection from the Daughters of the America Revolution, lists family and local sources such as Family Bibles, letters, diaries, cemetery gravestones and marriage records.

By writing to an archive, you may ask to have the index of a document checked to see if a particular individual is listed. You should ask what the fee is for a copy of the original document.

Census Records[edit | edit source]

Valuable information can be gathered from census records but extracting the details can be frustrating. The year 1086 was the year the first English census was recorded, although the Romans and Babylonians took many censuses too. The 1086 census was commissioned by William the Conqueror and is referred to as the Domesday Book, which is still (mostly) extant. Its main purpose was to record every field, wood, domestic animal and human being in England. Unfortunately, very few names are listed. Individual colonies did have some censuses taken during the 17th and 18th centuries, the statistics of which were used to administer their affairs.

In the United States, regular census recording began in many states in 1790; in Scotland and England in 1801. In Canada, Quebec census returns exist from 1666. Early censuses for other provinces may date from the late 18th century, but that is dependent on settlement dates. Scandinavian censuses began in the 17th century.

A lot of information is contained in a census, but be careful; same as today, we are at the mercy of the census taker. They were not necessarily always accurate and often questions were not asked, but the answer simply assumed.

Another problem with many censuses is that sometimes, due to political considerations, the census was padded. Fake names were added to achieve a certain goal, for example, a frontier area wanting to become a state. In another example, jurisdictions facing increasing taxes would remove names to keep the overall per capita tax lower.

Most censuses have been microfilmed, but problems of legibility are present. The original documents may have had faded ink, worn or torn pages, poor handwriting, unknown abbreviations, etc.

The first censuses in the United States listed the name of the head of the family, the number of free white males over the age of 16, free white males under the age of 16, free white females, free black persons and the number of slaves. Through the years the information gathered became more explicit, listing professions, pensioners, handicapped people, sex, age, relationship of each person, place of birth, property value, etc., etc.

At different times the Governments wanted to know information about specific situations, so they would order a special census to be taken. The mortality schedule was commissioned to gather information on individuals who had died in the prior twelve months. This also gives information on the diseases and how they were contracted. Although many similarities exist regarding the type of information gathered by the governing body of various countries, not all Schedules listed below are available for every country.

Schedules[edit | edit source]

Agriculture Schedules[edit | edit source]

The most important factor about these schedules is their linking of a person to ownership or occupancy of a specific piece of property. They occur mainly in North America. Agricultural schedules have interesting information about the person’s or family’s production of farm crops and basic food or household items like butter, cloth, and so on.

Manufacturing Schedules[edit | edit source]

These gave information regarding the number of employees, kind and quantity of machinery, capital invested, articles manufactured, annual production and general remarks on the business and demand for products.

Other Censuses and Schedules[edit | edit source]

Many early towns or counties took a local census, to determine among other things the number of taxable inhabitants, potential militia strength, farm productivity and school-age children. The question is how many of those returns have survived.

You may find additional returns or schedules for institutions such as hospitals, jails and orphanages; native Indian Reserves; slave schedules.

All these types of censuses and schedules—if they still exist—can add insights to your ancestor’s lifestyle, occupation and education.


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 Studie. To learn more about these courses or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at [

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