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Understanding Record Arrangements in 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 ($).

Knowing Your Repositories[edit | edit source]

Get to know your local repositories, their specific functions and their collections, plus those for the geographical area of your searches as well as other kinds of collections likely to be of use.

For Canadian research the essential booklet Tracing Your Ancestors in Canada is free from Library and Archives Canada, 395 Wellington Street, Ottawa, Ontario K1A 0N3, or from their website.

For USA Government Vital Records, see the National Center for Health Statistics’ Where to Write for Vital Records webpage for guidelines and contact information or VitalRec webpage.

Most larger libraries and archives have published guidebooks to their holdings, even the smallest local archives will have a photocopied list of what they have available. It pays to acquire and read these thoroughly before you visit. Then plan exactly and prioritize the items you will need to consult. Further advice can be obtained from the course Planning a Research Trip Including Preparing for Salt Lake City offered by the National Institute for Genealogical Studies.

Government Departments[edit | edit source]

Different levels in different countries typically retain original records of civil registration and probate until an act of parliament deems older ones to be historic and thus releases them to the appropriate archives.

For example in England and Wales at present no civil registration from 1837 to date has been declared historic and thus they reside in a government department which charges a fee for each certificate produced. Similarly, probate pre-1858 is in archival care mostly at County Record Offices, but from 1858 onwards all wills etc. are considered modern!

Contrast this with the situation in British Columbia, Canada where these two original records are under provincial jurisdiction. Birth registrations over 100 years old, marriages over 75, and deaths over 20 years old have been declared historic. Consequently they are housed in the Provincial Archives and microfilmed by FamilySearch, thus copies are available easily and cheaply.

Public Libraries[edit | edit source]

These usually use the Dewey Decimal System of classification and you will find most of what you need in section 929. Do make yourself thoroughly familiar with the catalogue as there are many other useful categories. You will need to use Inter-Loans especially for out-of-print books and those published in other languages that are unlikely to be widely used locally.

Local History Libraries and Archives[edit | edit source]

These collect only material of local interest and can thus specialize in your particular village, sometimes having original materials hived off to them from a major archive. Search for them through this major archive and get to know them. Typically there is a local person who has made your village the subject of intensive study. This contact will save you weeks of work.

Always deposit your family trees locally so that you may help others tracking the same family, and so that they might find you for mutual benefit. Ask about collections of local photographs and contribute copies of what you have.

University Libraries[edit | edit source]

These have good, if eclectic, collections for genealogists, and include history, maps, bibliography, and even foreign parish registers. If a particular professor has had an interest in your area, or if the University has been the recipient of a deceased genealogist’s books and papers, there could be a wealth of material available to you. Universities tend to use the U.S. Library of Congress Classification System and books useful to genealogists tend to be even more widely spread between categories here, thus it is important to understand and use the catalogue not to just browse.

Archives and County Record Offices[edit | edit source]

They store, conserve and make available for research the older historical material for their area, for example parish registers, wills, land records, newspapers, and school records. Archives may be organized on a national, provincial, state, county or town basis.

Ethnic Organizations and Embassies[edit | edit source]

These may provide booklets and useful information on family history, religions and customs, social history and geography of their areas.

Specialist Libraries:Religious, Armed Forces and Occupational[edit | edit source]

These should be located whenever possible by asking at an archives or large public library.

FamilySearch Centers[edit | edit source]

FamilySearch Centers (FSC) are run by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. There are over 4,000 of them all over the world and are your direct access route to many fabulous genealogical indexes as well as to the vast holdings of original materials on microfilm and microfiche at Salt Lake. No serious researcher can afford to ignore them and the vast majority of us can’t work without them! It is wise to remember that FSCs are not manned by trained archivists or librarians, but by kindly volunteers who may (or may not) know something about genealogy. When using an FSC it is up to the patron to do their homework before they arrive. The church now has a fantastic presence on the Web at where you may utilize their major indexes as well as find others researching your surnames.

The Internet[edit | edit source]

This must be explored by the serious genealogist as an important finding aid and linking mechanism. Thankfully, information printed out from an internet site comes with the URL given in the corner of the page if your printing options are set up to do so. Please refer to the National Institute course Electronic Resources: Using the Internet which describes how to use this medium.

Family History and Genealogy Societies[edit | edit source]

Current addresses may be obtained from the Genealogical Research Directory by Keith A. Johnson and Malcolm R. Sainty found in larger public libraries, Family History Society (FHS) libraries as well as many FamilySearch Centers. An increasing number of FHSs now have a presence on the Web, and a portal such as Cyndi’s List can lead you to them:

Benefits of belonging to your local FHS or Genealogy Society

  • Newsletters and Journals
  • Other publications e.g. New Members’ Kit, Local Resources for Genealogy
  • Monthly meetings with speakers
  • Contact with others similarly afflicted with the Genealogy Bug
  • Source of supplies and booklets to buy  Library, often accessible by mail, covers whole world
  • Opportunity to participate in local events, indexing projects etc.
  • Help from more experienced researchers
  • Discussion groups, also known as Special Interest Groups (SIGs) e.g. English, Dutch, Computers

Benefits of belonging to the FHS covering your ancestors’ homes

  • Quarterly magazines giving local information and sources e.g. local histories, book reviews, and allowing you to advertise your interests
  • Help with sources, contacts etc. in local area
  • Contact with others researching same families and places
  • May do small searches for out-of-area members
  • Contacts for Bed and Breakfast and researchers to do work for you locally
  • Bookstall for local books, maps and research guides
  • Members’ Interests lists
  • Publications e.g. Transcripts and Indexes!!! Produced by the people who live there—their own ancestors lived somewhere else, that’s why we ALL participate in indexing projects.

Volunteer with local projects at FHS, FSC, archives, or library and you will gain backroom knowledge of archival holdings and research methodology, as well as new friends, and be a contributor of resources not just a user.


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

We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.