Identify a Category of Sources

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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 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 Sources Tree.jpg Review your objective. If you have a genealogical objective you will be selecting genealogical records. For reference objectives, you will want to select reference tools. When you know which kind of source you want, the following guidelines will help you choose from these categories of records: (1) compiled records, (2) original records, (3) background information, or (4) finding aids.

Genealogical Records[edit | edit source]

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
  • Gender
  • Births, marriages, and deaths

Other events, such as:

  • Military service
  • Buying and selling land
  • Paying taxes
  • Migrating from one place to another

Personal characteristics:

  • 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[edit | edit source]

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[edit | edit source]

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[edit | edit source]

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.

Records, including:

  • 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[edit | edit source]

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[edit | edit source]

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.

To learn more about records, see Jurisdictions and Creation of Records.