Know Your 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 of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints 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.

What Do I Take with Me?[edit | edit source]

The Research Briefcase[edit | edit source]

Two cautions:

  • Put your name and address labels on anything you take with you, and
  • Never take original documents, only photocopies of them, as working aids.

As an example of a repository, I’ll discuss what I take to a FamilySearch Center. Other archives and libraries are similar but the details vary.

My research briefcase is one that stands upright beside my chair. This is handy for libraries and archives where table space is never sufficient; it acts as a portable filing cabinet.

The three sections contain:

Section 1. Reference Materials and Continuing Projects[edit | edit source]

  • Duotang or thin loose leaf binder containing essential data for consulting records, talking to other researchers and browsing. I’m ready for anything when I have:
  • My pedigree, and if extensive, an index to it.
  • List of ancestral names.
  • List of ancestral places.
  • Alphabetical lists of all spellings of my surnames, ready for use in indexes as well as original records.
  • List of marriages needed, alpha by county.
  • List of civil registration searches needed by type and date.
  • List of places needed on censuses by year.
  • List of specific parish register entries/copies needed alpha by county and parish.
  • List of parish register area searches needed by county and central parish.
  • Folder with:
  • Local genealogical phone numbers and addresses.
  • Palaeography crib sheet.
  • Magnifying glass.
  • Lists of locally held materials, e.g. English civil registration index holdings at local FSCs
  • Folder containing:
  • Blank census transcript forms
  • Sheet of coloured paper to assist with hard-to-read microfilms
  • Pertinent maps
  • Folder with current projects for my One Name Studies (to do when I have finished reading the films I have in.)
  • Latin glossaries
  • GOONS (Guild of One-Name Studies) Register
  • Tracing Your Ancestors in Canada guide
  • 8" x 11" coil notebook for recording
  • Work To Do Book - This can be organized according to the repository you use. The following is an example for FSCs. To keep track of films on order I tape three envelopes inside the front cover for microform order forms and same-size slips for other films in at my FSC at present.

Three Envelopes for Keeping Track of Microform Orders

My pink patron cards

In due date order.
My pink patron cards and same-
size slips for other films in.

In due date order.
My pink patron cards---just in case
I need them again!

  • A page pocket contains any work sheets I may have to refer to. Another page pocket contains lined 7" x 3" slips for all kinds of notes.
  • Starting at the front of the book are pages where I note which films I need to order.

Films to Order

Film # Item For [family or client] Done
0048959 Vesterø, Hjørring, Denmark PRs 1646-1848 Christensen line
0474674 1841 Hunston area, Sussex. GOONs + copy Richard/ Martha JUPP

Starting at the back of the book is my list of things to do.

Research to do at the FamilySearch Center

Source Item For [family or client] Done
1891 census Copy 108 Surrey Lane, Battersea Francis THOM
Eng Death 1851 2Q onwards, Elizabeth GILES age 90+ Thomas GILES

An upright spectacles case (inexpensive from a thrift store) makes an excellent pen and pencil holder for your pocket, handbag or briefcase.

Section 2. Empty Section[edit | edit source]

This empty section is for reception of work done, photocopies, and items received today. This is emptied upon arrival home and filed as soon as possible, always before the next research trip.

Section 3. Items Being Taken for Others[edit | edit source]

This includes notices, photocopies, references, journals or books on loan.

Other Ideas[edit | edit source]

A handbag can be an encumbrance in archives as you may have to leave it in a locker before you enter the search room, and if you bring it with you it has to be supervised. Consider a carpenter’s apron with its large pockets, or a combination of a ‘fanny pack’ and clothing with good pockets instead. A few archives e.g. the British National Archives do not now allow even fanny packs into the search rooms so deep pockets are a necessity. Be prepared!

If you are doing numerous small look-ups for a society, friends or clients, then a system that works well is to have a large binder containing many plastic page protectors. Put the instructions for each item in a separate protector and then as you make research notes or photocopies just add them to the same page protector. Each search and its results are then in one place ready for writing up or replying to enquirers.

If you are regularly using several different repositories it may be wise to have a research binder for each one. At the front could be a list to which you add Things to do as you think of them, plus guide sheets for that repository and any relevant family information. At the back would be several copies of transcript forms you need there.

Efficient Use of Time[edit | edit source]

Make the best use of library time by planning work at home or whilst travelling, using the guidebooks and holdings catalogues that you have received from archives or are available online. The FamilySearch Catalog is available online and provides enormous savings of FamilySearch Center time by looking up catalogue queries at home.

Many repositories require you to book ahead for a film or fiche reader, or use of a computer. Plan well-ahead for these so you can get the machines you need when your material is first there. In all likelihood you will need to read some of it and then go home and digest the material, returning later for another session, so you need to leave time for that. Occasionally one runs into machine breakdowns or electricity outage and so on. If you always read time-dated material, such as films at a FamilySearch Center, directly they come in this will not bother you.

I use a lot of photocopied maps of parishes that I highlight to show which censuses or parish registers I’ve read. It focuses you wonderfully on the gaps in your area coverage.

It’s a good idea to alternate between film/fiche/books/computer to ease neck and eye strain and then it is possible to do a full day’s work on machines. Another tip when reading faint writing is to slowly move the film as you read it. This aids in distinguishing the writing from the background.

It is important to get into the habit of filing work pages as soon as possible and certainly before your next archive trip. One of the reasons many family historians don’t accomplish very much is that they may have the information that they need but it’s unfindable (and thus unusable) because it isn’t filed properly. Frequent rummaging through a huge pile of unsorted notes and photocopies is a waste of time and effort.

Using indexes will save time, but do be sure to understand how they were made and checked, and even why they were made. Read the instructions or notes for these details. For example, there isn’t much point in consulting Boyd’s Marriage Index unless you are aware that he utilized phonetic spelling. No wonder there are no Phillips or Wrights! I have found that when searching an index prior to about 1950 for English first names you will find people faster by starting at A for females, but at Z for males. There are more Ann, Eliza, Elizabeth, Fanny and Mary than later letters, likewise more William, Thomas, Robert, Richard, John and James than earlier letters. Transcripts are available for many genealogically important materials, particularly parish registers, but some are better than others. Check the instructions or notes at the front to see how they were made and checked.

There are plenty of pre-computer-age transcripts that were made by well-meaning but careless individuals. Perhaps they did not have the required palaeographic skills, or were not aware of the importance of checking. That said, there are hundreds of good handwritten and manually-typed transcripts as well. Just make sure that you understand their provenance and go back and check the original sources as well.

Effective Use of Films on Loan at FamilySearch Centers[edit | edit source]

To make the most use of films previously ordered by other patrons, it is essential to know how certain types of records are arranged on GSU films for your particular area. For example, the arrangement and effective use of the commonest British original records film loans are outlined in the chart below.

Efficient use of Films

Source Arrangement on a GSU Film How to Use Efficiently
Census – Scotland and 1841 England and Wales Alphabetical by parish May also have parishes starting with surrounding letters.
Census – England and Wales 1851-81 By contiguous areas Nearby parishes may be present.
Parish registers, BTs and other transcripts Alphabetical within a diocese May also have parishes from that diocese starting with surrounding letters

Many FamilySearch Centers (FSCs) have a list for patron use of the films in on short-term loan. This may be called the Flip Chart, a term dating back to the spiral-bound books provided to the first FSCs for keeping this list.

Take note of the film number and due date for any films of possible use, then look up (and print off) the details on the FamilySearch Catalog at the FSC. To save valuable FSC time, check the FamilySearch Catalog under Film/Fiche Search while at home.

You will then know the exact parishes and dates on each film and can decide whether you want to read it next time you are there. I write film number, due date and brief details on a slip of paper of similar size to an order form, and keep these in due date order with my own orders in a pocket in my work book.

Tremendous savings in film loan costs can be achieved by using what is already at your FSC. I get a lot of my best stuff off of other people’s films!


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.