Select Specific Records

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You have identified a record type. Now you are ready to compare information on your family group record with catalogs or record lists in order to choose which specific records you will search. First, look again at the family group record for information about where and when a selected event occurred. If necessary guess when and where it happened.

Helpful Guessing Skills[edit | edit source]

To find useful source documents, sometimes a researcher needs to be good at guessing information needed to find ancestors in documents. Each of the following involves being able to guess some additional information based on what is already shown on a family group record:

  • Guessing a Place for every event on that family group. Usually you need to guess where an event happened to be able to guess where to look for records of that place.
  • Guessing a Date for every event on that family group. You need to guess dates to narrow searches when indexes are not available or cover only limited periods.
  • Guessing a Name Variation for every name on that family group. Your ancestors may have always spelled their name a certain way, but the clerks who wrote their names probably used some surprises. Learn to look for ancestors under unexpected spellings and names.

Catalogs and Record Lists[edit | edit source]

To select a specific record, it is most useful to review a list of records, such as a library catalog or bibliography. Most such lists organize the records they describe into groups and often use the same or similar groupings (or "Record Types") used above.

Many genealogists do much of their research in one or two repositories. You may want to select some record(s) for your objective from the collections where you do research. For a discussion of the many kinds of record repositories, see Obtain the Records.

However, since no library or archives has all possible records for your objective, you may need to use lists that best fit your research opportunities.

Experienced researchers who have used many different records will often be able to select a specific record based on past experience. However, use of a comprehensive list of records will help identify records that are often overlooked, forgotten or not previously available.

You can look for the record type you choose in the following sources.

FamilySearch Catalog[edit | edit source]

This lists and describes the records in the Family History Library—the largest collection of genealogical records in the world. It is the key to research in the library and its family history centers. If the records from your locality of interest have been microfilmed or digitized, the FamilySearch Catalog would usually be the most comprehensive list you could use to select the best records for your search.

The catalog, updated regularly, is on the Internet at FamilySearch Library Catalog. You may search the catalog by surname (for family histories), place (for record types), subject (such as Navajo Indians), or author or title (if known). The record types listed in Sources Useful to Genealogists are mostly the same as the headings used in the Place Search of the catalog.

For more information see the wiki article Introduction to the FamilySearch Catalog.

Other Library Catalogs[edit | edit source]

Become familiar with your local library catalog. Ask the librarian or archivist about their records.

Many catalogs are available on the Internet. Many public and some academic libraries belong to the public and some academic libraries belong to the WorldCat. This catalog will show each library with a particular record, and how far that library is from your zip code.

Many other library catalogs have been published and are in the reference collections of major libraries, such as catalogs for genealogies at local histories at:

FamilySearch Wiki articles for specific countries may help you identify other catalogs for major libraries. Check the most recent versions of catalogs, as libraries are continually adding to their collections.

The FamilySearch Catalog can be used to find descriptions of other libraries and their collections. Look in the Place Search, find the place and look for the topic Archives and Libraries. For example:

  • Ireland, Dublin, Dublin – Archives and Libraries
  • Pennsylvania, Philadelphia – Archives and Libraries

You may find a catalog or inventory from which you can select a record to search.

Internet Sites[edit | edit source]

The Internet has search engines and lists to help find and select genealogical records. Use one or more of the following search engines to find records with search phases like Moffett genealogy or New Orleans marriages or Hamburg passenger lists or Quebec census:

Here are some links to other valuable Internet resources:

Other Resources[edit | edit source]

Handbooks and Instructional Materials
Handbooks explain how to conduct research for a particular country or state. They usually describe records in or from that area. Handbooks often include lists of major records to consider when researching that area or topic. Significant handbooks are mentioned in FamilySearch Wiki articles for a country or state. Articles in periodicals also often describe records you may want to search.

These list books, articles, and sometimes original records about a subject. Many bibliographies are available that focus on sources for one or two record types within a locality such as Biography, History, or Military Records. An excellent example is P. William Filby, American and British Genealogy and Heraldry: A Selected List of Books, 3rd ed. (Boston: New England Historic Genealogical Society, 1983). At various libraries (WorldCat); FHL Ref Book 016.9291 F472a. Supplement, 1987. At various libraries (WorldCat); FHL Ref Book 016.9291 F472a 1982-1985 supp.. This bibliography and supplement list over 12,800 titles of published genealogical sources (primarily from the United States).

Book Catalogs
Bookseller catalogs usually identify published books the vendor is selling. Out of print books are seldom listed, except in specialty catalogs. Many English-language books are listed in Marian Hoffman, ed., Genealogical and Local History Books in Print: General Reference and World Resources, 5th ed. (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing, 1997). At various libraries (WorldCat); FHL Book 929.1016 H675g. Most of the sources you will use to select specific records to search can be found in genealogical libraries and repositories. You may also want to ask an experienced researcher or genealogical librarian for suggestions regarding possible records to search.

Most of the sources you will use to select specific records to search can be found in genealogical libraries and repositories. You may also want to ask an experienced researcher or genealogical librarian for suggestions regarding possible records to search.

Obtaining Record Lists
Major bibliographies, some publisher catalogs, and many instructional handbooks are also at most research libraries, and many public libraries.

Selection Criteria[edit | edit source]

To select a record, read its description and compare it to what you know or guess about the event you want to document. Make sure the record has the content (information, location, and time period) you need, and is available.

Record Content[edit | edit source]

Does the record have the kind of information you are looking for? If, for example, you need to find out about a marriage, does the record give marriage information?

The Sources Useful to Genealogists table puts each record type with those having similar information. If the type you choose is not available, choose a type from the same group.

Is the record from the place where you believe the event occurred? Are there other local jurisdictions that may have similar records that you should search? Did the boundaries of a jurisdiction change while or after your ancestor lived there? Did you ancestor move to nearby jurisdictions? Select records from every jurisdiction where the family lived and consider nearby jurisdictions. Sometimes you will need to do an area search (see Search Ranges).

Does the record cover the time period during which the event took place? Be sure to establish broad ranges of time to search (see Search Ranges).

Record Access[edit | edit source]

Accessing the Record
Is the record in a repository you can visit? Can you get a copy? Are you permitted to use the record?

Reading the Record
Are there skills or knowledge you need to read the record, such as (1)ability to read foreign languages, (2)ability to read old handwriting, or (3)knowledge of terms used? Remember that records are usually in the language of the country and many early records are in Latin.

Finding Information
Can you locate the information in the record? Do you have the information necessary to recognize the relative you are seeking? Will there be so many of that name (such as Smith) that you must know the first name? Will the search be too extensive if you don’t know a specific place? How many microfilms or volumes will you need to search if you don’t know the year? Before you select a record, determine if you may need the following:

  • an index
  • the ancestor’s given (first) name
  • the name of the county or town
  • a limited time period
  • more specific information about the ancestor’s religion, military service, or occupation

Interest, Inspiration, and Intuition[edit | edit source]

As you select a specific record, follow your best judgment. If you feel strongly interested or your intuition suggests a record not recommended by the strategy, then select that record.

Selecting More Than One Record[edit | edit source]

It is usually wise to select and search several records that could provide the answer to your research objective. The first record you select and search may not provide the information you seek.

Different genealogical sources often provide conflicting evidence of events or relationships. To resolve these discrepancies, it is necessary to locate more than one piece of evidence in support of any genealogical fact. In fact, the more pieces of acceptable evidence found, the more sure you can be of the fact. Where possible, strive to find multiple sources for every fact.

However, in doing this you may find discrepancies. For example, the sources may not agree on Uncle Harry’s birth date. You will then need to evaluate the information you find as explained in Step 5.

Jurisdictions[edit | edit source]

Most records you search have jurisdictional limitations. That is, they apply only to a certain geographic area and to certain events and/or families. For example, marriage records in the United States are usually recorded by each different county. Many different jurisdictions exercise authority over what records are created or kept about our ancestors. For example, in the United States, naturalization records were kept by the federal, state, city and county jurisdictions. You must know which jurisdictions kept the records you are seeking in order to select the best records.

Jurisdiction is "any authority over a certain area or certain persons."[1] In genealogy, jurisdiction is a critical topic because "to find a document pertaining to your ancestor, you must know the various legal jurisdictions that had legal authority over the place where your ancestor lived at the time the ancestor lived."[2] When researching jurisdictions, keep in mind the following:

  • Jurisdictions may have several levels. Large jurisdictions (such as churches or governments) may be divided into smaller ones: a nation is divided into states: a state into counties.
  • Geographical features' such as rivers, mountains, and lakes affect jurisdiction boundaries.
  • Jurisdictions overlap. People usually live in many overlapping jurisdictions at once, such as school, church, or town boundaries. (See image "Jurisdiction Overlap".)
  • Jurisdictions change over time. Today's boundaries may have changed many times since your ancestor lived there.
Jurisdictions Overlap

Each type of jurisdiction creates and keeps different types of records. Some of these types of jurisdictions include the following:

  • Governments. These are the most common jurisdictions. They often keep records of birth, marriage, death, land ownership, court decrees, military experience, population counts, taxes, and so forth. There are usually several levels, such as national, regional, district, local, and municipal. See Some Modern Government Jurisdictions.
  • Religious Organizations. Churches usually have a local jurisdiction, such as a parish, congregation, or ward. Several local groups usually belong to a conference, association, diocese, synod, or stake. Religious orders or fraternal groups may also have jurisdictions. They keep records of those events that are considered sacred or essential to their members' salvation, such as baptisms, christenings, and meeting minutes.
  • Families. This fundamental unit of society is usually informally organized into immediate, extended, or ancestral families. They keep family Bibles, journals, letters, and other records.
  • Business/Employment. Commercial companies, unions, and professional associations keep records of commerce, personnel, pensions, and so forth.
  • Institutions. Libraries, archives, and other repositories generally collect records for a specific jurisdiction, but also create some records such as catalogs or inventories. Other institutions such as hospitals, prisons, businesses and schools keep records of people they served.
  • Societies. Groups based on similar interests or goals (including ethnic, patriotic, fraternal, and genealogical societies) often keep valuable records and membership lists.

All records have a limited scope that defines their coverage. The scope is usually limited by time and geography with a topical consideration (such as a list of Union officers in the U.S. Civil War.) As you select specific records to search, you will need to learn the different jurisdictions that may have kept a record, and the scope of the records they kept.

You must know which jurisdictions kept the records
you are seeking in order to select the best records.

After selecting one or more record types that may contain the information you are seeking, consider which jurisdiction(s) are most likely to have kept those records. The FamilySearch Wiki articles for various states, provinces and countries can help you determine the most likely jurisdiction.

Learning the Area[edit | edit source]

As you select records to search, it is important to learn about the localities where the family lived. This includes learning the history and geography of the area you are interested in.

Area History
Without understanding the history of an area, you cannot fully understand your ancestor's life because "everything about your family history fits into a broader historical context."[3] You should seek out histories because "local, regional, and national histories can help a researcher understand the places where his ancestors lived and the changes that may have affected genealogical records."[4]

One professional genealogist commented, "Part of our research, and part of what makes genealogy interesting, concerns what was going on in the time and place of the ancestor under scrutiny. Geography and history (social, political, economic, military, even meteorological) helped shape the experiences of our ancestors and do much to shape our research. We need a basic knowledge of geography and history in order to understand what we find or do not find in our research."[5]

Most localities have had a history published about them, whether by the locality's government or by other historians. If you can't find information on the internet (Wikipedia is a good place to start), you can contact the locality's local library or historical society to see if they have available any historical resources.

Area Geography
When research the area's history, don't forget to look at the area's geography because "place is also essential to family history research. People lived, worked, and played in places. Throughout history they migrated from place to place, building trails of homelands and multiple place-bound identities. While the primary focus of genealogy and family history is people, the importance of ancestral connections to place is unmistakable."[6] Don't forget that "the geographic dimension of an ancestor’s life fleshes out the names, dates, and places listed on pedigree lineage forms or family group sheets."[7]

One professional genealogist noted, "Genealogy is a geographically driven subject. There’s no question that history and historical events are important to tracing family trees; those names and dates are vital. But let’s face facts: Records are made and kept by location. That makes geography as important if not more important than history to the genealogist."[8]

The best way to quickly learn an area's geography is to reference a map. About maps, one professional genealogist wrote, "Maps are a necessity in our genealogical research. They help us locate landmarks, waterways, roads and streets, towns, cities, counties, parishes, states, provinces, territories, countries, oceans, continents, islands, and more.…They provide a visual representation of the geographic spatial relationships between physical locations, and can help us place our ancestors’ physical location into perspective."[9] If you can't find information on the internet (Google Maps is a good place to start for current boundaries, and Old Maps Online is a good place to start for historical maps), you can again contact the locality's local library or historical society to see if they have available any maps.

Some Modern Government Jurisdictions[edit | edit source]

Here are some examples of modern government jurisdictions.

Nation Region District Subdistrict Municipality
Canada Provice County (Township)* Town or City
England County or Shire (Hundred)* Town or City
France Departement Arrondissement Canton Commune
Germany Staat or Land Bezirk Kreis Stadt or Dorf
Italy Regione Provincia Comune Frazione
Ireland Province County Civil Parish Town or City
Polan Wojewodztwo Powiat Gmina Wies
Russia Oblast Uyezd Raion Gorod or Derevnia
United States State County Township Town or City

*May not be present in all localities.

References[edit | edit source]

  1. West's Encyclopedia of American Law (2011), quoted at (accessed December 17, 2013).
  2. James Tanner, "The Question of Jurisdiction," Genealogy's Star, 17 August 2013 (accessed 17 December 2013).
  3. Katherine Scott Sturdevant, Bringing Your Family History to Life through Social History (Cincinnati, Ohio: Betterway Books, 2000), 198.
  4. Loretta Evans, "Jurisdictions: Who Created the Record?," Becoming an Excellent Genealogist: Essays on Professional Research Skills (ICAPGen, 2012), 152.
  5. Emily Anne Croom, The Sleuth Book for Genealogists: Strategies for More Successful Family History Research (Cincinnati, Ohio: Betterway Books, 2000), 71.
  6. Dallen J. Timothy and Keanne Kay Guelke, "Conclusion: Personal Perspectives," Geography and Genealogy: Locating Personal Pasts, ed. Dallen J. Timothy and Jeanne Kay Guelke (Great Britain: Ashgate, 2008), 175.
  7. Melinda Kashuba, "The Unfolding Tale of Using Maps in Genealogical Research," Geography and Genealogy: Locating Personal Pasts, ed. Dallen J. Timothy and Jeanne Kay Guelke (Great Britain: Ashgate, 2008), 39.
  8. Melinda Kashuba, Walking With Your Ancestors: A Genealogist’s Guide to Using Maps and Geography (Cincinnati, Ohio: Family Tree Books, 2005), 2.
  9. George G. Morgan, How to Do Everything: Genealogy, Second Edition (McGraw Hill, 2009), 81.