Interpreting Genealogical Sources (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 Sources[edit | edit source]

How often have we seen someone rush into the genealogical source material, struggle and then perhaps give up, when by using some common and readily available reference material the problem could be solved? Val Greenwood, in his classic Researcher’s Guide to American Genealogy, sums it up in this phrase. “One of the main differences between a good researcher and a poor one is his knowledge of, and ability to correctly use, critical reference works.”

For productive research one should first thoroughly familiarize oneself with these different kinds of reference materials which can be grouped into two main kinds, those providing background information, and finding aids.

Background Information[edit | edit source]

These are the tools that one needs to learn how to use before accessing the records themselves. They help you to understand why records were kept, how they were organized and how to access them efficiently.

Geographical Tools[edit | edit source]

Atlases, maps, gazetteers, older city and county directories and modern postal directories. Specialized local sources such as local histories and books showing place name changes and boundary changes are also very useful.

When beginning a search you need to know a place to start in. For ecclesiastical records you need to find out if it is a parish, and if not, what parish it is in by means of a gazetteer. This will lead you to the appropriate parish records of various kinds. Next you need to know which civil jurisdictions this place belonged to, for example which Registration District, Probate Jurisdiction, Census District, Poor Law Union, Township, Townland, etc. so that all relevant records may be accessed.

Historical Tools[edit | edit source]

History books, both national and local, and historical encyclopaedias and dictionaries.

Methodology Tools[edit | edit source]

Texts, handbooks and manuals of general genealogy and family history as well as on specialized topics such as national, ethnic, religious and occupational sources. Language dictionaries and Family History Society journals are also valuable.

Family Tools[edit | edit source]

These include research directories for current research, family histories, pedigrees, biographical dictionaries and encyclopaedias, biographies, ethnic background, surname origins and distribution, One-Name Studies and Family History Society journals. Many of these reference sources contain information from more than one of the above categories and it is wise to know what you are looking for and to assess what types of information are contained in the tool you are looking at.

Finding Aids[edit | edit source]

Finding aids show you where specific information can be found. They include bibliographies, directories of newspapers and periodicals, archives holdings lists, library catalogues, lists of societies and their holdings, telephone and city directories and lists of sources for an area, religion, or occupation.

Indexes are great finding aids and it is wise to know how to find and use indexes to periodicals, (such as PERSI), biographies, published family histories and pedigrees, current researchers, passenger lists, and so many more. Indexes to original sources are becoming increasingly available and many of us participate in creating them for the good of the community. An index does not substitute for the original source but acts as a finding aid, saving valuable time and effort. You cannot create a proven pedigree from an index. When you use one you need to understand why it was made, what it contains, and what wasnot included. Good indexes always have instructions or explanatory prefaces giving this information. Good researchers always read them!

Genealogical Sources[edit | edit source]

Nowadays we differentiate between original sources and derivative sources. Each of these can contain both primary and secondary information.

Original Sources[edit | edit source]

An original source could be a first recording such as a parish register, an illustration, an artefact, or a microform, photocopy or photograph of these, or an oral source.

Derivative Sources[edit | edit source]

Written sources can also appear as transcripts, translations, abstracts, extracts, and indexes. A compiled record, such as a family history or genealogy book or website, is another derivative source produced by copying from a number of original and/or derivative sources. All derivative sources are less acceptable because errors could have occurred in their production.

Ignoring background information and knowledge about reference materials and indexes is a sin equal to working only from derivative sources and ignoring original ones. If you want to get anywhere you need to use the two together—first the background reference tools then the original sources.


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.