(This post is the first in a multi-part series about the different places you can find records.)
I teach an online genealogy class for BYU-Idaho. I grade a lot of genealogy research papers. One thing that new students often write in their research papers is the phrase, “all the records were searched, but nothing was found,” or “the record does not exist.” I realize for a beginner, this is an automatic assumption. The students are writing this without really thinking about it. But if you actually do stop to think about it, there is a very good chance that no, you did not search all the records, and yes, the record does exist, you just haven’t found it yet.
Sometimes the record isn’t located where you expect it to be and you have to dig deeper. Sometimes the record really doesn’t exist, but you may be able to obtain the same information from other records. Beginners tend to make the mistake of assuming that if they don’t find the information they need in one place, it must not exist anywhere. You must open your mind, broaden your view, and think about the other places that record may be located. This is not easy to do at the beginning, but with more knowledge and experience you will begin to recognize the other records that are available.
The following is a list categorizing the places where records may be located. The Internet is just the tip of the iceberg! Many records are still locked away in archives, recorded on paper. And yet, this is changing rapidly. It is amazing how many previously inaccessible records are coming online every day. If you can’t find it now, check again in a few weeks, and it might be there. Some examples of this are included in this list.
Searchable Records Accessible on the Internet
This is the one you probably know already. You run a search on FamilySearch or Ancestry and find a record. However, even within this category you must broaden your perspecitve. As large and amazing as FamilySearch is, it does not contain all of the records that exist. Other websites that have searchable databases include MyHeritage, Findmypast, American Ancestors, Find A Grave, and several other locations. Even Google can sometimes help you find searchable records you did not know about, such as those posted on GenWeb pages or someone’s personal family history website.
Unindexed Records on the Internet
Many users of FamilySearch and Ancestry do not realize that there are thousands of records available on those websites that have not been indexed. If the record is not indexed, it will not show up in your search results. You must deliberately seek it out. To find these databases on any website, you need to start looking for a list of all the databases or record sets available on that site. Usually you can narrow it down to where and when your ancestor would have lived, then narrow it down further to the specific record type that should have the information you want. At that point, you must click through one page at a time to find the desired record. Please see my Genealogy Education Playlist for videos created by other genealogists that show step-by-step how to do this on the various websites.
Records Located in an Archive, Library, or Other Repository
There are many libraries and archives that contain historical records or manuscripts of genealogical value, but these records have not been digitized or indexed. Information about these records may be listed in the library’s catalog, which is often accessible online. Sometimes there is a searchable index that can only be accessed onsite. Sometimes you can order a copy of the original record once you find it in the online index. This is especially true for birth, marriage, and death certificates from county archives.
Sometimes there is information about the record in a catalog, but it contains very little information. One example of this is a collection of 14th-19th century British manuscripts located in the L. Tom Perry Special Collections at the Brigham Young University Library. The description of these records in the online catalog reads: “Handwritten land indentures on parchment. The materials relate to the sale and ownership of land in England before 1600.” Nothing in the catalog entry suggests it, but these records contain names, dates, and relationships that may be of genealogical value. The only way to know for sure what they contain is to go to the archive and look at them. Thankfully, Professor Amy Harris and her students in the English Paleography class at BYU have been transcribing these records and making them available online. They can be found here.
Sometimes there is no information on the Internet about what records a repository has. In this case, you may need to contact the repository by phone or email to ask them if they have the specific kind of records you are looking for. Asking questions can bring you a lot of information! Also keep in mind that records are not just kept in libraries and county courthouses. Businesses, hospitals, funeral homes, railroad companies, churches, fraternities and other organizations create and store records that may be of value to your research.
In the next Installment of this series, we will talk about records held by families and other records that are more difficult to find.