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A common question that any researcher asks themselves is, "What records are available?" How can that question be easily answered for a particular locale and time period? I know that I could inspect the catalogs of the major websites with online collections, but what about records that aren't digitized or microfilmed but are sitting in a government archives or church?

  • I would love to get my hands on a marriage record for Elias Yurkiewicz and Jennie Zuk. FamilySearch has images of church records for the village where they were living when they got married (and microfilm), but they don't include marriage records for the relevant time period. How do I know if the marriage records exist anywhere else?

  • In the most recent episode of Who Do You Think You Are, court records are searched to shed light on a likely divorce. If I ran into a similar situation, how would I know whether court records are available and where to find them?

  • When I don't have any luck with the normal census and BMD records that are commonly available for some areas, I always wonder if any land or probate records exist.

  • Digital State Archives seems like a great resource, but it's limited to state archives in the US. What about local US archives or non-US archives?

  • Genealogy Bank has a vast collection of newspapers, but they're limited to the US and they don't have everything. How can I know if a local archive has copies of old newspapers for the place I'm interested in? fultonhistory.com has digitized many old newspapers from upstate New York. How can I know if some other obscure website covers a different town I'm interested in?

Each time the "What records are available?" question is asked, the process for finding an answer appears to be different. Does it have to be that way? Is there one generic process a researcher can follow to figure out what records are available for a particular place and time?

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    This is an much-too-broad question -- can you narrow it down to a particular geography (where you're searching from and where you're searching for)? Otherwise there's going to be a different answer for every pair of places -- if you're searching the UK for UK records, it's very different to searching in the US for Central European records, or the UK for US records, for example. – user104 Aug 2 '13 at 8:31
  • @ColeValleyGirl I think you and others have misinterpreted the question. I'm not asking for different answers for UK, US, Ukraine, and other places. I'm asking if there is one process that applies to everywhere. – user47 Aug 2 '13 at 14:37
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    I understand what you're looking for, but the answer varies by place (both the place you're in and the place you're researching). There isn't a single process because of the geographic differences. So: either it's too broad or the answer is very simply: No. – user104 Aug 2 '13 at 14:49
  • @ColeValleyGirl The latter. – user47 Aug 2 '13 at 15:02
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For me, the answer to the question "Is there one generic process a researcher can follow to figure out what records are available for a particular place and time?" starts with a review of history, including learning what laws existed in that time and place which required people to keep records.

My checklist looks like this:

  1. Learn what records might have been created in a particular time and place.
  2. Research which of those records might still exist, and which records are accessible to the public (not subject to privacy restrictions).
  3. Research what repositories might hold those records.
  4. Research which online repositories might hold those records.

The original question started from #4 and asked #3, thus the previous answers have addressed that issue. But if you don't establish a timeline first for what records were taken, you can spend a lot of time looking for things that never existed, or didn't survive. So for any given place, before you look for census records, it helps to know the answer to the general question of when the census was taken. There's no point in looking for a nationwide 1831 Census of England and Wales, or a 1780 US Federal Census.

Researching the first question in an area's archives will usually reveal the answers to the second question (e.g. that the Population Schedules from the 1890 US Federal Census were destroyed by fire and very few schedules remain). But if you don't ask, you can spend a lot of time wondering why you can't find the records you are looking for, when the answer is "they never existed" or "they existed but they don't survive".

The process of answering questions one and two will also differ for each time and place, just as they do for question three, and there is no simple answer unless you say "ask an expert". National Archives, and State and Local Archives, can be a great place to start; check ArchiveGrid for holdings.

For finding aids and reference guides, the US National Archives (NARA) has Prologue Magazine, with in-depth articles; their articles posted online about US Naturalization records are superb. For general knowledge about the UK, there is Herber's book Ancestral Trails; there are also many research guides at The National Archives (TNA).

Researching what newspapers were published can also turn up the answer of where you might find the newspapers offline -- for the USA, try the US Newspaper Directory, 1690 - Present at the Library of Congress' website, part of their historic American newspapers project Chronicling America.

But to me, if you have reached the point where you have exhausted the available online resources, and you haven't already established the larger context, it helps to stop a moment and review the history of the area you are researching. For the US, it helps to know when the town was established, when the county was created, what the previous towns and counties were, the year of statehood, and so on. Explore the terrain if you haven't done so already -- for marriage records especially, couples might have married in the next county over, if the county seat was easier to travel to.

Perhaps you have already thought about all those things; if so, I apologize for pointing out the obvious. But I think it needs to be repeated, because online services can give the impression that they cover more ground than they actually do, and sometimes the reason why you can't find things is that the newspaper wasn't published that year, or the records existed but don't survive. Starting with the question "what might exist" gives you a fresh perspective.

One strategy I use to find records I didn't know about is to read case histories from other genealogists. I see what records they use in their searches, then I ask if equivalent records might exist for the time and place I am working in. Search WorldCat, JSTOR, and other library catalogs for genealogical periodicals and books, to find prior research in a geographical area. Read the bibliographies and source lists for clues to what might be available. My other finding strategy is simple: whenever I ask "do you have X" and someone says "No, we don't have that." I follow up by asking "If you were looking for X, where would you look? Who else might know?"

My generic process for finding records for a particular time and place is not unlike what I would do when finding information about a person. Start with what you know, and work outwards from there. Break the big question down into smaller pieces, and try to answer the smaller ones. And if I can't find something, my #1 strategy is to look for something else, because I often find things when I wasn't looking for them directly.


Resources for looking up the original statutes:

To see an example of how a skilled researcher applies knowledge of the law to the analysis of a particular record group, see the post “Liable for training” from Judy G. Russell on her blog The Legal Genealogist. She answers a "how old did he have to be" question from a reader about the United States' WWII Draft Registration Cards, including a timeline of the seven different registrations, and links to the statutes consulted for the answer.

Whatever locality or subject you're looking for, it helps tremendously to look for finding aids or research guides written by others who are already familiar with the place and topic.

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    Welcome to Genealogy.StackExchange, Jan. Great to see you here! – user104 Nov 20 '13 at 16:45
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Edited to be more general and directly related to the question

Because different classes of records are available in different places, there is probably not a single common process for every geographical location, and the steps you take will therefore differ. However, a general process would be:

  1. Search what is available on the major genealogical sites via their own catalogs.
  2. Look for national libraries or archives. Many are digitising their collections, and/or have online catalogs for things that are not online.
  3. Look for state/county libraries and archives. They also often have online catalogs.
  4. Search for genealogical sites that collect together links to information specific to the geographical area of interest
  5. Ask for advice from an expert, e.g. here on G&FH.SE
  6. As a last resort, just Google around for the area of interest plus the word "genealogy"

1. Search the Catalogs of the Major Genealogical Sites

Any decent free or subscriber genealogy site maintains a catalog of all its sources, with an indication of what has been updated or added recently. It is far from being all-US in origin.

2. Search for Online Catalogs of National Archives

Most countries in Europe have national libraries or archives and many of them have online catalogs.

Wikipedia maintains a list of web sites of national archives for almost every country in the world.

It is worth remembering that even if documents have not been digitized, the catalog itself might well have been, so you can find out a lot about what is available even if you can't view the records online.

3. Search for State/County and Local Archives

Not all archives are national. Many county or state archives have useful information. For example, although Ancestry.com is building up relationships with county archives in England, many other records not available on Ancestry.com are catalogued in the online catalogs of those archives.

4. Search other Genealogical Sites for Link collections

In addition to official archives, most regions of Europe have source websites that collect together useful resources.

For the UK and Ireland, Genuki has a lot of information about what is available elsewhere.

For Scotland, the first place to look is ScotlandsPeople.

For the Isle of Man, the Manx Notebook is the most comprehensive collection of genealogical and related information. The Isle of Man archive is also available online and searchable.

More generally, Cyndi’s List seems to be the most comprehensive collection of links to other genealogical resources.

5. Ask an Expert

In addition to G&FS.SE, there are local and national genealogy/family history societies that may hold additional sources, or be able to advise where they might be found. For example in the UK there is the Society of Genealogists and the Federation of Family History Societies.

6. As a last resort, ask Google

I do not know much about Continental European (i.e. non-British) resources, but it appears that Googling on the country concerned plus "genealogy" brings up useful sites. For example:

  • It would be possible, but time-consuming, to add links to all the different online catalogs available. Please indicate by voting up this comment if you think this is worthwhile. – Verbeia Aug 2 '13 at 11:09
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    I wonder if trying to make a curated list of all locations is making a rod for our own backs? – user104 Aug 2 '13 at 12:37
  • It would be. That's why I took the Wikipedia shortcut for national archives. But there might be some merit in a restricted set of links, like county archives in England and/or German Landesarchivs. And it doesn't have to get done all at once. See the enormous curated list of examples of good Mathematica programming practice on Mathematica.SE, constructed over many months. – Verbeia Aug 2 '13 at 13:28
  • Might work if we had one answer per country... except we can't tag answers of course, so they won't get categorised well. Want to move the discussion to chat or meta? This could get long. – user104 Aug 2 '13 at 13:47
  • Thank you for your work. I would like to propose to rank national archives on the end of this lists. You should start on a local level (archive of cities, rural districts, churces). Most records concerning individuals and their property are kept there. If not, they can usually tell you where to look instead. Other way round it can be frustrating for both parties. – lejonet Aug 4 '13 at 14:35
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In my view there seems to be a genealogical divide between the US and parts of Europe:

I rarely discover information regarding my ancestors on the internet.

When I look into American genealogy books, magazines or blogs, it seems to be mostly about looking into the right database to find census or other digitalized information. The FamilySearch family trees are build around this approach: Find a digitalized document from a database, attach it as a source to your claim.

The town where your ancestors were married belonged to Austria. Genealogy outside Austria’s mainland is difficult since there have been a lot of territorial changes over the centuries, schedules of responsibilities changed, records were scattered and destroyed, new countries emerged.

Each time the "What records are available?" question is asked, the process for finding an answer appears to be different. Does it have to be that way?

Here it always has been this way and whenever it can be frustrating: For me, it’s part of this fascinating scavenger hunt. There is no simple approach to this continent’s rich and sometimes disturbing cultural heritage, but often writing a mail to a local archive or calling the local church will result in success and open up new research possibilities. If the researcher is lucky, he can put his hands on a book that is 500 years old and contains centuries of family history, with the priest helping him to decipher entries of his predecessor.

Finding nothing on the internet is not where genealogy stops for me, it’s where it begins. So this answer might not be a general solution or a hint to an universal database unknown to you, but maybe a different perspective on the realms of genealogy in Europe.

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    "Finding nothing on the internet is not where genealogy stops for me, it’s where it begins." YES! - can we make some paraphrase of this the official motto of Genealogy SE, please? – cleaverkin Aug 9 '13 at 2:48
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Find-A-Record retired the record search feature which renders this answer obsolete.


I believe that this issue is one of the reasons why genealogy is not more popular. It takes dedication to learn the correct research process for each locale your ancestors lived in.

Because I have a passion for making genealogy easier for everyone and because I believe this problem can be solved in a universal fashion, I joined with a friend to create Find-A-Record.

The idea is very basic:

  • Maintain a database of all genealogical record collections known to exist and geocode them
  • Each collection also contains information about how to access the records
  • Make the database searchable by area on a map

So when you're researching an obscure town on the other side of the world, your need for local domain knowledge is greatly diminished. All you really need to know is where the place is located on a map and then we can tell you what records are available and how to access them.

Find-A-Record is in it's early stages (limited data, still iterating on the experience) so it remains to be seen if this simple solution can work for all areas of the world. Certainly there will be challenges in acquiring data; we will never be able to claim that we have a "complete" database. But I think this solution goes a long way towards solving the problem.

  • Interesting. I searched for my husband's family in South Devon and one of the hits I got was "West Yorkshire, England, Births and Baptisms, 1813-1910" and other places that seem wildly out of range. The map worked correctly, however, and the UI is pleasant. Would be willing to discuss at further length in a chat room. But I would find this far more useful for the US, which doesn't have a centralized site like GENUKI. Doing this for the UK is rather like reinventing the wheel. – Jan Murphy Feb 2 '14 at 0:14
  • The Ancestry Insider blogs about Find-a-Record: ancestryinsider.org/2014/06/… and again: ancestryinsider.org/2014/06/find-record-location-search.html – Jan Murphy Jun 11 '14 at 20:31
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Another option may be to check whether there is already a one place study underway for your location of interest which you may be able to benefit from and/or contribute to.

For example, the Society for One-Place Studies:

There are many individuals, societies and groups across the globe researching the people of a community within the context of the place they live. The vision of this Society is to bring together those like-minded people and provide a platform for members to share good practice, ideas and methodology in one place, as well as promote the research being undertaken on their study area.

...

The Society welcomes members from around the world with an interest in one particular place, whether it is a street, village, hamlet or town. Registering a study area (or areas) is optional, though recommended if members are active in their research.

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