From time to time I get a question about finding a birth certificate. Many people just assume that birth certificates are a fact of life and have always existed. They are usually surprised when I start telling them about the limitations on all kinds of government based personal records. In a state like Arizona, birth certificates were not required state-wide until July 1909 and did not become common until some time after that. Compulsory registration of births by governmental agencies was first done in the United Kingdom in 1853 but the UK General Register Office has some certificates for births, marriages and deaths going back to 1837.
Although birth certificates did not exist, many governments recorded births, marriages and deaths. In America, Massachusetts mandated birth records beginning in 1841 however earlier records are in existence dating back to 1700. Obviously, church records concerning births, marriages and deaths go back much further. Obviously, investigation of the records becomes much more difficult than simply ordering a copy of a birth certificate. Even though there are some printed compiled records for Massachusetts and other New England states, verifying the original copy at the town clerk’s office is extremely important since the bound books are secondary sources and therefore subject to errors in transcription or omission from the original unless you can find a copy of the town clerk's records on microfilm or scanned online. See Massachusetts Vital Records.
For each type of record there is an absolute time depth. This is especially true of all books. The earliest printed book is the Diamond Sutra scroll, the Jin gang ban ruo bo luo mi jing. This is a copy of the Sanskrit Vajracchedika-prajnaparamitasutra, translated into Chinese by Kumarajiva, printed by Wang Jie in May 868, and discovered in 1907 by Sir M. Aurel Stein at the Dunhuang Caves. See Encyclopedia Britannica Blog. In Japanese the earliest woodblock book is the Busseltsu kokkuji jinshu ogyo printedin 1052.
Our Western tradition of printing dates much later, the first printed book is the Biblia Latina [42-line Gutenberg Bible] (Mainz, Germany: Johann Gutenberg, 1454). An estimated 180 copies, 140 on paper and 40 on vellum, of the first printed Bible were manufactured in Mainz. Today, 49 complete and incomplete Gutenberg Bibles are known to exist worldwide, of which only 12 are printed on vellum. The four complete vellum copies are located in the State and University Library of Lower Saxony in Göttingen, the British Library, the Bibliothèque Nationale, and the Library of Congress. Encyclopedia Britannica.
Through the Early European Books project, ProQuest is building an increasingly comprehensive survey of printing in Europe to 1700 by digitizing and bringing together the holdings of major rare book libraries. Scanning on-site at each library, the books are captured in vivid detail.
I have written many times now that I find many genealogists who are totally unaware of the historical limitations of the records they are seeking. For any given type of record, there is a definite physical limit as to availability. Don't look for printed books in Europe before Gutenberg, don't look for birth certificates in Arizona before 1909.