Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Monday, April 28, 2014

Where do I look next? The perennial genealogical question.

Very early in my genealogical journey in life, I was given a single sheet of paper called a Source Checklist. A have since run across a number of different such checklists over the years. Currently, you can find one version of this in the FamilySearch Research Wiki called a United States Record Selection Table. Here is link to another form, similar to the one I was given years ago. This one is from the Haywood County Historical and Genealogical Society. Here is another, much more complete, list. This one is from the Puget Sound Genealogical Society.

The existence of these types of lists presuppose that the researcher knows where to go to obtain the types of records listed. The lists suggest record types with no explanation. The Record Selection Table in the Research Wiki has entries linked to articles on each of the suggested record types, thereby giving the explanation missing from the other source lists. For example, you may see something such as these topics:

  • Vital Records
  • Newspapers
  • School Records
  • Employment Records
  • Etc.

But without the further explanations and links in the Research Wiki, you may have no idea where to go to find such records. Also, no one repository could possibly have even a big percentage of the longer lists of sources.

I will refer to this as the "missing link" in genealogical research. Let's suppose you have a missing ancestor in the mid-1800s in Virginia. Where would you go to find school records? What about directories? Would you even know whether or not such records exist at the time and place your ancestor lived? The missing link is first recognizing that there are additional types of sources that may help in your research and then knowing how to go about finding those types of records.

The main purpose for having such a list is to open up possibilities. Many times I find myself following well rutted research trails and ignoring all the less traveled paths leading off into the wilderness of genealogy. But I find myself coming back again and again to the Research Wiki and books such as The Source and other such publications that give me a start on a less used trails.

The huge online genealogical database programs give users the impression that they are searching millions and millions of records, with the implication that the records you are searching for are there and available. Let me give you an example of the type of record not usually found in any easily obtainable online genealogy program.

From time to time, as I work on adding content to the FamilySearch Research Wiki, I find whole categories of records that have yet to be added to the database. Recently, I have been starting to add information about United States Water Records and a similar page for each of the states. Once you have thought of this type of record, it becomes obvious that it is missing. As you analyze the value of such records, you realize that they contain valuable genealogical information. In saying this, I think we all need to expand what is included in our personal definition of genealogically valuable records. In my view, any record that locates an ancestor in a particular place at a particular time is valuable.

I find that few genealogical researchers know about or use these types of records, I also find that many types of records seldom come up in any genealogical classes or discussions. When I have proposed teaching a class or doing a presentation on some of the lesser used types of, let's call them "obscure," records, I have been turned down. Conference organizers do not wish to risk have a small "poorly attended" class, so they stick with the main stream topics. For example, my next research topic for the Research Wiki is Livestock Brands. When was the last time you heard of a class on that subject in a genealogy conference. Do you think there will be a class on Livestock Brands at next year's RootsTech or FGS Conference?

By the way, as the Research Wiki contributors spend more time and effort on the program, it continues to become more and more valuable as a finding aid and in effect, becomes a super source checklist and unlike the single sheet of paper list, it gives the places to go to find the record types. As usual, my suggestions are that we expand the way we look at genealogy to include the types of records and sources that exist but are often overlooked.


  1. I have to say it is a shame that there are conference organizers saying they don't want to risk a small class on a niche topic. I think there are a growing number of people out there for these advanced genealogy topics, where we've already looked at all the major sources (census, family bible, family, vital records, etc.) and are seeking the "other" out there.

    We often have the same time in the fiber arts world - conference organizers will happily do billions of classes for the beginner, but if you want to learn about say, Portuguese colorwork knitting, you're never going to find a live class and have to rely solely on the Internet for resources.

    My sincere hope for the development of democratized video tools like Google Hangouts, and other tools like MOOCs is that these sort of small, specialized classes can find a small, inexpensive (maybe even free) place on line to distribute the information and expertise that a teacher can provide.

    1. That is exactly one of the reasons I have been trying to find a video collaborator; to produce specialized videos on specific genealogy topics. Thanks for the comment. I will keep looking.

  2. Not sure whether the new Find-A-Record could help but maybe someone could come up with Find-An-Obscure-Record?! These are the kinds of things that can really fill out an ancestor's story

    1. Unless you consider FamilySearch and to be obscure, I don't think Find-A-Record will help you. But I am writing a post on the obscure records. Stay tuned.