I have often written about the importance of knowing what records are available for each time and place. What exactly does that mean? As genealogical researchers, we search for specific people in exact places during a precise time period. In order to accomplish that goal, it is necessary to identify the records that were created for a particular place where an ancestor lived during the specific time period when the ancestor lived in that place.
The first step is to find what records are available. Information about records is usually found by searching for the geographic area. Records could have been kept at the town, county, state, or country level. Some records used for genealogical research, like marriage records, are available almost everywhere. Others, like state census records, are only available for specific areas during a specific year.
The next thing is to find what year the records started and when they stop. Some records may have survived, while others may have been lost or destroyed.
The final step is to locate where the records are stored. Records do not always remain in the area where they were created, some are transferred to state and regional archives. For example, older probate records for many Colorado counties are stored at the Colorado State Archives, not the county courthouse as might be expected. It is also necessary to learn about boundaries changes that took place over time and consider these changes when looking for records.
There are two reference books that are helpful when trying to determine what records are available and where to find them. The Handybook for Genealogists: United States of America, (Everton Publishers) is a collection of maps, addresses and record information organized by state and county. County information includes the date records were created, parent county, map index number and a list of government offices with the records they hold. Red book: American State, County, and Town Sources by Alice Eichholz is organized alphabetically by state, with a list of the counties, date created and information about the records. Each state chapter is arranged by topic, vital records, land records, etc.
Many genealogy research guides have been written about individual towns, counties, states, regions and countries. These guides might be published as a book, informational sheets or posted online. They contain valuable information that will help determine what records are available for specific places and where those records can be found.
Start by checking for the smallest local area possible, such as a town or county. In general, these guides will have the small details that are the most useful. For example, A Guide to Genealogical Resources in Cincinnati & Hamilton County, Ohio compiled by Connie Terheiden and Kenny Burck has helped me with my research for years.
Many state guides also are available. A resource for some of these is the National Genealogical Society's Research in the States series. Regional guides provide additional guidance in locating records. In addition, guides have been published for most major counties. These might only supply general information, but are worth checking.
There also are guides posted online. Many contain useful information but may not be comprehensive. They include the USGenWeb sites, FamilySearch Wiki, genealogy pages of local and state libraries and many sites maintained by individuals. For a list of online sites go to CyndisList.com, then to the geographic area listing. In addition to the wiki, FamilySearch also has search guides for many areas at www.familysearch.org/ (click on Research Helps).
How do you find these guides?
Check your local library and libraries close to the geographic area of interest.
WorldCat (www.worldcat.org) is a great resource for finding books.
The Family History Library Catalog often has hard to find and out of print publications. The library does not loan books to Family History Centers as it does microfilm, but the book might have been microfilmed. Even if it isn't possible to get the book from the Family History Library, the title and author found listed in the catalog can be searched for elsewhere.
Genealogical and Historical Societies in the area of interest. Some societies have created guides for use in their library or for their members.
Reference librarians and archivists are an often overlooking resource. Try your local librarian for help or call or email the librarian at the library in the geographic area you are researching.
USGenWeb state and county Web sites are a good place to look for the names of little- known books that were published locally.
Search Internet search engines for the place name and genealogy as search words. Try several search engines, don't just use Google.