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I'm Jennifer, and I'm an Occasional Genealogist... sort of. For over ten years I've been a professional genealogist. I started researching my own family nearly 30 years ago. Like many of you, I started as an Occasional Genealogist. I had to squeeze research in while in school and while working full-time. Then I got my first genealogy job and for awhile, it was genealogy all the time. Now I have two kids. I do other people's genealogy constantly but my own? Coming up with ways to do great genealogy, despite all the interruptions, is now mandatory.

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Genealogy Records : 4 Ways to Learn About New Sources

This post is just a quick add-on to my post about identifying new sources when you hit a genealogy brick wall. It covers four ways to try and identify new sources, specifically when you are stuck on a tough genealogy problem.

  • by repository
  • by location
  • by record type
  • by time period

You can learn about my recommended way to identify new sources for a brick wall in this post.


The companion post to this one talks about focusing on repositories you can access soon. Check out that post for further details.

You can also learn about sources held by relevant repositories, especially physical repositories. You usually focus on a repository for the relevant location (like a state archive) or a repository for a topic relevant to your person of interest (like a religious archive, occupational archive, library for a fraternal organization, a university library or archive, etc.). Choosing the repository by its relevance to your research topic is just a variation on focusing on a repository you can access soon.


You absolutely must learn about the records created for the location where you are researching. You might be missing “the answer” because you didn’t learn about a record commonly created in that location. This is always true but focusing on a location is one of the most basic tenants of genealogy research.

Every person you research will have multiple relevant locations, even if they only ever lived in one place and never left. In the U.S. you will have the country (“federal records”) as well as the state (or territory before statehood), and county (or parish in Louisiana). You might instead or also have a city or town or religious parish. It’s vital to learn what types of jurisdictions controlled the events that could happen during a person’s life. These can vary dramatically from one location to the other which is why focusing on locations, and learning about specific ones, is so important in genealogy.

If you are just getting started using FamilySearch.org, use the catalog to browse to records for the locations your person lived in. Also checkout the Wiki entry for the primary jurisdiction they lived under (i.e. the location that created the most records for them. For 19th century Americans, this is usually a county, unless they lived in a place where town records were predominant. It could be a territory or even the U.S.). 

Records will be found under the location where they were created so most records (for U.S. research) are NOT found under the U.S., they are under the county or town with some for the state. Where my ancestors lived in Georgia, there are no town records (there are town records in Georgia, just not where my ancestors lived). However, there are private records listed under the town on FamilySearch. These are often church records but they can be all sorts of things. It’s easy to browse the FamilySearch catalog to learn about various options. This is a simple, free place to start!

Record Type

As a genealogist, you need to learn about types of records and what information they might contain. Record types can be marriage records or the broader church records. It could be wills, the broader probate records, or the even broader court records. By learning about what kind of information different types of records contain, you will have an idea what potential records could provide clues (or even the answer) to your specific brick wall. 

Example: If you want to find a date of birth, birth records aren't the only choice. Vital records (birth, marriage, and death), aren't your only choice. There are religious, school, occupational, military, fraternal, etc., etc. records that could all potentially provide the answer of a birth date. It's unlikely all of these exist for your person or that all of them provide an answer. They all potentially provide clues, just as census records might provide a clue. Genealogists need to know which sources are most likely to provide an answer and then which are most likely to provide the best clues (but you keep checking anything you think might provide a clue if you haven't solved your problem. Don't stop at "most likely to provide an answer" and give up when that doesn't work).

Thinking by record type is similar to thinking by location. Your ancestor lived in a country but they probably had a local jurisdiction that created records about them, too. You have to identify the various larger and smaller locations that are relevant and it’s similar with types of records.

There are birth and death records, but these are grouped together as “vital records.” Vital records aren’t the same as religious records which might be the very similar baptism and burial records. Burial records might be religious or they might be private or civil (the burial was overseen by the town or other civil location or only by the private cemetery or funeral home).

Thinking about sources by record type is a variation on thinking about what information you want. When you’re stuck, you presumably started thinking that way (“I need to find his birth date. Where can I find that?”). You’d probably think “where’s his birth certificate?” but when you think by record type, you can think about birth records, baptisms, etc. or you can think “what vital records exist for this time and place?” or “are there religious records” or “did I check court records?”

Once you learn about what types of genealogy records exist, this becomes much easier. But trying to think by record type can also be a way to gain that knowledge. You won't have the information about what record type has that information but you will have questions and seeking answers to those questions will lead to gaining knowledge about record types.

If you come across a type of record that you don’t know exactly what it is, or where or when it would have been created, try to learn. Sources often have some type of explanatory information attached if they are online or abstracted/transcribed into a published book. Once again, FamilySearch.org contains a ton of free information that can help you learn the basics (and even some beyond-basics).

Focusing on records by record type can be a big undertaking. Starting wtih one repository or a specific location is more focused. Eventually you want to learn about types of genealogy records because that does help you think of the most new sources. It's just not the easiest place to start.

Time Period

This is probably the least effective way to think about sources when you get stuck. There are some time periods that this can work well and if you've tried the other approaches, you should then try this one. 

Usually if you have to start by learning about records by time period, you’ll need to add a location. You can learn about 20th century U.S. records or colonial American records (or various time periods for other countries). But there will also be time-place combos it’s hard to learn about. 

You probably won’t find a quick source to learn about 19th century U.S. sources because there’s so much variation (by the 20th century most states existed whereas there’s all that expansion and territories in the 19th century). In colonial American there aren’t as many locations (or people) so it’s possible to summarize your options, although it’s faster to focus on regions like New England or individual states.

For other countries, focusing on a time period (for that country) might work really well. You need some idea of the history of an area to decide if you can learn about sources by time period.

Mix It Up

Finally, the best way to come up with potential new sources is learn about types of sources for the location/time combo. It might be pretty easy to learn about types of sources once you narrow it to a time and place but you might need to focus on records for something unique about your ancestor. For example, you might be to the point (after trying each of these ways) that you need to see what Baptist records exist for postbellum Mississippi. Maybe you need to learn about Jewish records in early 20th century New York City. Those are a specific type of record in a specific time and place. Often you don't stumble across these records until you're looking for either the type or location (just the time isn't usually enough).

Research Genealogy Sources

Genealogists need to spend time researching the existence of records, not just researching in the records. Also, never forget that most records aren't online. The most widely used records (widely used before they were even online, that is) are what gets digitized. Your ancestor is one person, though. What makes them unique might be a combination of unusual characteristics. They might appear in a lot of records, but those records might be in small collections, or private collections, or just collections that the owner doesn't want digitized. Once you have an idea what kinds of records to look for, you are far more likely to be able to get them, even if they aren't online. With online records, once you go looking for specific records, you're more likely to find your ancestor than only by searching for your ancestor in multiple sources at once.