How to conduct a “reasonably exhaustive search” for relevant records

The Genealogical Proof Standard is a set of guidelines by which researchers can judge the thoroughness of their research and analysis, and the reliability of their conclusions. Over the next week or so, I would like to discuss the Standard as well as how to apply it to your research.

The first condition of the Genealogical Proof Standard is that we have conducted a reasonably exhaustive search for all information that is or may be pertinent to the question for which you are seeking an answer.

In order to meet this condition a researcher must first know what records exist for the time period and location in which you are researching. The following tips will help you discover this information when you begin researching in a new area for the first time:

1. Read research guides. Most states have numerous research guides available. It may be necessary to consult more than one, as each may have its own individual strengths and weaknesses. General research guides include the following wikis now available online:

You will want to be careful of some research guides written and published by some “genealogists.” A few authors have endeavored to write and publish “research guides” for many locations across the country. In most cases these research guides contain only general information about each state, but no specific information with enough detail to effectively research in those locations.

Instead, check to see if any research guides have been written and published by reputable researchers in the location itself. The National Genealogical Society’s Research in the States series of research guides is a very good start. Each of these guides has been written by a researcher recognized in the subject state.

Many historical and genealogical societies have published research guides. In most cases these research guides have been written by researchers with many years of experience in the specific location. These guides can be extremely detailed and informative.

2. Explore repository holdings catalogs. Many repositories have put catalogs of their holdings online, and these can be searched for information relevant to our ancestors. I have compiled a directory of the online holdings catalogs for the state archives of all 50 states and the District of Columbia, where available. A few states have not yet put this information online.

Many repositories also have online descriptions or research guides to using various records collections. See, for example, the “Reference and Research” section of the Maryland State Archives website and the “Using the Collections” section of the Library of Virginia website. Each of these sites contains numerous descriptive pamphlets relating to specific record groups and the record history of the states. You can find similar information on other state archives websites. For links to the websites of all state archives, read “Using the online catalogs of state archives to locate records of interest.”

One must not forget to check the catalog of the Family History Library on FamilySearch. In many areas, representatives of the FHL visited multiple repositories in each given location, microfilming diverse record groups. Don’t only search for county records, though. Also search for state and town records.

You will also want to identify other repositories of interest. I found the record that finally broke down one of my long-time brickwalls, for a family that lived in Connecticut and New York, at the Primitive Baptist Library in Carthage, Illinois.

3. Identify newspapers that were published. The Library of Congress has compiled a “U.S. Newspaper Directory, 1690-Present.” This directory can be searched by date and place of publication, with the place able to be specified by state, county, or city. Newspapers can offer many opportunities for research, including obituaries and death notices for those who died prior to state vital registration, and notices of estate administration and court proceedings in burned counties.

4. Search online finding aids. Many researchers neglect the private papers and other manuscript collections that may be held in historical society or university libraries. However these collections can hold some of the most important records, including many created by the subjects of our research. These may include family bibles, plantation account books, personal letters and photographs, etc. The key is to search collections relevant to the locations you are researching. You may locate information about your ancestor in a collection of the personal papers of the local town doctor or Justice of the Peace, for example.

There are numerous ways to find these records. You can go directly to the repository that you think may hold collections of interest. Finding aids for many of these special collections are available online at the repository websites. The finding aids may contain extremely detailed information, or may contain only a short description.

You will often find a relevant collection in an unexpected place. A recent project I researched involved a family that lived in Georgia, but family papers were found in Duke University in North Carolina. Duke University happens to have amassed a large collection of antebellum southern plantation records. You will find that historians resident at other universities may have compiled similar collections of historic material based on their own research interests. Collections which may involve families in other states.

Try these ways to locate manuscript collections:

  • The National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections has been produced by the Library of Congress since 1959, originally in annual printed volumes. The Library has now ceased publication of the printed volumes, but contributes entries on manuscript collections to OCLC WorldCat. You can search WorldCat for surnames and locations, and it will also return the nearest library that holds books of interest.
  • Records of Ante-bellum Southern Plantations is a microfilm collection created by UPA (now owned by LexisNexis) containing reproductions of various family papers collections from throughout the Southern United States. A guide to the collection is online. Visit the LexisNexis website for similar microfilmed publications available. While these microfilms are expensive, many university libraries have them.
  • Read published historical articles in your area of interest. Pay attention to the citations. Many historians access unpublished manuscripts. In other words, someone else may have already found what you are looking for. Use JSTOR or SAGE or Project MUSE (or any other similar journal-hosting services) to search for articles written about your location. Google Scholar also includes entries from these databases. Don’t limit yourself to your specific family. In some cases, these historical journal articles may provide context that reveals useful information about the world in which your family lived. In other cases, you may find that one of the records they used holds information on your ancestor! You can search most of these databases for free and read abstracts of relevant articles, but individual articles can run in the $20-$30 each range. However, many university libraries offer free access to the databases (in some cases remote access online).

5. Find out what churches were active in the area. Two good sources for identifying churches are the county or state historical society and contemporary city directories. In the 1930s the Works Progress Administration also conducted a Historical Church Survey. This survey contained questionaires about historic churches, usually including a profile of the church’s history, and an inventory of the records of the church then extant. These surveys are often difficult to find, but many are held by state archives, historical societies, and university libraries. More information can be found in “Soul of a People: the WPA’s Federal Writers Project.”

It is helpful to know what religion your ancestors followed. But do not limit yourself to those churches. Sometimes ancestors converted. A funny thing that I discovered is that every man in my direct male line, including myself, converted to a different religion than the one under which they were born–for seven straight generations! Also keep in mind that in rural areas where no church existed for certain denominations our ancestors may have attended a separate church out of necessity. In some minds, a Christian was a Christian, first and foremost, regardless of denomination! In other cases, such as in the colonial period, there may have been an established state religion. I have seen the births and marriages of Catholics in colonial Maryland recorded in the records of the established Protestant Episcopal (Anglican) Church.

All of these tips will help you to become more familiar with the area in which you are researching. You must not only know what records are available, but what information these records contain, why they were created, and where they are held. (See also “Five things you have to know about every record.”) As stated above, one must know what records exist before one can claim to have completed an exhaustive search for all relevant information.

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2 thoughts on “How to conduct a “reasonably exhaustive search” for relevant records

  1. Pingback: Analysis of Evidence in the Genealogical Proof Standard « Planting the Seeds

  2. Pingback: The reasonably exhausting search | GenVoyage

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