January 23, 2003
So often as I go through the correspondence I receive I read messages of absolutes. For example, someone will say that they have looked at all of the will books they can find and have exhausted all the records that exist. Usually, when I question these individuals further, I discover that they may have exhausted all the records found on the Internet or all the books that they had access to in their genealogy library. Invariably I find out that there are other resources that they either weren't aware of or haven't checked.
Why Limit Ourselves?
I have asked myself this question many times and have determined that researchers think that the readily available records are the only ones that exist. So many who have become involved in genealogy since computers began to play such an important role, have a misunderstanding to what is available on the computer and what requires a trip to a library or other repository.
My husband likes to say that in a few years it will all be online, just like census records are now. While there is certainly a trend in that direction, and I am thankful for every record that has been digitized and made available online, I think that this is a dream that is far from reality. Let's face it, the Family History Library doesn't even have it all on microfilm. There are so many records in so many different repositories that we sometimes have to get really creative in thinking about where we should go next with our research.
We limit ourselves when we think that we have seen all there is. In reality, though, if we have only done research online or have only traveled to one library, then it is likely that we have not seen all that there is. There are times when our real life (making a living and raising the children) prevents us from traveling here, there, and everywhere. We must be content in some respects with what we can find at this moment. It is important to remember that when we think we have exhausted all of the records, we usually haven't.
If there isn't anything written online about the records in question or the locality we are researching in, then the thing to do is learn about special records or unique collections. The records we need may be catalogued differently in a library or there may be something unique about the index to the vital records.
It Probably Exists
Just because you haven't found the record doesn't mean that it doesn't exist. More often than not it does exist and usually is accessible. The problem is that we sometimes don't know where to turn with the information. We learn how to turn by reading up on the research. There are so many records that are unique to either a religion, a state, a town, a country, or a county that we may not be aware of.
Often I hear from people that they can't afford to buy all the books that are published on genealogy. While I will admit that I have more than my fair share in my office, I have found that many books can be found in genealogy departments at larger public libraries. You may frequent one of the branches rather than the main library simply because it is closest to you. To get access to the genealogy how-to books, you may need to plan a trip to the larger main library.
There are a number of how-to articles now that have been published and continue to be published to the Internet. If you check out the Genealogy.com Learning Center, you will find many articles from an introduction to genealogy to detailed articles on specific record types or ethnic research. You will find similar articles on other sites including through the various GenWeb sites that are part of the USGenWeb Project and the WorldGenWeb Project.
Even if the records aren't available online, there may be information about how you can get them or about someone who has access to them and is willing to do look ups or get copies for you. Such an offer is always appreciated and may help you save time in your research assuming you have spent any time looking for them.
A Field Trip
More and more is available online and for that we should all be thankful. Some of the information is subscription based while other information is free. I appreciate the ease of access to online information but, of course, this doesn't mean that the Internet is the only place I check.
Whenever I attend a conference or take a trip, I often see if I can get a little genealogy research into the trip as well. When I go on trips with the family, I have been known to add a side trip to a cemetery or see if I can get a day at a specialized library. Sometimes the locality doesn't have anything to do with my family, but it does give me a chance to see what different libraries are doing with their genealogy and what may be of special interest in that library. If a library has an online catalog, I often plan the research ahead of time especially unique indexes or other records that might be available.
The next time you are going out of town, see what might be available to you. I have been to branches of the National Archives, state libraries and state archives, cemeteries, private libraries, specialized genealogy libraries and other libraries. In each case I learned something about the area or the unique records of that repository. I always make it a point to take home any pamphlets that the library or repository has made available.
Even when I think I have exhausted all of the records that exist, I assume I am wrong. I try to think of a different way to approach the research problem or I look to a different level of authority. For example, if I have spent all my time on county records, then I look for something on the town level or the state level. If I have exhausted all the microfilmed records, I look online to see if there are records that haven't been microfilmed yet. There are so many records we haven't even begun to think of, that when you think you have reached the end of the research you may find you have just begun.The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Genealogy, now in its second edition. She is the author of four how-to guides on Family Tree Maker. In late 2001, she wrote The Genealogist's Computer Companion. She is a contributing editor to Biography Magazine with her "Celebrity Roots" column and a contributing writer to The History Channel Magazine. Her latest book is Finding Your Famous and Infamous Ancestors. She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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