Category Archives: Beginning Concepts

Many Paths to Sources: Newspapers, Part 2

Last time we looked at some of the big and obvious sources for finding online newspapers. But there’s more out there. You just have to have a lot of persistence and a little bit of luck. I’m talking about not stopping at just the major sites I shared last week. That is literally the tip of the iceberg. There are so many digital collections that are separate, part of a small local project, and just not known to the larger outside world. Here’s where you start (one of these, not in any particular order):

  • Local public libraries, especially if they have a local history collection
  • Local historical societies and museums
  • Local genealogical societies (“local” might mean regional, look at the next biggest town)
  • Nearest university (and then the next, etc.)
  • Town, city, county, state (and whatever the jurisdiction setup is in other countries) repositories such as an archive, library, historical and genealogical society, and so on

To learn about these you could do a simple Google search (‘Wood County Ohio public library,’ for example) or you could use other resources such as Cyndi’s List or the FamilySearch Wiki for genealogically specific information. Let’s look at an example.

I had a client who’s ancestors were from Glengarry County, Ontario but one of a set of sisters had moved to New York City where she became a nurse. I needed to prove that the particular sister was in New York City at the right time to have given birth to my client’s grandmother. Of course, this is between census years; city directories were not easily available for the right years for the right borough; and etc. I was also unable to find mention of this sister in any newspaper in New York City and vicinity. However, I found a treasure trove of digitized newspapers at the Glengarry County archives.

Glengarry County Archives – Browse Local Newspapers

Lo and Behold! I found articles describing when the sister went to New York for nursing school, when she came home for visits, her progress, her graduation, her new job in a New York hospital, and more. I was able to prove that she was in New York City at the right time and place. This is not a collection that is highly visible through other sites. These digital images are not a part of a large subscription service.

I found this resource that helped solve my client project because I have a list of places I start looking when the “big” sites fail. That list is the bullets listed above: libraries, historical societies, genealogical societies, universities, county and state level archives. This method has worked too many times for me not to follow it. If it helps, make a sticky note with that list on it and keep it near your computer.

Whatever you do, don’t give up when those major sites do not provide what you are looking for. You can’t give up until you’ve exhausted those and this list. Next time, we will discuss what to do when you’ve exhausted both of those. Keep searching!

Many Paths to Sources: Newspapers, Part 1

First, let’s take a look at newspapers. Newspapers are one of my favorite subjects to speak about. Finding your ancestors in the newspaper gives you a nice, albeit often short, snapshot into their lives and gives their lives extra flavor. It helps turn them into real people that existed rather than just names on a document.

There are some fantastic online options for finding newspapers. The big three sites for subscriptions:

And there is not one that is better than the other. They all have different collections, so the one that is right for you, is the one that has the series of newspapers with your ancestors in them. Be sure to check their catalog for coverage before buying a subscription. All of these sites let you do that, so don’t skip this step and then get disappointed if they don’t have the papers you needed.

There are many free sites for newspapers across the U.S. Many states have a state digitization project and corresponding website. Here are just a few:

Of course, there is the Library of Congress’s collection of digitized newspapers:

Internationally, there are also some free digital newspaper sites as well. I know of a couple where I’ve done research:

Then there are link sites such as:

The above, is a lot. But is is literally just scratching the surface of what you can do with newspaper research. In Part 2 we will look more closely at finding newspapers online. In Part 3, we will delve into finding and accessing newspapers offline.

Many Paths to Sources: It’s Not All Online

In the genealogy field, you might see the statement “it’s not all online” frequently. Unfortunately, with so much being online, we tend to think it ALL is. Ancestry, FamilySearch, and others, with their hint systems and click to add to family trees has trained us that if it isn’t online, delivered by a hint, then it probably doesn’t exist. This is simple neurology as well. The brain does not like to work hard.1 So, if there is not an easy way to find or get something, the brain gets on board with “if it isn’t online then it doesn’t exist” mentality. But it’s not all online.

As an admin on the Facebook group The Genealogy Squad, we see this happen all the time. People ask for where they can find vital records, yearbooks, city directories, newspaper articles, and so on. When the answer comes back that the particular thing they are looking for is not online and they will need to call or email a specific repository, they balk. Surely it is online somewhere. Oh, I have to make a call, and possibly PAY for said document?!?

TV shows and movies do not help this either. I watch NCIS and Criminal Minds, all of which would have you believe that the smallest bit of information can be found online, regardless of whether you have a warrant to obtain that information, but that’s another topic altogether.

The companies that are digitizing, are choosing to do so based on whether they can sell a subscription, with the exception of FamilySearch. They digitize to preserve according to their religious beliefs. It takes a lot of time and resources to do the digitizing, store the digital images, create databases linked to those digital images, etc. so you can sit at home and do this from your computer with minimal effort. I’m all for it. But if you truly want to obtain those harder-to-find documents, solve those mysteries, and break down the proverbial brick wall, you have to go further sometimes.

In this blog series, we will look at some common sources and explore some of the other ways you might consider to obtain that source. Fair warning, it may take a little more thinking, exploration, and effort to obtain. But I want us all to get a little less comfortable so we can get a little further ahead with our research projects.


1. Elliot T. Berkman, “The Neuroscience of Goals and Behavior Change” (Consult Psychol J. 2018 Mar; 70(1): 28–44; digital copy, US National Library of Medicine (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5854216/).

Beginning Concepts: Genealogical Education

I cannot stress enough the importance of continuing education for genealogists whether you consider yourself a beginner, a hobbyist, a professional, an advanced researcher…whatever. There is always more to learn! And different people have different ways of doing things and their ideas or variations on methodology may make more sense to you and help you break through research challenges.

My setup at one of the genealogical institutes I attended.

If 2020, and it looks like a large portion of 2021, have done anything, they have brought genealogy education to our fingertips. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, many educational opportunities, both large and small, have been made accessible to participants across the world. With our digital world and platforms like Zoom, we have had so many opportunities than we have ever had before. With so many week-long institutes, multi-day conferences, and day-long seminars going virtual, so many more people have been able to participate. Think about those who can’t travel for whatever reason (disability, finances, family obligations, etc.) and those who want to attend everything but can’t due to travel and time and finances. I do hope we keep offering virtual options as our world returns to whatever “normal” is after this.

My advice for genealogical education has several steps or layers:

  1. Identify where your skills and knowledge are lacking. This could be a long or short list, but determine where you’d like to grow, and write it down.
  2. Identify places that have classes, webinars, institute courses, etc. that cover those topics.
  3. Make a plan as to when you can attend those classes. Some things are available all the time (webinars at Legacy Family Tree Webinars, for example, are available 24/7 by subscription). Some are available only once per year, or rotate every couple of years. You might find books or articles on the subject(s) as well.
  4. Join a local genealogical society. EVEN if your research is not in the place where you live. Most genealogical societies offer classes, monthly lectures on various topics, and a social network of other genealogists that can help you. Many local societies are offering virtual meetings currently so see what is available in your area.
  5. Join the genealogical society (societies) in the places where you DO research. You will benefit from their newsletters, journals, blogs, monthly meetings (if they are virtual), and any other member benefits they offer. But they have the local knowledge!
  6. Join a state, regional or national society. I recommend the National Genealogical Society, the Utah Genealogical Association, the New England Historic Genealogical Society, the New York Genealogical and Biographical Society, or a state society in the area of your research. I am a member of the Ohio Genealogical Society, for example.

For a complete list of genealogical education opportunities, visit Cyndi’s List: https://cyndislist.com/education/ where you can find so much information on genealogical classes, course, study groups, institutes, webinars, books, and so on.

Family history is an important part of our identity; the more we understand our heritage, the more we understand ourselves. And I hope, whether you are a beginner or have been doing this for a long time, you found some useful items in this Beginning Concepts series.

Beginning Concepts: The Research Plan Part 2

Last week I described why a research plan/log or PLOG, is a good idea. This week, let’s get into some of the nitty gritty of what a research PLOG looks like.

First, you will want to have several research plans. They should be based on a particular project you are working on. Remember, we are past the “collecting” phase and are now into the FOCUSED phase of our research. (Refer back a few weeks to the post on Getting Focused.) Your research plans and logs will want to reflect that focus. I have a research plan for each individual project I’m working on. And my projects are generally driven by my research questions. So, I have a PLOG that holds research tasks and findings relative to a particular research question I am trying to solve.

You can create these PLOGs in any platform that works for you: word processor, spreadsheet, Evernote or One Note, Scrivener, and so on. Even paper. I’m not here to tell you which one to use. But I will share what I use: Evernote. Now there was a recent Evernote update that had a lot of people upset, they didn’t like the changes. Well, who likes change? I know I don’t. I am still working with the new update and forming my opinions, but so far, everything has been working ok with a few minor hiccups.

I like Evernote because of its ability to sync between my laptop, my phone, my iPad, and a web version, so I literally have access anywhere I have the internet. I can also access my notes offline as long as I synced everything before I left the land of the internet. It also acts like a word processor and I can add tables, images, links to other notes, and more. I can also search my notes by keyword or tags (if I added them).

When I create a research plan/log in Evernote, I put the research question at the top so that I remain focused and my notes are categorized and organized. I then have a table with the following column headings: Call#/Location, Title/Description, Names/Information I’m looking for, Results (notes, or a link to another note that holds the scanned images), Notes reflecting my thoughts. See the example below:

Screenshot of my new project’s PLOG to identify the parents of Thomas C. Mitchell.

I have several variations, and they change depending on circumstances. Sometimes I add a column for the date or the repository if it is a PLOG that covers many repositories. Most often, I have another note that contains the actual contents of what I found, usually photos I took with my phone and uploaded to Evernote. On those Evernote notes, I will write out the citation for that item, so they are together.

I also have research PLOGs that are repository focused. Pre-pandemic, there were repositories I visited on a semi-regular basis, so as I worked from home and identified things I wanted to examine at a particular repository, I would add them to those PLOGs, with a link to the overall log for that research question.

You can do a similar thing in other platforms. In a spreadsheet, for example, you can have multiple tabs in one spreadsheet. Perhaps you have a spreadsheet about your John Smith family and organize those tabs by the particular generations, brick wall problems, repositories, and so on. Or, if you prefer word processing documents, organize your hard drive in a similar way: a folder for each surname, then perhaps broken down by generation or research problem, and then the various documents within that pertain to that problem. The sky is really the limit in terms of how you organize.

The main point with the research plan and log is that you create a system whereby you can collect what you plan to look at and what you found, in an easy, effective, and efficient way that works for you. Then, when it is time to sit down and really analyze what you have, it is all logged in one location.

If you are a longtime reader, you know a phrase I often say in this blog and when I’m presenting to an audience: “Do what works best for you. But do it!” So, go get a system set up that you think might work for you. You’ll end up modifying it as you learn and grow as a researcher, but just get started.

Beginning Concepts: The Research Plan

In genealogy, there are two things you really ought to keep track of to help your research be FOCUSED and effective. Several weeks ago I wrote about how when we all begin, we are collectors of family history information, but eventually, we have to get focused to solve any of the “brick walls” we encounter. Two things that help you be focused are utilizing a research PLAN and a research LOG. In my world, these are the same document. I lovingly call them my Research PLOG (patent pending).

Different researchers have different techniques. Look around at what others have to say on the topic if my system doesn’t work for you or make sense for how you work. The main message here is to do it!

I’ve written about research plans twice before:

Both of those previous posts come from the angle of preparing for a research trip. However, you don’t have to be going on a trip to create a plan. It will make your time at a repository more efficient and effective if you have a pre-planned list of what you want to look at when you arrive. But we have all been stuck at home for a year, and it looks like we will be for a bit longer. Have you been planning your research before you do it at online “repositories”? I know I have not been doing it enough. I have an idea of what I want to find, I go look for it, I don’t find it, I move on to the next thing… but months from now, I am not going to remember that I did that search and will do it again. And if I don’t utilized my PLOG, I’ll do it again in another several months.

A research plan/log allows you to plan your research “attack” and record your findings so that you can review what you’ve done on a given project and NOT DO IT AGAIN! (I am sure I am not the only genealogist in the world who spent precious research dollars ordering the same death certificate twice…or three times?) A research PLOG, if used correctly, can save you time and money. I wish I had learned about research plans and logs earlier in my genealogical journey!

Of course, there are databases that are constantly growing, that you should go back and search again at a later time. Be sure to note in your log what years those databases covered at the time you looked at them (we will get into more on this later). Also, a caveat to using a PLOG correctly…you have to review it before you start in on another research session. This is where I find myself failing many times. I just don’t take a moment to read my log for a given project. So, it’s like I never logged anything if I don’t go back and review it!

Now that I’ve convinced you that you need to start utilizing a log, next I will get into the nitty-gritty of what my research PLOG system looks like.

Beginning Principles: Getting Focused

Every genealogist starts out in a “collection” phase. You just gather up anything and everything that pertains to your family tree, with very little focus on a particular project. I think this is the right way to do it. You have to have a base to start from and collecting and gathering important items and information from family members now, while they are still alive, is so important. But after a while, you may have noticed, you have quite a “pile” (whether physical or digital, or both if you are like me).

I’ve talked about organizing those piles before in my series about getting organized, so I won’t belabor it again. But you have to get organized before you can really move forward. OR you’ll do what I did and order the same records several times, download the same wills, search for the same obits, etc. Don’t do that. Get organized now, while the piles are small-ish, so you can be more efficient later.

Once you’ve gotten organized, you can start to see where your challenges are, the proverbial “brick walls,” or the research projects that are going to take more effort to solve. Filling in the gaps will require more structured research. When you get to this phase, it is helpful to define your research by establishing good research questions.

A good research question is a well-defined research goal. It needs to be as specific as possible, defining exactly who you are looking for, but not so specific that it isn’t possible to solve. The question has to be answerable for it to work. Here is an example from my own research:

Too broad: Who was the father of Fred Miller?

Well, which Fred Miller. There are about a billion of them in the world. And about a hundred in Wood County, Ohio in 1850. (Ok, I might be prone to exaggeration, but it sure feels like that sometimes!)

Too narrow: What is Fred Miller’s exact date of birth?

Well, for this one, we may never be able to find an exact date of birth due to record loss or just no records at all. The question may not be answerable so it is better to broaden the question a little bit. Perhaps to simply say “when was he born” which could be answered with a date range or something like “about 1805.”

Just right: Who were the parents of Fred Miller, living in Perrsyburg Township, Wood County, Ohio, who was 45 years old in the 1850 census?

With this one, I have identified a unique person in time and place, and I am asking an answerable question, “who were his parents?”

NOW, you can start planning your research to answer this question. Next we will talk about research plans and how to create and execute them.

Beginning Principles: Important Records Part 2

Last week we looked at a few of the “basics” when it comes to records a beginning genealogist should be looking for and possibly a few things beginners don’t realize when they are first starting out. This week let’s explore a few of the more “advanced” records that can be located for your ancestors. These records are where you can really start to dig in to the details about individuals.

  • Land Records – Deeds primarily fall into this category for the beginning genealogist, though there are other types of land records to be found. If your ancestors were farmers, like mine were, you are most likely going to find deeds somewhere along the way. These are held at the county courthouse for the most part though these days, they are likely digitized at FamilySearch. Take a look through their catalog for your county to see if they are there. Deeds will tell you when an ancestor bought or sold land, how much land, for how much money, and more importantly where that land was located.
  • Probate Records – Estates and wills are especially helpful when they can be located because they will often spell out family groups and relationships. You may also get very detailed information about the stuff your ancestors owned such as furniture and occupational equipment. Again, these are typically found at a county courthouse, though many may be digitized at FamilySearch.
  • Military Records – Draft registration cards or ledgers, pension applications, enlistment records, compiled military service records, and more fall into this category. These kinds of records are available in a lot of places, but a good starting point website is Fold3.

After these kinds of records, you really start digging into the details. But those are probably not records a beginning genealogist is going to dig into right away so we will address some of that later in another series. Next we will talk about how to start focusing your research.

Beginning Principles: Important Records

If you are a beginner, you might not have a good idea of all of the different types of records one can find for their ancestors. As you gain experience, take classes, read blogs and books, watch webinars, and so on, you will gain a greater knowledge of some of the details you can really find. However, let’s start with some of the basics.

  • Vital Records – These include birth, marriage, and death records. What a beginner might not know is that they are a construct of the 1900s for the most part, especially what we think of now as a “birth certificate” or a “death certificate.” Those were not required by states until the early 1900s. And even then, it took quite some time for various counties to become completely compliant with those laws. However, you may get lucky and find births and deaths registered even earlier depending on the time and place. I do a lot of Wood County, Ohio research. They have birth and death records back into the 1870s. Baptism records will be found if your ancestors were members of a church that conducted infant baptism AND recorded those baptisms. Marriage records, on the other hand, have been recorded for quite some time, this is one record type that you will find going back to the 1600s in the U.S. not only in civil records, but also in church records.
  • Census Records – These are quite possibly the best record for quickly putting together family groups, and sometimes, several generations. Federal census records began with the U.S. Constitution. The first federal census was conducted in 1790 and every 10 years thereafter. However, not all survive. What most beginners don’t know is that nearly the entire 1890 census was lost in a fire. Only a few scraps remain. Some states conducted state censuses usually on the years ending in ‘5’ and only for a time.
  • Newspapers – And in particular, obituaries, are one of the best records for getting started with your family history. Obituaries usually give a good biographical sketch of an ancestor, who he/she married, who their children were, who their parents were, etc. Other newspaper articles are helpful too. Items in the “gossip column” or “social news” section can pin family members down in a time and place. If something bad happened, an accident or intentional event, that usually made the front page.
  • Cemeteries – Tombstones and cemetery records are quite useful in tracking down ancestors. When I first started, Find A Grave was only about famous people. I did a lot of cemetery visiting across the U.S. Now, I don’t have to (though I still like to) since Find A Grave has expanded to try to catalog all burial in the world.

These are some of the “basics” when it comes to records for the beginning genealogist. I will discuss some of the more “advanced” records to be found next week.

Beginning Principles: Important Repositories

Undoubtedly, the most important repository for you is the one that holds the records you need. I gave some tips on finding records in previous blog posts such as “Accessing Archives from a Distance.” This post is simply meant to highlight some of the important onsite repositories for beginners. “But we are in the middle of a pandemic,” you say. And I say now is the perfect time to get your game plan ready. We can visit all of these repositories virtually and create a research plan, which I will discuss in more detail in a future post in this series, but you can read a previous post on the topic here.

Top repositories for beginning genealogists:

  • Family History Library, Salt Lake City, Utah – This is the largest collection of genealogical materials in the world. Much is being digitized and can be found on their website. Some is “locked” due to contractual obligations and requires you to be in the library or at a local Family History Center to access. They have a huge collection of books on site. This is an important repository simply because of the geographical reach one can get from working on site. You can work on several projects at once while at the FHL.
  • Allen County Public Library, Fort Wayne, Indiana – This library is possibly the second largest collection of genealogical materials in the U.S. As the creator of PERSI (the PERiodical Source Index), they hold over 8,000 titles of genealogical society journals, on site, in addition to many other genealogical books and materials from all over the world.
  • Your State historical society or genealogical society library – Find out where your state’s historical and/or genealogical society is and whether they have a repository. Their collection will most likely be tailored to the state you are working in.
  • Any large genealogical collection in a city near you – Many cities have large libraries, and many of those libraries have a genealogy or local history collection that focuses on that city and region.
  • Local public library with a genealogy/local history collection in the area of your research – When you are working in smaller, rural areas, finding a small public library will often be the treasure trove you need. Small public libraries have the granular focus of collecting and saving information for that area.

Get online and find the catalog on the website for each of these locations. Pick a research project and start searching the collection for sources that might be useful for your goals. Then create a research plan. Someday the pandemic will lift and we will be able to travel again. I hope you come away with a ginormous amount of research to do onsite because you will have filled your days with research planning.