Category Archives: Locality Guides

Building a Locality Guide: Records

There are a couple of ways you can go about building this section, and I think it must follow the way you think about and do your research. Do you think about and do your research by location/repository or by topic (land records, etc.)? Depending on how you think about and conduct your research you may choose to organize this section by record type (and where to get them) or by repository (and what they have). I kind of do a combination of both. In this section, I organize by record type and then repository (or website within). Later, I have a section that we will look at on local repositories, and within that I give a synopsis of what each repository holds.

This section on records, includes six major sections. Depending on my needs or uniqueness of the area, this might be changed to fit those needs. However, in general, the sections are:

  • Land & property
  • Newspapers
  • Vital records
  • Probate & court
  • Published sources
  • Miscellaneous (records unique to the area)

One major item to note in this section is record losses. Be sure to note any major record losses, when they occurred, especially those pertaining to courthouse fires or other disasters in local repositories. This information can often be found on their county websites, at the local public library, the FamilySearch Wiki, and the local genealogical or historical society.

In the next post, we will look at the records sections in more detail.

Building a Locality Guide: Geography

The second section I like to include in my locality guides is a geography section. Nothing helps you understand a new location like maps do. So, my guides collect links to a variety of maps that depict various aspects of the locality that is the focus of the guide.

I either add the actual item, but more often a link to:

  • General county map indicating townships, towns, land divisions
  • Landowner or plat maps
  • Topographical maps
  • Town maps showing streets
  • Modern maps
Sample page from my Wood County, Ohio locality guide.

There are some great general map collections out there that you can use to find useful maps and links, such as:

But also, don’t forget to check for local sources. You may find digital maps at local public libraries, genealogical or historical societies, university collections, museums, county government office websites, and more. For example, in Wood County, Ohio, the County Engineer’s office has a variety of maps available on their website such as tax maps, township maps, cemeteries, ditch maps, plat maps, and many others.

Example of the cemetery map for Weston Cemetery in Wood County, Ohio, highlighting the Businger plots, my maternal ancestors.

Except for a general county map and possibly a township map, I mostly just collect the links to important maps rather than adding actual images to my locality guide. This saves space, primarily. However, if you want to include maps directly in your guide, you should feel free to do as much or as little as you like. Always do what works best for you!

Next week we will move on to the Records section of the guide.

Building a Locality Guide: Historical Background

Let’s dive into more specifics about the sections of my locality guide set-up. I like to include four major sections: Historical Background, Geography, Repositories, and Records. This week, let’s examine the historical background section.

This is not an all-inclusive list, and it may change depending on the specifics of the place I am working on, but I like to include the following in my “historical background” section:

  • Military actions, battles in the area that may have affected migration or records
  • Major ethnic and/or religious groups that settled in the area
  • Natural or man-made disasters that may have affected people, migration, and records
  • Native American influences and interactions
  • Types of industry or agriculture, what might have attracted people to live there
  • Laws, particularly those requiring record-keeping
  • Transportation routes

There are probably a thousand more topics that could be included here. But I’m not trying to make a whole new book with the locality guide. I’m building a resource that is “just enough” for me to remember important items, or point me to resources to learn more. In my guides, the above may be a sentence or a couple of bullet points, or a couple of paragraphs. It all depends on how detailed I feel like being, how useful I feel that information is going to be in a saved format like this, and how much time I have to spend on developing it. I don’t always have the time, so I might do bullet points with links to other resources.

Let’s look at a section of my guide I wrote for Wood County, Ohio.

A sample page from my locality guide on Wood County, Ohio.

I collect this information from books, articles, websites, and so on, and of course, a footnote is provided for that information. While this guide is normally just for my use, I often find myself wondering where I got a particular piece of information. Having a citation helps me find it again. If I ever share my guide with someone (a library, for example), it is basically ready to go.

The historical background section I try to keep to about a page. Like I said, I’m not writing the definitive work on a particular county. I’m simply trying to collect enough information for my own knowledge and use in research. If you want to collect more or less, that’s completely up to you. And sometimes a particular county might have a lot of history to it that you want to collect.

I mentioned that sometimes I will put in a list of bullet points with links rather than typing up a lot of narrative. Electronic systems allow you to add live hyperlinks to your text, so it is very easy to collect a links to add to your guide. The following shows a list of links to particular chapters in the county history for Wood County available on Google Books.

A sample page with hyperlinks to other resources.

Instead of writing up a bunch of information about specific events or topics, linking to those chapters in the county history available online allows me to save some time while also capturing resources for use later.

Next week we will go on to the geography section. In the meantime, pick a county (or other region) and perhaps start building the historical background section.

Building a Locality Guide: The Sections

Everyone is going to approach this differently than I do. But, if you’ve never built a locality guide, maybe some of my tactics will work for you or spur you to have new ideas that work for yours. This week, I’m going to discuss at a high level each of the sections I include in my guides. These are the four I use. You might choose a different four or a different arrangement, and that’s OK! The point is to build something that is going to be useful and helpful for your research.

My four sections are:

  1. Historical Background – major historical items of interest, especially those that might affect records, migration, and industry
  2. Geography – maps, maps, and maps; understanding the physical layout of a place helps understand ancestors
  3. Records – what major record sets are available, both online and off
  4. Repositories – what libraries, archives, museums, etc. are available for onsite research

I have found that over time these are the main sections I want to make sure I capture something about the new area I’m researching. Some guides are larger than others in these parts. It depends on several things such as how long am I going to be working in this new area? If it is for my own personal research or a long client project, I might spend a bit more time on this than I would for something smaller. Some areas just don’t have a lot of records due to them being a relatively newer area (Oklahoma or Washington state compared to Massachusetts for example). Or they sustained a lot of record loss, like some places in the south.

These four main sections form the basis of my locality guides. Next week, we will begin to break each section down and I will share examples from my Wood County, Ohio guide.

Building a Locality Guide: Resources

Now that we’ve talked basics and you’ve made some decisions in terms of how to put your locality guide together, let’s go over some resources you can use to build your guide. These are places you can turn to for general to specific information that can build your guide’s usefulness.

First, let’s examine some resources for general information.

  • FamilySearch Wiki – Use this fantastic wiki for general information about a genealogical topic (such as probate records, vital records, census records, etc.) or about a location (county, state, or country).
  • Cyndi’s List – Use this valuable resource to find general websites of interest that can help you build the historical and geographical portions of your guide.
  • Wikipedia – Use this for general historical information about a particular location or topic, I find Wikipedia most helpful for a quick overview of a subject and then determine what I want to know more about, then will look for more specific sources of information. Often, Wikipedia articles have very helpful citations that can lead to other sources of information on a topic.

Next, let’s examine some resources for specific information.

  • FamilySearch Catalog – Use this part of the FamilySearch site to find books, microfilms, digital collections, and databases for specific localities. This is where I go to identify many of the collections that are available for a particular county.
  • Cyndi’s List – Also useful for links to websites about specific subjects or locations. I often find websites here that I didn’t even know I needed!
  • Local public libraries – Look for the public libraries that serve the county (or town or region) you are building your guide for, especially one that has a local history collection. Examine their catalog and websites for useful resources.
  • Local college or university collections – Many colleges and universities have archives and manuscript collections that can have useful collections or online resources useful to note in your guide.
  • Local genealogical and historical societies – Look for the nearest genealogical society that may cover your guides’ area. Check their websites for any databases, publications, collections, or services they may provide.
  • Local museums – Many locations have historical or specialized museums that may also have a research room. Check for those in your area of focus.
  • Books and journals – Look for histories, reference books, journals, articles, and other published materials that cover your guide’s area of focus. You may find them on WorldCat, Amazon, at the local public libraries, in bibliographies, and so on. These may be quite useful to note in your guide and provide you with content for certain portions of your guide.

Now that I’ve shared some of the resources I use to build my locality guides, I will share next time more about the specifics of what to include in your guide. We will go over each of the sections, how I put them together, what I like to include, and other tips.

Building a Locality Guide: Decisions

Before you start building your locality guide, you may want to make a few decisions. Primarily you will want to decide what format you want your guide to be in. Do you want to use a spreadsheet, word processor, or note-taking software such as Evernote? Do you want to use paper and pencil/pen? Where do you want to store it? On the cloud, in your desk, on your laptop? These are decisions you will have to make and they will depend on how you work and think and organize your resources.

I have traditionally organized my locality guides in a word processing document creating my own “quick sheet” for that location. However, I have begun moving them into Evernote (a note-taking software system that can sync between your devices) so that I can access them anywhere if need be. I prefer an electronic system over a paper system because:

  • You can add clickable links directly to databases, e-books, websites, etc.
  • You can use the “find” and “search” features for locating keywords in your guide.
  • You can add information, copy/paste, and insert graphics quite easily.
  • You can save it to the cloud and access it anywhere with your phone, laptop, or tablet.

If you prefer paper and pencil, I’m not one to judge. I still love reading things on paper. If I were to make a locality guide entirely on paper, I would use index cards whereby each card is its own entry. This will allow you to sort and organize your index cards in any order you like, and add new information to the set as it is found.

If you decide to use a word processor for your guide, you may consider saving it to the cloud either through a service such as DropBox or by compiling it directly in a service such as GoogleDocs. Both of these will allow you to access your guide anywhere.

Next we will discuss what to start putting IN your guide…

Building a Locality Guide: The Basics

When we are working on our genealogical research and we discover an ancestor came from a different place, an unfamiliar place, a new county, state, or country, do we stop researching because we don’t know anything about that place? No, of course not. We dive right in! Looking for databases for that place where we can plug in our names and find the answers. However, that is not necessarily the most efficient way to start research in a new area, especially if it is an area where you may be conducting a lot of research over time. I like to create a locality guide for these new locations.

You could call a locality guide by other names: a toolbox, a resource guide, a quick sheet. Whatever you decide to call it, a locality guide is what I like to call the “pre-research.” You encounter a new location on a document. Perhaps a death certificate indicates that an ancestor was born in a county and state where you have little or no previous experience. Most genealogists will just jump into the records and online sources, excited for what they might find. And that’s ok for a quick look, but if your research is going to be focused in that location for any amount of time, you want to be most efficient with that time. 

There are many ways you could organize this “pre-research.” I’m going to share the way I do it, but it is not the only or “right” way, by any means. Take any tips from this series that you like and adapt this to something that works for you.

My locality guides have four parts: Historical Background, Geography, Records, and Repositories. You can collect this information in a number of formats. I recommend collecting it in an electronic document (i.e. word processor, spreadsheet, or a tool like Evernote) which will lend itself to creating clickable links for online resources. Having this guide will allow you to quickly look up valuable information, databases, and references. As you conduct your research you will invariably learn more that can be added to your guide.

The first page of my Wood County, Ohio locality guide, first started in 2012.

Over the next several blog posts, I will share some of the more in-depth inner workings of my guides and some tips for making them easier, more efficient, and useful for your research.