Category Archives: Research – General

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.

Cyndi’s List Turns 25 Today!

One of my favorite colleagues is Cyndi Ingle, the grand web-mistress behind the ever invaluable Cyndi’s List. She is also one of the co-founders for one of the best genealogical Facebook Groups out there, The Genealogy Squad (last year they asked me to join their ranks as one of the administrators). She also teaches classes, webinars, institute course, etc. on technology topics, how to utilized websites better, how to organize your computer, how to use some cool technology tools to make your life easier, and so on. She has also become a discussion group leader for the study groups I offer after demand got larger and my time got smaller.

Cyndi is a powerhouse in the genealogy field, always helpful and generous with her time and knowledge.

Her website, Cyndi’s List, is turning 25 today, March 4, 2021. She has been providing this free service to genealogists for a quarter of a century! I remember when I first heard about Cyndi’s List. It was from my friend and mentor, Birdie Holsclaw. She was a huge fan of Cyndi and her list. She pointed me to using Cyndi’s List quite early in my genealogical life and I’m so grateful.

Cyndi’s List is a collection of links on just about every topic relating to genealogical research that you can think of. And if she doesn’t have a section for a topic, she’ll add one! You just have to let her know.

Why should you use Cyndi’s List when you can simply use Google these days?

For one thing, Google only indexes about 4-5% of the internet. The little Google bots that crawl the web to index it for their search engine, only drill down a few levels into a website. So, if you have a deep and complicated site, like a University for example, Google isn’t going to crawl all the way down into those layers and index the items you are probably looking for. For example, if you are looking for a digitized record on a University library website, the layers may look like this: University > Libraries > That Particular Library > Digital Collections > History/Genealogy > County/State/City or whatever identifying layer > Digitized Marriage Collection. That is at least seven layers on my hypothetical scenario here, and I’ve been on sites where it’s more. Google typically goes maybe four levels deep.

A second reason, you don’t always know what to Google for! Cyndi’s site is broken up into categories. If you start by browsing her categories, you will find something valuable that you didn’t know you should Google for! You will get keywords and phrases you hadn’t thought to use for your searches.

A third reason, Cyndi has hand-picked these links, vetted them as useful for genealogists before including them on her site. So the links you find are applicable. With Google you get all kinds of links and have to wade through a lot before you might find something that applies to your research.

I have a concrete example that happened just last week. I was on a Zoom with Cyndi and telling her I was having a hard time reading the name of an Irish town that was listed on a birth record. On Google, if you type in a place “close enough” Google will ask “Did you mean…?” and give you some results that may or may not be correct. I have had this help me many times when trying to decipher handwriting when it comes to old town names. However, this Irish town name was not coming up. And in fact, Google kept separating it so that it would become a celebrity’s name. (“Did you mean Tony Shaloub?” No Google. I certainly did not.)

While I was Googling, Cyndi was pulling up Cyndi’s List, going to her Irish category, pulling up an Irish atlas database that would show you all of the towns in a county alphabetically, and she came up with the answer in no time!

I just did the same at Cyndi’s List to write this blog post and found a broken link. Oh no! Cyndi depends on her users to help keep the site up-to-date. She has thousands of links to keep track of and can’t do it alone. On the left side of the page is a “report a broken link” button that will allow you to quickly let her know something has moved or is just missing. Do this. It takes a few seconds and helps her out tremendously!

We have to get out of the habit of Googling. Or only Googling. Sometimes Google is the right tool. However, Cyndi has provided us this fantastic free resource of genealogy-related links! AND she is a one-woman operation.

I have two requests:

  1. Visit Cyndi’s List. Examine her categories. Discover what you didn’t know you needed! Or find something to help answer your mysteries. (If you find a broken link, click that report button.)
  2. Send her a donation. Any amount is appreciated, I’m sure. Every penny helps her keep the site up and running! She foots the bill for all of the web costs (design, hosting, security) and puts hours and hours into maintaining those links!

Happy Birthday, Cyndi’s List! I for one appreciate you very much!

Marriage Announcements

You may have noticed that in October, Ancestry released a new database from Newspapers.com “U.S., Newspapers.com Marriage Index, 1800s-1999.” I have found the database to be a fantastic resource. From the Corporate blog:

“The Newspapers.com Marriage Index collection adds to the world’s largest, searchable digital archive of newspaper published historical wedding announcements. Since the early 1800s, newspapers across the country have been publishing rich information about engagements, marriage license applications, wedding announcements, and more.”1

I have been using the database for a couple of months now and I have to say I am quite impressed with some of the articles that I’ve found that I missed during other search sessions. I can’t say why I missed them, except that this database is narrowed down to marriage announcements only thereby narrowing down results you might otherwise get by doing a general search at Newspapers.com. I have found that it weeds out some of the “noise” for me in search results, allowing me to more easily spot articles that pertain to my research.

Of course, not every database is going to be flawless. And while machine learning algorithms can help, nothing beats human eyes and interpretation of the articles as we see them. So don’t rely solely on this database, especially if you know something should be there. However, it can help eliminate some of the chaff (we have millions of pages of digitized newspapers these days!) and perhaps bring forward some items you didn’t know existed.

If you have an Ancestry account, go to the card catalog and type in “U.S., Newspapers.com Marriage Index, 1800s-1999” in the title field, or the link directly to the database is here.2

I hope you find this new index as valuable as I have.


1. See “Ancestry® Debuts World’s Largest, Searchable Digital Archive of Newspaper Published Historical Wedding Announcements,” Ancestry Corporate (https://www.ancestry.com/corporate/blog/ancestry-debuts-worlds-largest-searchable-digital-archive-newspaper-published-historical : viewed 9 February 2021), published 19 October 2020.

2. Please note that Newspapers.com is a separate subscription from Ancestry unless you have one of their combined subscriptions. Also, if a newspaper article is in a newer issue of the newspaper, it might fall under their “Publishers Extra” subscription which is a separate fee. Among other things, this extra fee covers the extra licensing fees required to publish newspaper images that are still under copyright.

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.