As a beginning genealogist, you may think that vital records were always available because they are so commonplace today. However, birth, marriage, and death records are a modern invention Depending on where you’re researching, you need to know if and when such records were kept and if they are still in existence today.
#1 Where Are You Researching?
Before you begin looking for records you need to know the location you are researching. The more specific you can be, the better your chances of finding records for your ancestors.
If you know you are researching in Ohio, you’re going to have a hard time finding John Smith when the Buckeye State had about 34 counties in 1814 and 88 counties today.
It’s also important to know the culture of record keeping for the ancestor you’re attempting to research. If you’re researching in a country or culture that has an oral record keeping tradition, you’re not going to look for physical records that document your ancestry.
#2 When Are Your Researching
It’s important to know when you think your great-grandmother was born, got married, or died. Record keeping began at a certain time in each location. And neighboring counties, states, and countries began keeping records at varying points in history.
If your great-grandmother was born in Grundy County, Illinois in 1843, you have a problem. Grundy County began keeping records of birth around 1876. Since great-grandmother was born before that date,
#3 When Time and Place Impact Your Research Strategies
Knowing the time and the place is important because a specific location at a specific date in history may have a very different name than what you expect from today’s place name.
If you are researching in Germany in 1854, you’re going to be looking for a country that didn’t exist. Germany as we know it today did not form until 1871. So, you’re going to need a little more information to know where in “Germany” your ancestor was from in 1854 if you hope to have any success.
Where to Look for the Existence of Records?
The best place to look for whether a record might exist for your ancestor is to consult the FamilySearch Wiki. This Wiki is a user-contributed resource, which means that it doesn’t necessarily have everything but it’s a great resource that’s ever-evolving.
Follow the link to the FamilySearch Wiki and then type in your location or use the clickable map to narrow down your research area. If you type in your place, begin with the smallest geopolitical name first (i.e. city, parish, country).
Some Wiki Pages provide a handy snapshot of when records began to be kept. Be sure to read any follow-up commentary about the dates because the table might be factually accurate but not reveal the whole story about when records were kept at the civil level.
Not all Wiki Pages are created the same, as seen in this page for Germany. However, these quick reference guides get you pointed in the right direction when you’re starting from ground zero.
Does it exist online?
To research efficiently, don’t travel to a research facility if a collection is available online. Consult the FamilySearch Wiki pages for links to online record collections.
Many Wiki Pages will not only tell you record collection began to be kept, but also provide links to online collections. Not everything is online, but so much is!
Consult the links and then review the Wiki Pages for locations of courthouses and archives to continue your research offline.
Does it exist off FamilySearch?
Remember the FamilySearch Wiki pages are user-contributed. This means the links are to FamilySearch collections, as well as collections on FindMyPast, MyHeritage, Ancestry.com and more. Since volunteers add links to these pages, you might not find all the possible online collections available.
Use Google to Search Known Sites
On Google, add a known genealogy website, such as MyHeritage, FindMyPast, and Ancestry, to the search bar along with the place and record type you’re interested in. In the example above, I typed “MyHeritage ohio marriage” to search the MyHeritage site for Ohio Marriage collections. Notice the three results, which are really two if you take a closer look at the URL.
I could go to each of the genealogy database sites and search for collections but I find Google takes me directly to the pages I most want to view, so give it a try.
Genealogy websites aren’t the only place to find online record collections. Many state and national archives have record collections online. They might not always be searchable, but they’ll save you time traveling to a physical facility.
Could a record collection still exist?
After consulting the FamilySearch Wiki, additional genealogy websites, and archives, is it possible that a record for your ancestor is available online? Yes.
Is it possible that are record collection is available offline? Yes.
The question is, where should you search next? For that, you’ll have to consult a regional expert because the short answer is -- It Depends.