Researching New Places

I’ve recently had occasion to give several library talks about researching in places that are new to you.

Generally, family historians start by doing research in the county and state where their ancestors lived most recently. There is a good chance that they know about the area–what it looks like, what it’s like to live there–either because they still live there or through visiting relatives there. Doing historical research in the area quickly brings familiarity with local research facilities–the courthouse, the library, the historical or genealogical society–and with the records of the area, including the newspapers their ancestors read.

What happens, though, when research leads to a different area, one the family historian is unfamiliar with? Luckily, there are great resources to quickly develop enough local knowledge to start research in the new area.
I like to start with a Google search. This usually connects me to Wikipedia articles, local government websites, maps, and other resources where I can get a quick overview of the area.

Once I’ve done that, I visit the free, online version of Ancestry’s Red Book on the Ancestry wiki. This gives me an overview of the major record types for the state, how they were kept, and where to find them. While I’m in the Ancestry wiki, I go to the state map and the county resources page at the end of the article for the state I am exploring and use the county resources table to get key information about the county I’m interested in–when it was formed, parent counties (if any), and when major kinds of records (birth, marriage, death, land, probate, court) begin there.

After I visit the Ancestry wiki, I go to the FamilySearch research wiki and read the articles there for the new state and county. This not only gives me an overview of the major record types, it provides links to major repositories and online record collections or indexes for the area. One of the best features is that the collection links include not only collections on the FamilySearch website but also collections on other websites.

When you start exploring new areas, it doesn’t take long before you’ve accumulated a lot of information–more than most of us are able to retain in our working memory. In order to avoid retracing too many exploratory steps (i.e., repeatedly looking up the same information), I created a Word template to capture what I think of as key information. You can download the template here on my website. If you’re an Evernote user, you can set up a similar template in Evernote.