Genealogy: Research techniques for societies, libraries, archives & special collections

Icon-Research Skills-MethodologyBy Barry J. Ewell

As a genealogist and family historian, you already have a great insight into research and how to find the answers.  In fact, you are pretty resourceful in finding and following clues.  As you broaden your research into the local, county, regional, and state resources discussed you will find that much of your research will fall into the working with and exploring “primary” sources.  You probably already know the following research techniques, so the next few lines may be a review.

Research using primary sources can be a time consuming process. Unlike library items such as books and serials (e.g., magazines, newsletters), many primary sources do not appear in the library catalog or on the Web. Two of the most common methods of locating materials are word-of-mouth and examining footnotes in relevant secondary sources.

Trace footnotes and endnotes. Footnote and endnote tracing is the use of footnotes or endnotes found in books or articles to identify other relevant material. The advantage of using footnotes to locate materials is that they often provide a citation to a specific primary source within a larger collection. Sometimes citations even offer commentary on the cited work. Finally, the use of material in a scholarly work provides a way of judging the usefulness of the material.

Talk to scholars or other experts. Talking to people who have already done work in the field of interest is another way of locating relevant primary sources. Within their area of specialization, these experts are apt to be familiar with a majority of the material written about a given topic as well as the major collections of primary sources that support their research.

As a researcher, you will find many “experts” on topics of local and regional topics and research.  These individuals will help you locate and find material.  I have had experiences where local experts have been the key to unlock doors.   For example,

  • I was searching in one town for the land of an ancestor. While searching for the property and gravesite, I was referred to a local historian that lived in an out of the way area.   After finding the historian, he took me directly to the property and gravesite that was little more than a field with stones on edge for the headstones.  Upon inviting me back to his home, he answered key questions I had been searching for.  He also had several rare books of local history and genealogies that had been out of print for 75 plus years that he allowed me to digitally photograph.  I couldn’t have done it without his help.
  • Imadean appointment with a county historical society several weeks ahead of my arrival, and corresponded via email about my research priorities. Upon my arrival, I found that the staff had
    • Pulled multiple books they had in their personal library and had the information I was seeking already marked.
    • Set out several “family” vertical files on surnames and topics related to my search.
    • Had on duty a member of the society that was knowledgeable about my particular area of the county.
    • Had suggestions of other areas I should research and people with whom I should speak.
    • Had a 17 page unpublished, extensively documented historical society research paper on the formation of a specific church and congregation that my ancestors helped form.

The efforts of the local experts saved me hours of research, and years in searching for information that was only known to the local experts.  An expert can also be other professors, historians, or the author of a book or article on a certain topic.

Talk to Librarians, Curators, and Archivists.  Most librarians, curators, and archivists are knowledgeable about the subject areas related to their collections. They often know of similar collections in other institutions or other people doing similar work. They are also the best source for information about materials in their repository that may not be listed in a library catalog, website or finding aid.

Google. As more special collection repositories are placing descriptions, finding aids, databases, and digital reproductions of primary sources from their collections on the web, it is possible to do a certain amount of research using Google and other search engines. However, it is important to keep in mind that not everything is available from your home computer. An unsuccessful search does not mean materials about your topic do not exist, but rather it may be necessary to contact or visit the repository in person.

Google indexes millions of pages and can sometimes leave a researcher overwhelmed with the numbers of returned pages. Below are some hints for effectively searching Google for special collection material:

Searching for a certain phrase.  For results that include a certain phrase place the text in “quotes.” This is particularly helpful when searching for proper names.

Use of specific terms. Use special collections-specific terms such as “records,” “archives,” “papers,” and “manuscripts” to locate relevant primary source material.

Use of the + (plus sign).  Google excludes common words and characters as well as single digits and letters. If these are important to your search place a “+” in front of the word or number. Be sure to include a space before the plus sign.

How to exclude irrelevant terms. You can exclude irrelevant terms from your search by placing a “-” in front of words related to the meaning you want to avoid. Be sure to include a space before the minus sign.  For Example:

You are researching the Protestant Reformation in the 16th Century and want information on reformer Martin Luther. You type “Martin Luther” into Google and receive 74 million hits. By typing “Martin Luther” – king, the number of hits is reduced to a mere 12 million.

While the number of hits using the “not” operator is significantly reduced, this is also a good example of how too many hits may not be useful. In this case, it might be more productive to look at several books about the Protestant Reformation and see which primary sources the author used.

Search all local archives, libraries, and other repositories.  Often other libraries in the area are valuable sources of primary source information. Many public libraries collect books, vertical files, and other types of information on people, places, and events of regional interest. These are materials that may be difficult to find elsewhere.

It is important when researching any topic to speak with the people who work in these places. It is entirely possible that very similar collections exist in multiple locations within a state.

Search library catalogs.  Library catalogs are traditionally used to locate books. However, many other special collections materials can also be found by searching library catalogs. These records provide subject and keyword access to very brief descriptions of a collection. Some catalogs also link to finding aids or digital collections.

Special Collections traditionally have a large amount of material that is unprocessed. These materials usually do not appear in catalogs. Institutions often create internal ways of controlling these materials so researchers will need to contact institutions to inquire about unprocessed and/or uncatalogued materials.

Tips for Searching Indexes and Databases

Most library databases work on the same principles when you are searching for a topic: keyword/subject searching and the use of Boolean operators and truncation symbols.  Note: These are general guidelines; please consult the Help screens in each database you use to determine what features are available and how they might be different from those described below, e.g., the truncation symbol may be a dollar sign ($) instead of an asterisk.

  • Keyword searches looks for your search terms in the title, author, description, subject heading, and notes fields in the catalog’s records. Use only key terms, and not articles (A, An or The), prepositions or most punctuation symbols. This is a good place to begin most searches.
  • Title searches look for the word or phrase in the title fields of the catalog’s records. Order and spelling are important, but initial articles are ignored.
  • Journal Title searches find only journals, magazines and newspapers with the entered title. You can also search the E-journals Database from this screen.
  • Author searches should be entered with the last name first. Commas are optional. You can also search for corporate authors as well as directors and stars of movies.
  • Author/Title searches combine an author search (last name first) with a keyword search of the title terms, so order of title words in this case doesn’t matter.
  • Subject searches look for Library of Congress Subject Headings. If you are unsure of which Subject Heading to use, you may want to start with a keyword search.
  • Number searches include call numbers and standard numbers. You can search for Library of Congress call numbers, government document call numbers, or locally assigned call numbers, such as video or DVD call numbers. You can also search for standard numbers like ISBNs or ISSNs.
  • Advanced searches allow for many more limiting options, such as by publication date, format or language. You can also combine search terms or search fields on this screen.

Keywords vs. Subject Headings Searches

  • The use of subject headings (also known as descriptors) is the method by which an index or database has designated “official” terms or phrases for a topic.
  • Searching by keyword often can return many results, some of which may be irrelevant to your topic; subject searching focuses the search and returns fewer results; most, if not all, of them will be directly relevant to your search.
  • Keyword searching searches many fields, e.g., title, abstract, subject headings, whereas subject heading searching searches only the subject heading field.
  • Search first by keyword, find records which are relevant to your search, then look for the subject headings assigned to the record, there are often several — jot them down, then execute a subject search.