Hints for Historical Research
Whether you want to know more about your family, write a historical novel, or encourage your community to preserve its history, good research is critical. Before you start, understand the difference between primary (written or produced during time period studied or the time person lived) and secondary (written or produced after the time period or the person lived). Both are important in research and drawing conclusions, but have different benefits.
Primary sources often provide facts while secondary sources color events or circumstances with the ability to look back over time. Secondary sources are textbooks, biographies, history books, or articles written by others. These are a good place to start your research and you can piggyback off of others’ work by looking at their bibliography. However, primary sources are the foundation that you will build your story upon.
Here are some suggestions for places to go for primary sources:
1. Oral History Interviews
Are there family members who can tell you family history and stories? Are there community members who remember events or places? Remember to start your questions with Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How. These are questions that will be answered with a story instead of “yes” or “no.” A good place to get more information is http://dohistory.org/on_your_own/toolkit/oralHistory.html
2. Family Bibles
If someone in your family kept good records, you may find information in a family Bible. Just remember that these are also prone to human error or deliberate misleading if there was something that the family wanted to hide.
3. Census Records
Census records can be found on Ancestry.com (charges a fee but some libraries have it available on public access) or familysearch.com (free). Your local library may also have various census records available on microfilm or in print. Remember that there is sometimes human error in the census. Recorders misspelled names, date of birth, or even assigned people to the wrong household. It is still a great place to start looking for people.
4. Immigration Records
If the people you are looking for immigrated to the United States, you may be able to find their immigration papers or ship arrival dates using Ancestry or Family Search websites (see above). These take a lot of time to go through so don’t get discouraged if you don’t find anything right away. Also remember, there were a lot of arrival ports and the people you are looking for may not have used the most obvious site of entry. For example, they may have come through Canada or, if coming from the south, New Orleans, instead of New York.
5. General or City Directories
These were printed to locate people or businesses in a community. They are like a phone book, but list people by name or you can look by address. They are a great tool to find buildings or neighborhoods were people lived or businesses that they might frequent. Libraries or archives often have these and the dates available depend on the city where you are looking.
6. Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps
These maps, used to help insurance brokers determine the cost of coverage, are a helpful companion to Directories. The Sanborn Fire Insurance maps show locations of buildings, construction materials, and proximity to other buildings or businesses. If you have a series of maps over time, it will also help you determine the age of a building. Sanborn maps for some states can be found at the Library of Congress, or check local or state archives to see if they have them in their collection.
7. School Records
Some communities have collections of historic school records. They may be housed at the School District or transferred to a library or archives. These often give a child’s age and parents’ names.
8. Probate Files
Check to see if historic probate files are still available. If they are and you can find a person you are looking for, they have a wealth of information, sometimes including an inventory of the deceased’s belongings. These are mostly filed for men as laws prior to the 1920s in some parts of the United States prevented women from directly inheriting their husband’s property and wealth. Check also to see if guardianship papers were filed for children. If their father died, even though their mother was still living, courts may have required a guardian be established for the children to ensure that their inheritance was “protected” from the woman’s “unwise” spending.
9. Marriage Licenses
These are a good source to help trace a family line. They can be found on Ancestry, Family Search or in government offices. Remember that they are usually filed by groom’s name and don’t forget to keep track of a woman’s married names if she married more than once. In recent years, a parent’s name might be included if the bride or groom is under legal age, but this was rarely noted before the 1930s and 40s.
10. Birth Certificates
Birth certificates are a relatively new document. Prior to the 1930s, it was rare that a birth certificate was issued. In the 1930s, people born without a birth certificate often filed for a Delayed Birth Certificate in order to file for Social Security. Don’t forget to check christening or church baptism records sometimes found online as well.
11. Deed Books
Purchases of property, land, boats, horses, vehicles, even slaves, can be found in Deed Books. These are usually housed in government offices or archives. Keep track of the years you are looking for and make sure you go to the correct county or district. If the area you are looking for was divided over time, you may not find what you are looking for in the county seat that is currently assigned for your community. Familysearch.com has some land records available in their catalogues as well.
Google has a wonderful collection of historic newspapers online. If the community you are looking for does not have a newspaper in this collection, don’t give up. Newspapers often reprinted what they found in other sources, so the people, community, or event could be in another newspaper, even one miles away from where you are searching. These also give you an idea of the type of weather, fashions in style, current events, crops, or other products. The main problem with using these newspapers is that you get caught up in reading about things you are not searching for, so don’t get sidetracked! Library of Congress, local, and state libraries may have newspapers on file that are not listed on this site as well.
13. Court Records
Court records add vitality to stories, but you may not be prepared for what you find! Divorces, criminal records, and other surprises are hidden in these files usually found in local or state archives. Dig deep, there are treasures there that help to make your story interesting and relevant.
Tombstone inscriptions are a good sources of birth and death dates. Although there are sometimes errors, they are generally accurate. Not to mention they give you clues into a person’s character or how their family felt about them by the inscriptions on the tombstone! Volunteers input data onto http://www.findagrave.com/ so you can virtually visit cemeteries all over the country.
Museum exhibits show how people lived, what they wore, educational and recreational opportunities, and customs. Also, many museums now have digital archives where you can look at artifacts such as clothing and household goods online.
Just a note from someone who has been on both sides of the counter as a research librarian and researcher: call before you go to a library or archives to check their hours and what is available to you. Don’t arrive thirty minutes before they close expecting to find everything you need. As much as they would like to, librarians usually cannot stay past closing to help you because of wage and hour laws. Also, don’t expect the librarian to do your work for you. They can help get you started and answer questions as you work, but you will need to do the research yourself. They have other customers to help. Even if no one is at the counter, they are helping customers through email, mail, or phone requests.
Once you have a variety of primary sources, use them like pieces of a puzzle to try to put your story together. Not everything is available in documents; they don’t tell us why a person acted a certain way or what they thought. You may have to imagine their circumstances and decision-making process for yourself. Unless you are writing fiction, don’t present it as fact, but say, “They may have done this or that for this reason,” “It is unclear from evidence, but I believe…” or “It is possible that…” Be prepared to explain your reasoning for your statement. Keep track of your resources in case anyone asks you how you came to that conclusion.