Categories of Research Sources and Tools

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This article originally appeared in Printed Sources: A Guide to Published Genealogical Records, edited by Kory L. Meyerink.



A researcher in any field can divide the books and records he uses into two classes: research sources and reference tools. Research sources are those books and records which actually provide data that a researcher needs to solve a problem at hand. For family historians, these are the genealogical records which provide family data for charts and family group records. Reference tools provide auxiliary information to help researchers find the right research sources. Reference tools include bibliographies, indexes, instructional material, and other reference aids.

These two classes can be divided into four categories, and these categories form the basic structure of this book. Reference tools consist of (1) background information and (2) finding aids. Research sources, or, for genealogists’ purposes, genealogical sources, include (1) original records (in this book the focus is restricted to copied original records) and (2) compiled records. (See “Categories of Genealogical Information” on the following page.)

Background Information

Background information helps researchers understand the settings in which records were created and the places, groups, or subjects of the records. Background information also includes descriptions of the circumstances of life in particular times or places. Generally, researchers use background information to help them select or use the best genealogical sources. Because sources containing background information can treat any subject, they are described here.

Dictionaries and Encyclopedias

Dictionaries and encyclopedias present related information with brief narrative entries, usually alphabetically. The most common kind of dictionary is the word dictionary, which lists words with their meanings. Almost any field of knowledge can be represented in a dictionary or encyclopedia format. The Dictionary of American History, for example, lists major events in American history and then defines them in a few brief paragraphs. These reference tools provide the background information genealogists need as they approach problems to be solved.

In genealogical research, dictionaries often focus on the families of an area. Brief genealogical information about those families follows each surname. Biographical encyclopedias often work in the same way. In them, individuals are usually listed alphabetically by their names, followed by a biographical sketch (sometimes brief, sometimes lengthy). In such works the entries are not alphabetized; they rely on an index to provide access to specific entries.

Gazetteers are dictionaries that focus on geographical terms for specific areas. They are often grouped with maps and atlases, which provide geographic background information in a pictorial format.


Instructions are (or should be) the beginning point for any researcher. These come in the form of handbooks, manuals, guidebooks, or how-to books. Generally, they are narrative in style and represent their authors’ suggestions regarding methodology and sources for research in a country, state, or county. Printed Sources, like The Source, is an example of such a book.

Instructional books that focus on research in specific states have emerged in the last few years. Many of these are really more like inventories or bibliographies and offer little in the way of suggestions for research. Both types are important and useful, but it is important to understand the book and its perspective before relying on it too heavily.

Other Reference Tools

Every library contains other reference tools that provide background information for astute researchers. It is important to be aware of them, although they are generally less applicable to genealogical research than the sources described above. These include almanacs, chronologies, collected works, maps, picture books, statistics, and yearbooks. Almost unique to North American research are a host of sources that discuss the ethnic backgrounds of Americans’ ancestors.

Finding Aids

Finding aids indicate where specific information can be found, either in a record (as with indexes) or in a repository (such as library catalogs). Generally, finding aids contain no genealogical information; rather, they serve as pointers so that researchers can find information faster.

Bibliographies and Catalogs

A bibliography is a list of sources that have a common theme for example, Local Histories in the Library of Congress. Bibliographies alert researchers to sources that may be helpful in their research. Some bibliographies exist alone as books, but they are often found as parts of other books or references, such as lists of sources consulted in the creation of a book. Very few are truly comprehensive in listing every source in a field; rather, they are usually selective based on certain criteria determined by their editors. Many genealogical bibliographies attempt to list every source pertaining to the topic because they seek to be comprehensive finding aids for researchers looking for obscure references. Library catalogs, union lists, and books-in-print lists are also bibliographies.

Each entry in a bibliography should include complete publishing information about the book specifically author, title, place of publication, publisher, and year published. In addition, the edition, number of volumes, and, occasionally, number of pages, is indicated. Some bibliographies (called union lists) include references naming at least one library where the book is located. Others are annotated they include a brief statement about the book’s value, content, arrangement, and so on.

Catalogs are similar to bibliographies in that they are lists of sources. However, they focus on the collections (or parts of collections) of specific libraries. While most bibliographies and catalogs focus on published books and/or articles, manuscripts are often described in an inventory. Inventories are listings of the holdings of archives and other manuscript repositories. By their nature, they are often more explanatory in nature than library catalogs.


Directories are lists of addresses that usually focus on common themes. Simple directories, such as telephone books, list only names, addresses, and telephone numbers. Most directories used for reference usually give more information. The entries may be of individuals, such as a directory of research interests which lists persons and the surnames, families, or individuals they are interested in researching.

Other directories list societies, organizations, or institutions with specific interests. Their value generally lies in the descriptions or annotations given with the addresses. It does little good to learn that a society exists if the researcher can learn nothing about the interests and activities of the society. Such directories of interest to genealogists include the American Library Directory and Mary K. Meyer’s Meyer’s Directory of Genealogical Societies in the U.S.A. and Canada.

City directories, like telephone books, are directories of names; they are also very valuable in genealogical research. However, they are not finding aids. They provide genealogical information and can be considered as original records (created at the time of the event by a house-to-house canvas) even though they were reproduced as printed books. City directories have been very well discussed in The Source and therefore are not included in this book.


Indexes are alphabetically arranged lists of information found in another record (or another location in the same record). They may refer to names in a census, topics or persons in a history, or words in a text. They serve the important purpose of helping the researcher find information within a source. Because indexes are created from other sources, they are always secondary or tertiary in nature. Generally, they do not make the difference between success and failure for a researcher, as other printed sources do, but they do allow researchers to pursue their goals much faster. There are many considerations in the use of indexes, such as the completeness of the index.

Original Records

Original records are those sources that contain the first recording of an event (birth, marriage, death, probate, land purchase, census enumeration, pension, etc.); they are generally recorded near the time of the event by someone who was present and associated with the event. Because the record was made in proximity to the event, it should include primary information; as noted earlier, however, some of the information in an original record will be secondary in nature.

Original records can be wrong a fact that must be recognized. Secondary and even primary information in an original source may have been recorded incorrectly. The church blessing record of this author’s daughter calls her the son of Kory Meyerink. The church clerk simply crossed out the wrong word on a pre-printed form which offered the choice between son and daughter. Likewise, a great-uncle’s birth was recorded incorrectly in the Massachusetts town where he was born. Births were recorded on registration days in the 1880s; the town clerk inadvertently copied the birth date of the child recorded just prior to the great uncle’s. Family records, and even the 1900 census, include the correct date, but the official town record, an original record, is in error.

The problems are compounded when researchers try to read too much into a source, even if it is an original record. What novice researcher has not been guilty of assuming that all the children listed in the 1850 census were born to the older man and woman of the same surname in the same household? This is a common assumption, yet the children could be nieces, nephews, stepchildren, cousins, siblings, adopted children, or perhaps not related to the parents at all. The same caution that a good researcher uses in evaluating compiled records and secondary information must be used with original records and primary information (see Evaluation of Printed Sources).

Printed Original Records

Original records can exist in printed form and still contain primary information. Consider current methods of recording events. Much of what is written today is entered into computers that produce printed copies. No one would argue that a journal entry recorded near the time of an event is not an original record that also contains primary information. However, more and more journal entries today are being made and stored using home computers.

Some more-applicable examples for the genealogist are newspapers and city directories. Both of these sources have to be considered original records by the definition in use here, yet both are printed and contain primary information. The key consideration is their creation, not their format. Both newspapers and city directories contain the first recordings of one or more events by people close to the events. Often, newspaper reporters are more qualified and objective (even those in earlier days) than the eyewitnesses to an event; in fact, many reporters are eyewitnesses themselves to the events they write about. Again, it is the provenance, or origin, of the record that defines the kind of record it is. Certainly newspapers, like other original records, include secondary information, such as the birth information in an obituary. But they are original records and much of their information is primary.

W. B. Stephens writes about three sorts of published primary sources: first, original materials later reproduced in published form, such as the Territorial Papers of the United States; second, microform editions of original material; and third, publications of governments and private concerns, such as "newspapers, pamphlets, directories, gazetteers, and the like" (1991, 19).

Copied Original Records

Copied records are those which reproduce, in whole or in part, the contents of original records. Copies of original records, such as abstracts, extracts, transcripts, and translations, whether printed or made by hand, can also be considered versions of original records because they preserve the information, much of it primary, and the text (or key portions) found in the record. The point here is that the copying is rather mechanical; the copyist did not evaluate the information or combine it with data from other sources (which would make it a compiled record).

The idea that copies of original records can be considered the same as the originals is standard among historians, as noted by Jacques Barzun and Henry F. Graff (1977, 94): "In historiography, a primary source is distinguished from a secondary by the fact that the former gives the words of the witnesses or first recorders of an event. . . . The historian, using a number of such primary sources, produces a secondary source.”

There are, however, important concerns about copied original records, as expressed by Dr. Craig W. Horle, the chairman of the Publications Committee for the Genealogical Society of Pennsylvania:

. . . despite the burgeoning appreciation for a professional approach to genealogy, there persists a gulf between the growing professionalism of many genealogists and the continuing amateurishness of too many genealogical publishers and publishing houses. Over the last decade there has been an incredible outpouring of publications of original records aimed at genealogists and also aimed at making a nice, quick, profit for small publishers, a development assisted by the rapid advances in computerized desktop publishing technology. While some of these publications reflect high standards, most do not, a disturbing trend that rankles historians, archivists, and professional genealogists alike (1992, 21718).

How, then, should a distinction be made between a copied original record and the uncopied, first-generation record? Such a distinction does make a difference when it comes to evaluating research findings (see Evaluation of Printed Sources). Printed Sources uses the term actual document when discussing first-generation records. These are precisely the kinds of records that are treated in The Source; its discussion includes, for instance, both newspapers and city directories. For this reason they are not included in Printed Sources.

Records and sources are copied in many different ways, especially with the growing use of computers. Some records have been entered into computer databases, and many others have been microfilmed. Some hand-copied records remain in manuscript form. This discussion, however, will focus on records that have been abstracted, extracted, transcribed, or translated and then printed. All of these methods of copying sources are used to make the sources more accessible to researchers. Therefore, the researcher must understand the essential differences in these types of copied sources.


Abstracts are copies of sources that include only the genealogically significant material from the original. The issue here is this: what did the abstractor consider to be genealogically significant? All of the essential information from the document should be included, such as the date of the event, names of persons and places, relationships, and a brief description of the event. A good abstract will include the names of neighbors, witnesses, bondsmen, and others; however, many do not. An abstract does not have to comprise a word-for-word copy of the information, nor does it have to be in the exact order of the source document. Often, the abstracted information is presented in a brief tabular format, such as this fictitious example:

Name: Henry Wilcox
Date of will: Jan. 23, 1867
Bequests to: wife Mary, sons John, William, Henry Jr., daughters Sarah Goldsworthy, Susan Jenkins, Mary
Executor: Mary
Witnesses: Joseph Miles, Frank Williams
Residence: Henrico County

Note that the above example leaves much to be desired. It does not indicate the size of the estate, when the will was proved, who received what items under what conditions, or if daughter Mary was married. While this may not be a good example, it is typical of many abstracts. In most cases, the most important information is abstracted, but the greatest value of such abstracts may be as finding tools. Through them the researcher can learn if a will or probate exists, but she should then seek the original. Also, many abstracts have every-name indexes, so the researcher can learn if an ancestor was mentioned in records relating to someone else. Usually the original records are only indexed, if at all, under the names of the principal parties, such as the testator of a will or the grantor and grantee of a deed.


Extracts are quite similar to abstracts; many researchers confuse them. Like abstracts, extracts include only the essential information. However, the arrangement of the information follows the original exactly. The genealogical information is copied word for word from the original, but the entire original is not copied. Omissions from the original are indicated by ellipses for example, to John, Mary, and Henry. . . three acres of land each. Obviously, an extract may present the same concern as an abstract: What did the extractor consider important? Also, the meaning of a record is sometimes lost or obscured when some information is left out. On the other hand, the omission of legal terminology may make records easier to understand for the typical user.


Transcripts are complete, word-for-word copies of entire documents. Generally they exist to help researchers use and understand records originally recorded in old handwriting. In colonial America (and in pre-1800 England), most records were written by clerks who had been trained in any of a variety of handwriting styles; some of the styles bear little resemblance to modern cursive script. Sometimes the only way to clearly understand a document is to consider the complete text. If the reader’s understanding is impeded by writing that is difficult to read, meaning in the record may be lost.

Probate records, especially wills, are frequent subjects of transcripts. Rarely are entire volumes of wills transcribed; all of the wills for a certain surname in a specific locality might be subjects for a particular transcription. Such transcriptions are most often found in family or surname periodicals. Census records and cemetery tombstones are also common candidates for transcription. Here, however, the entire record, such as a county census or all of the tombstones in a cemetery, is usually transcribed.

The limitations of transcriptions are different from those of abstracts or extracts. A transcript does not require the compiler to decide what information to include or exclude. However, as with other copied sources, the user must take into account the transcriber’s ability to decipher the original document. Letters such as L and S look the same in some records. If only initials were used in a census, there are no complete names (such as Lucy or Susan) to provide clues to the transcriber as to what was actually written. Whole words may look similar. The names Daniel and David can be hard to distinguish because v and n are difficult to tell apart, as are el and d. A careful transcriber will outline in the work’s preface how the work was done how discrepancies or unclear entries were copied, for example. She should also indicate her qualifications for the work and the conditions under which she worked. It is useful to determine if the original source was actually transcribed from microfilm (a common method) or from the original document (a microfilm copy is usually not as legible as the original document; a transcription based on microfilm suggests an increased possibility of transcription errors). The physical conditions encountered by the transcriber may also have affected the work; were the lighting and temperature adequate? (A transcriber is not as careful if she is uncomfortable with the working conditions, such as in dark, cold, musty courthouse basements.)

A true transcript reproduces the record letter for letter as it appears in the original, including misspellings, abbreviations, corrections, etc. However, many transcribers cannot resist editing. They may make corrections in the record, expand abbreviations, omit words that were crossed out on the original, and perform other surgery on the text of the record. If these actions are explained and annotated throughout the transcription, they may be permissible. However, when a transcriber takes it upon himself to edit the original, he does a great disservice to the eventual user. If the original text is very difficult to understand without editing, it should be transcribed exactly as found and be accompanied by a modified text to help the reader understand the original. In such a case the original is still available (as a transcript) for comparison.


A translation is similar to a transcript; the difference is that the transcript’s original is in a foreign language. Generally, the translator provides the entire record, although in some cases only an extracted translation is given. In U.S. research, of course, translations of original sources are rare, because most records were made in English originally. However, some important colonial records have been translated from the German (in Pennsylvania) and Dutch (in New York). The series New York Historical Manuscripts, Dutch, 16381662 (Holland Society of New York, 197478), is an example.

While any foreign-language record is a candidate for translation, court, probate, and (especially) church records are most commonly found as translations. Concerns to be aware of in using translations are much the same as for transcriptions. Try to determine how accurately the translation was done and what qualifying experience the translator had. For many New York and Pennsylvania church records, more than one translation/transcription may exist. The researcher will want to check each one. Read the prefatory material in such publications to learn how certain aspects of the work, such as abbreviations or odd spellings of names, were treated. Was all the information translated or were witnesses to a birth ignored? Often the original is no longer available, so be sure to evaluate the translation carefully.

Copied (published) original records are the most common printed genealogy sources.

Compiled Records

Many printed sources are compiled records. A compiled record is the product of an editor or author who composed the arrangement or text of the work. Compiled records contain new information or new interpretations of existing information. Being derived from other sources or records, they generally provide secondary and tertiary information. They contain the results of research in books and documents, or the results of original experiments (in the pure sciences). A compiled record may be in the form of an essay, novel, report, or any other created work. The distinguishing characteristic of a compiled record is that the information contained in it is new in some way and not simply copied from another source. Indeed, the reference tools described above could also be considered compiled works. However, Printed Sources, as do many genealogical circles, uses a more limited definition: compiled records are those records that provide actual genealogical information whose content is derived from the research and evaluation of original records and/or other persons’ research. Thus, the use and evaluation of other sources (original and compiled) is the chief characteristic of compiled records.

A compiled source has its basis in other records. It may have been compiled from one or more original records, other compiled records, or some combination of both. The author may quote from some other sources, but the source’s content is the responsibility of its creator. A good compiled source will contain an explanation of the methods of its creation and the sources it was based upon (see below under Evaluation of Printed Sources). A knowledgeable researcher can usually also determine the sources from which a compiled record was derived.

Researchers should not assume that a record is original simply because it is in handwritten form, or compiled because it is in printed form. Compiled sources are usually but not always printed. The most common forms of handwritten secondary sources are genealogical research notes and findings of other researchers.


Histories provide important information to researchers about the areas where ancestors lived. They may also include information about particular ancestors or their immediate family or relatives. It is essential for researchers to have some background knowledge about the areas they are researching when the county was created, what churches existed there at what times, where other settlers came from, and similar information. Usually the researcher relies on county and local histories, but national histories can also provide important information.

Histories come in a wide variety of formats and have varied contents; they can include biographies and family genealogies. Generally they are narrative in style (as opposed to the list style of many copied original records) and are very much the product of an author (or several authors), rather than an editor or compiler.

Family histories, or genealogies, are among the printed sources most commonly used by genealogists. They present the history of a family and appear in numerous formats. They may list all or some of a person’s descendants or ancestors. They may provide only basic genealogical information or a longer narrative history about each person or family.

A special kind of compiled genealogy is that which discusses noble lineages. Although obviously not American sources, these represent a unique collection of printed sources that are frequently used by American researchers. In fact, some such sources are not compiled records; rather, they are copied (printed) original records. There is great interest in such noble lineages among American researchers, and some Americans’ ancestry can actually be traced to noble families.


Periodicals are a unique form of printed source. A periodical can contain all of the above-described types of sources in a single issue. Periodicals are usually issued at regular intervals (such as quarterly) by a society or institution, or sometimes by an individual. Genealogical periodicals generally focus on a specific theme, such as the records of a particular locality or time period. Not only do they contain a variety of sources; the quality of their content can be very uneven because of the variety of authors who contribute to them. The lack of regular indexes can also make them difficult to use.

Printed Sources: A Guide to Published Genealogical Records

Publication Information:

Introduction - By Kory L. Meyerink

Origin of InformationCategories of Research Sources and ToolsEvaluation of Printed SourcesDocumentation and CopyrightLearning What Printed Sources ExistPublishers and DistributorsRepositories of Printed SourcesEffective Use of Libraries and Archives

Chapter 1: General Reference - Martha L. Henderson

Unique Resources in Public LibrariesDewey Decimal Classification SystemReference SourcesEncyclopediasGeneral History SourcesSocial History SourcesAlmanacs, Chronologies, and Statistical SourcesUsing DirectoriesLocal DirectoriesPrinted Professional DirectoriesInstitutional DirectoriesDirectories of Groups and AssociationsSource GuidesGeneral Language DictionariesHistorical and Etymological DictionariesSlang DictionariesSubject DictionariesSurname DictionariesGovernment DocumentsUsing BibliographiesElectronic SourcesReferences for Printed Sources: Chapter 1

Chapter 2: Instructional Materials - Sandra Hargreaves Luebking

Introduction to Instructional MattersHow-To Guides and Manuals for AdultsHow-to Guides and Manuals for Young PeopleGenealogy Technologies and Refinement of SkillsCourses and Programs of StudyPeriodical ArticlesIdentifying and Obtaining Instructional MaterialsEvaluating Instructional MaterialsSelecting Textbooks for Classroom UseThe Future of Instructional MaterialsReferences for Printed Sources: Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Introduction to Geographic ToolsIntroduction to Maps and GazettersMapping of a New NationRoutes to the WestCanals and WaterwaysRailroadsPolitical MapsNineteenth-Century MapsUSGS Topographic MapsOrdering Topographic Map Names and NumbersOrdering Topographic MapsDigital Topographic MapsOut-of-Print Topographic MapsFact Sheets and General Interest PublicationsOther Types of USGS MapsNineteenth-Century National GazetteersTwentieth-Century National GazetteersPostal Guides and Shipping GuidesMaps, Gazetteers, and the ComputerFinding Geographic ToolsUsing Geographic ToolsReferences for Printed Sources: Chapter 3

Chapter 4

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Chapter 5

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Chapter 6

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Chapter 7

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Chapter 8

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Chapter 9

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Chapter 10

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Chapter 11

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Chapter 12

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Chapter 13

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Chapter 14

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Chapter 15

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Chapter 16

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Chapter 17

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Chapter 18

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Chapter 19

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Chapter 20

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