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Finding Original Genealogy Records Online

Recent years have brought online images of certain records frequently used by genealogists. In most instances these records are available only by purchasing a subscription to the company supplying them.

Census records were one of the first offerings of online original records. The census has been taken in the United States every ten years since 1790. Beginning in 1850, everyone in a household was listed by name, along with information regarding sex, age, and place of birth. From 1880 on, relationships of those listed in each household were also included. In subsequent census years, additional information was gathered offering insight into family structure, date of marriage, number of children, occupation, and more.

Because the census lists everyone in a household and in some cases identifies family relationships, it is one of the more popular original records consulted by family historians. You will find many digitized graphics of original records through subscription and free sites.

Subscription Genealogy Sites:

Free Genealogy Sites:

  • HeritageQuest Online (www.heritagequest.com), available through many public libraries and genealogy societies

Before looking more deeply into images, one record type needs to be addressed, as it is becoming increasingly digitized: manuscript.

Finding Genealogy Manuscripts

The term manuscript, as it applies to records sought in genealogy, refers to any unpublished collection of papers. This could be letters or diaries from someone who traveled the Oregon Trail, for example. It could be the rosters or account books of a general store. It could even be a compiled family history never formally published. The National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections (NUCMC) (www.loc.gov/coll/nucmc/nucmc.html), is one of the best places to look for manuscript resources. NUCMC's online catalog allows you to search catalog entries from 1986 to the present. Pre-1986 entries must be searched in published volumes, which your local public library may have. NUCMC entries include the author (or originator of the collection), the title by which the collection is catalogued, the number of items the collection includes, notes or other important information about the collection, subjects under which it may be catalogued, and the repository housing the manuscript. NUCMC can also point genealogists to repositories with manuscripts available for viewing online.

Digitizing Genealogy Records: The Power of the Image

Until recently, most of what genealogists found online and used was not original in nature: Indexes, abstracts, transcripts, and compiled family history pages are all the result of human intervention in one form or another. These were either re-keyed from a printed source, run through an optical character recognition program (a program that allows the computer to read and translate into a text the graphic typed letters of a scanned page), or were the result of individuals' conclusions based on their own research.

Original records, such as the census, diaries, rosters, and ledgers, have long been available via microfilm, but until recently were most often located only in the manuscript collections of a single repository. The limited accessibility usually required you to travel to the source or hire a professional researcher to access the records. Today, some of these records are undergoing digitization.

Digitization of records is similar to taking a photocopy or picture of the original document. It means that you are looking at the original page, written in authentic handwriting. For an online record to be considered original, it must be a digitized copy of the record. When working with such a record, you need only worry about the mistakes or shortcomings in the original record, rather than human error during transcription or abstraction.

A census page found online may be considered an original if it is a digitized copy. A digitized copy is the computer equivalent to viewing the census on microfilm. As such, printing a census page from the Internet is just like going to a library, finding that page on microfilm, and making a photocopy.

Of course, digitized files are actually graphics, not text, and they must be downloaded before you can view them. If you don't have a speedy Internet connection, you may find it frustrating to wait for the image to load.

In addition to census records, other items are also being digitized. Complete issues of newspapers, including announcements of births, marriages, deaths, court proceedings, and news items, are a valuable resource in genealogy research.

Genealogists also use passenger lists in an effort to identify their ancestors' native countries and the year or time frame of their arrival in the United States. While only the later passenger lists (those created after 1906) include the actual place of birth, from the 1890s on, records also contain information about relatives left behind, including their addresses. Obviously, this information can be helpful in isolating a possible place of birth for an immigrant. Perhaps only the head of the family was included in some earlier indexes. Newer indexes of the same records may include everyone in the family unit. Passenger lists are available on microfilm, but not all of them have been indexed. Recent digitization efforts have made some passenger lists available online in index form, so check them out.

Other records that have been digitized include World War I draft registration cards and Civil War pension index cards. Every month brings family historians new resources on the Internet.

Visiting subscription sites and search engines will help you find out what is available. Subscription sites in particular keep subscribers up-to-date on new additions to their sites, usually by posting a message on the front page of the site. They continue to add more records because they want to keep your business.

Many libraries -- for example, the National Archives in Washington, D.C., some state archives, and individual Presidential libraries -- have digitized their collections to make them available online. The next page has the details on this fountain of information.

To learn more about building a genealogy, see How Genealogy Works.


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