Steps For Genealogy Research In Any State

by Gena P. Ortega | Jul 26, 2011

Gena P. Ortega

It can be difficult to research an ancestor who lived in a state that you are not familiar with. Maybe your first inclination is to try a few genealogy websites and search for the census, vital records, military records and city directories. While this is one way to approach your research, you might also want to consider an approach that surveys all the resources available for the state.

As you research, consider putting together a checklist of resources that would include the following:

Research Guides

Why reinvent the wheel and try to find where documents are kept when you can use a guide, either found on the Internet or published in a book , to help you learn more about the locality you are researching?

The first place you will want to look is the FamilySearch Research Wiki. What were once printed research guides available at the Family History Library or Family History Center and then later as an online PDF file are now available through the Wiki. The advantage to having a resource guide on the wiki is that it can be updated as needed. With over 60,000 articles, you will find information about record types, repositories, and research techniques for the state you are researching. Because a wiki is a living, breathing document, make sure that you refer to it often for changes, corrections and additions.

In some cases there are books published by researchers and repositories about resources in a particular state. Some examples of these books include:

  • Davis, Robert S. Tracing Your Alabama Past. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2003.
  • Taylor, Frazine K. Researching African American Genealogy in Alabama: A Resource Guide. Montgomery: NewSouth Books, 2008.
  • Dumelle, Grace. Finding Your Chicago Ancestors: A Beginner's Guide to Family History in the City and Cook County. Chicago: Lake Claremont Press, 2005.
  • Szucs, Loretto D. Chicago and Cook County: A Guide to Research. Salt Lake City: Ancestry, 1996.
  • Baer, M T, Geneil Breeze, Judith Q. McMullen, and Kathleen M. Breen. Finding Indiana Ancestors: A Guide to Historical Research. Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Society Press, 2007.
  • Hogan, Roseann R. Kentucky Ancestry: A Guide to Genealogical and Historical Research. Salt Lake City, UT: Ancestry, 1992.
  • Coleman, Ruby R. Genealogical Research in Nebraska. Bountiful, Utah: Family Roots Pub. Co, 2011.
  • Dollarhide, William. New York State Censuses & Substitutes: An Annotated Bibliography of State Censuses, Census Substitutes, and Selected Name Lists in Print, on Microform, or Online : with County Boundary Maps, 1683-1915 : and State Census Examples and Extraction Forms, 1825-1925. Bountiful, UT: Heritage Creations, 2005.

Please note that because information can change some details in these books, especially about individual repositories, may be out of date. However, they still can be helpful in better understanding the repositories that exist, the history of the area and the record types available.

The National Genealogical Society (NGS) series Research in the States offers "guides to the history, records, and research facilities of a state." Sixteen guides are currently available either as a printed version or as an e-book. You can read more about the guides and the states they currently cover at their website,

Family History Library Catalog

One of the first places a researcher should look as they survey the records available to research is the Family History Library Catalog. The catalog can be searched by locality or keyword as well as by title, author, subject, surname, call number or film number. Search on the state, the county and the city you are researching. Take note of record types available. Conduct an exhaustive search of the catalog and note microfilm numbers of filmed documents that need to be searched. You can order microfilms at your local FamilySearch Center.

Learn More About Vital Records

One of the first places researchers tend to look is vital records and with good reason. Vital records can provide the information we need to continue our research including details of the event and the names of other family members. While the Family History Library Catalog, mentioned above, does have microfilmed copies of some vital records (don't forget to also look for transcribed and digitized copies on Family Search there are also other places to look for records online including You can browse our collection at here.

Your search for vital records should start with a search for what available on the Internet. An example of an online list of vital records on the Internet can be found on two sites created and maintained by genealogist Joe Beine. Online Searchable Death Records and Indexes and Online Birth and Marriage Records Indexes for the United States provide links to free and fee based databases.

In some cases, there are states that have digitized and provided their vital records to the public via their website. This is a convenient way to find and download the vital records you need. However, keep in mind that because of privacy restrictions, not all years will be available. Some states that provide this service are Arizona, Georgia, Cook County, Illinois, Michigan, Missouri, Utah, and West Virginia.

To find out the websites for government recorder offices and years that vital records were available for a state, check out the website VitalRec.

State Archives And Libraries

States have either an archive or a library that serves as a place where government records are kept as well as documents, books, newspapers, microfilm, maps, manuscripts that tell the story of the state's history, government and people. Some states have both an archive and a library while others may have a combined archive/library or just one of these entities.

To find a state library consult the website Libraries in the United States. I would also recommend this website for finding all of the libraries that could be helpful to your search including, private, public and academic. To find a list of state archives, including links and email addresses see the NARA list of State Archives.

Historical And Genealogical Societies

As you research don't forget about possible collections held by historical and genealogical societies. These collections can include everything from indexes, transcriptions, books , photos and manuscripts. Societies might hold, newspapers or clipping files, membership organization records, family history files and more. Also don't forget about the expertise that a society may offer. Their members may have lived in the area for many generations and have a vast knowledge of the place and the people, they may have spent time researching the history of the people for a book or society project, and they may be very familiar about researching the records of the area.

Make sure that you look for any state or regional societies that exist. Each may have a unique collection and ability to assist your project. To find a society consult Society Hill which has listing for genealogical and historical societies in the United States, Canada and Australia.

The above is just the beginning as you search for your ancestor. Don't forget to also find historical maps of the locality , newspapers from their time period and identify any local libraries that will have materials pertinent to your research. Making sure you do all of the above with each and every research project so you can easily identify and find the information that you need.

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