4 Things You Should Do With Every Genealogy Source

There are so many different types of sources that we can use in our genealogy. But no matter what type of source you're using, there are 4 things that you should do to get the most out of it.

4 Things to Do With Every Genealogy Source


Generations Cafe Podcast, Episode 3

You can listen to this episode by clicking the play button below. (You can also listen on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Stitcher, and most other podcast apps.)
Length: 11 minutes.

What Is a Source?

A source doesn't have to be something that you find at a courthouse. A source is whatever you use to get a piece of information. It could be a will, a death certificate, or a tombstone. It could be a conversation that you had with your Aunt Ethel at the last family reunion. Sources take all different forms and shapes. 

1. Read the Whole Thing

You might think that you're reading the whole thing, but be honest. Are you really reading all of it? I've seen firsthand — witnessing people do this and doing it myself! — that the more excited you are to find a record, the more likely you are to skim it, looking for the piece of information that you want. What we all need to do is take a minute and actually read the entire document word for word.

One thing that I like to do is to transcribe that record, which means to copy it over word for word. Yes, it's going to take some time. Yes, it's going to take some effort, but it is amazing what you will find. Transcribing forces you to slow down and read the whole thing and you will find so many more details.

2. Identify All of the People and Places

There are clues beyond the references to your ancestor. Looking at all of the people and places that are mentioned can help put that record (and your ancestor) in context and generate ideas for more research. When you look at a marriage record, for example, did you notice the name of the person who officiated the wedding? Was that person a minister? If so, there could be a church record in addition to the civil record you found at the courthouse. What about the witnesses of that marriage? Are they listed on there? Could they somehow be related to the bride and groom? 

When you're looking at a deed, are you looking at the names of all of the grantors (sellers) and all of the grantees (buyers)? What about the names of other landowners? Sometimes a deed will include the names of the people who own adjoining land. (Those neighbors might be related.) ​

We also went to identify all of those places that are mentioned in the source. When you're looking at a deed, did you notice the residence of the grantor and the grantee? It might not be the same location as the land.  

3. Identify All of the Unfamiliar Terms

The third thing that you should do with any source that you're using is to identify any of unfamiliar term.

The further you go back in your research, the more likely it is that you're going to come across terms that you're not familiar with. I remember the first time that I was working in land records and saw that the land was being sold "with all appurtenances." I had no idea what an appurtenance was, so I looked it up so I could understand the record better. (
According to Merriam-Webster, in a legal sense, an appurtenance is "an incidental right (such as a right-of-way) attached to a principal property right and passing in possession with it.") ​

4. Consider the Source

The fourth thing that we need to do with whatever source we are using is to consider the source itself. Are we using the actual record or are we using a transcript or an index of it? We should always ask ourselves, is there something better that we could be using? 

In #genealogy, we should always ask, "Is there a better source that I could be using?" 

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Using a book of will abstracts published by the local genealogy society is not the same thing as using the will itself. There could be (and probably is) more information in the will then what made it into the book. There's also the possibility that something was either misread when they created the abstract or there was a typo or something interpreted incorrectly. 

Posted: September 20, 2018.

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  • This is the first podcast of yours that I have listened to. Those were really very sound suggestions for using sources. I must admit that I do not think about identifying all the people or transcribe the document, but I will reconsider that after listening to your reasons. Finding a better source is a really great suggestion. I had a marriage record for a couple in 1820s Germany that was from an indexed record at the Family History Library. It had all the essential information, but when I took the time to find the actual record, the priest had also included the date that the couple had left for America! That led to their passenger record. That might not have been found if I had not taken the time to look for the actual record. So your suggestion of looking for a better record is right on target!

  • Great podcast. I always learn something, even after 30 + years of trying to do this. When I have trouble reading through a source I try transcribing it. That helps me to figure out what each written word is exactly, and I don’t end up making an assumption. Thanks.

  • Great pointers, Amy. I never transcribed documents in the first few years, but now I do it virtually every time. And on censuses in the various countries, I also make sure the column headings are listed as well!

  • Amy,

    As with EVERYTHING you do these podcasts are the best! I’ve been doing research on and off for 20 years and learn new thing each time I read or listen to your posts! Thank you so much for sharing your knowledge with us!

  • My friend Dave was astounded when I presented him with a couple of the census records of his grandfather’s nuclear family. “How did you FIND all this information? I never knew that!” he said. I asked him if he had ever actually really looked at the census records he had procured. All I did was extract the information from the census and put it into a Word document that was more easily read. Sometimes I do extractions and sometimes I do word-for-word transcriptions. It all depends on the record. But this practice has stood me in extremely good stead.