"You discover that the vital clue necessary to prove your link to [you
fill in the blank] is somewhere in the middle of a one thousand page county
history and it's not indexed!" This is one of the many genealogy
jokes in circulation and many people find it's not far wrong. There should be
an honored place in genealogy heaven for those people who create the tools which
help us find our heritage.
Please note that the words in the title of this page are hyperlinks to the
Indexes are alphabetical or classified lists which facilitate reference to
materials within the body of the text. They are the easiest to use of the many
finding aids available to researchers. Become familiar with the many types of
indexes and the many problems with their use.
- There is no perfect index. Remember this.
- An index does not appear only at the end of the text.
- Indexes may appear at the end of each major area of the text.
- Indexes may be separated by subject, name, location.
- A family history may index the major family names separately.
- Males and females may be indexed separately.
- Many books are arranged in "self-indexing" format; i.e. each entry is
arranged in alphabetical order
- To get the most from an index, be very flexible in your spelling.
Check all conceivable spelling variations.
Become familiar with the handwriting of the period and remember that
an indexer frequently misreads handwritten characters.
- Develop the habit of checking the validity and completeness of an index.
Pick a random name; does it appear in the index?
Pick a name from a caption; does it appear in the index?
If either answer is no, check the book carefully. Don't assume that if
your subject is not in the index, it's not in the book.
- Don't forget that the Table of Contents is also a type of index.
- Don't forget that the index is no substitute for the
- There is no perfect index. Repeat after me. There is no perfect index.
Bibliographies are listings of source materials used in the writing of a book
or paper. They function as subject guides which may cover multiple
repositories in a relatively superficial manner. Bibliographies are very
important sources for family historians.
- The bibliography used in writing a county history will give very
important information about the documentary evidence of the area.
- Patrons of various libraries frequently develop bibliographies of the
holdings of the library in their research. These are usually not published,
but held in the custody of the reference librarian.
- Speakers frequently include bibliographies in their handouts.
All of these bibliographic sources serve as finding aids for research in
- National Guides direct a researcher to the proper archive or repository.
Examples include: the
National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections
(NUCMC) and the National Historic Publications and Records Commission, Directory
of Archives and Manuscript Repositories in the United States. These guides are
usually available at large research libraries such as a university library.
- Repository Guides describe the holdings of a single repository. Examples
include the Guide to Federal Records in the
National Archives of the United States or Guide
to Genealogical Sources at the Pennsylvania State Archives. These guides are
available at the specified repository and may be available also at many large
libraries. Abridged versions may also be found online.
- Subject Guides describe available records on a particular subject in a
repository. Examples include the Guide to Family History Sources in the
New Jersey State Archives or Black History: A Guide to Civilian Records in
the National Archives.
- Registers and Inventories give information about the contents of
specific collections or record groups in a repository. For examples, see the
National Archives and Research Administration's "
Inventories, Preliminary Inventories, and Special Lists" or picture the shelf
list of your local library. Register is the term used when referring to a collection of
personal papers. These guides are usually available only at the specified
repository. Unlike the preceding categories, these guides may not be available
for sale. They are created for the use of the staff of the repository and may not
be in published form.
- Calendars are item-by-item descriptions, arranged chronologically. Examples
would be Cotton's
Calendar of Maryland Wills or a court calendar. These guides are
usually part of the record group they reference. Some have been published; most remain
with the original records.
- Catalogs are item-by-item descriptions arranged by title, writer, subject, etc.
They form an index to a collection. A familiar example is the local library card
catalog. Catalogs are usually an integral part of the repository and are not
available in published format. They may appear in card index form or may be
computerized. Many library catalogs can now be found online. You should check all available catalogs in a repository. They
will not be identical.
- Card indexes, a physical presence, are very easy to search. However, these
searches are not as flexible as those allowed by electronic catalogs.
- Electronic catalogs depend very heavily on the user's ability to formulate
accurate and efficient searches. If you don't find what you're looking for in the
computer database, check your spelling. Become familiar with the many search
formats available: AND, OR, NOT, wildcard. An example subject search might be
newspaper and union list to find a list of references of newspaper
sources. A search by library catalog number will yield a "shelf list" of library
holdings in a particular category. Do not make your search too specific, as you
may miss key references.
- All catalogs depend on the original cataloguer for their effectiveness. You, as
the user, must be aware of a catalog's limitations and be prepared to search for
your subject under as many headings as possible. The cataloguer may have been limited
in their approach. You must not be.
- The Family History Library Catalog of the Church of Jesus Christ of
Latter-day Saints, available online or at any branch library, is one of the largest
catalogs available. The "Place Search" catalog serves as a superb finding
aide for records available in any given location.
- The World Wide Web is the largest repository in the world and is accessed by a
variety of finding aids. These will be discussed in the section on Derivative
Sources. Despite its enormous contents, remember that the Internet is not a substitute for
research in the original records.
A Few Internet "Finding Aids"
Please mail comments and suggestions to Susan Johnston at