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Daniel Maurer, AP
An employee of the Protestant parish in Besigheim points to an entry in the parish register in Besigheim, near Stuttgart, southern Germany on in 2009. Once a researcher knows what information they need, then they should identify what sources may have that information.

Once you know what information you're looking for, ask yourself where you might find it. Then choose one source or record to on which to focus your research. For example, if I had the objective of finding the birth date of an ancestor, I would ask these questions: "What type of records could I find a birth date in? Where are these records kept? How do I get access to the records?" And so forth. I then record all questions, thoughts, and findings in my research log.

The types of records you will search include the following:

Compiled records

These are records of previous research on individuals and families already done by others, such as family histories, biographies, or genealogies with pedigree charts and family group records, according to Center for Family History and Genealogy. It is best to search compiled records first. You can save a lot of time by seeing what information others have already found about your family.

"Even though compiled records can be extremely helpful, some information may be inaccurate or incomplete. Always carefully evaluate the information you find," the center says.

Compiled records can usually be searched quickly and easily. Compiled records include:

  • Genealogies
  • Biographies
  • Genealogical periodicals and indexes
  • Source Index
  • Family newsletters
  • Local histories
Original records

These are records created at the time of important events in your ancestors' lives. For example, a local church or the local government may have recorded your ancestors' births, christenings, marriages, and burials. Original records include:

  • Vital records and civil registration
  • Church records
  • Cemetery records
  • Census records
  • Probate records
  • Military records
  • Immigration records
Other original documents include court, land, naturalization, taxation, business, medical and school records. Be sure to check all jurisdictions (for example, town, county, state and country) that may have kept records about your ancestor.

Background information

These are records dealing with geographical, historical or cultural information. They include local histories, maps, gazetteers, language dictionaries and guidebooks. Search these records to learn more about the area where your ancestors lived and the events that may have affected their lives and the records about them.

Finding aids

These help you find the location of records, name indexes, library catalogs or websites. Editor's note: The original version of this story posted on June 15, 2013, failed to properly attribute all source materials, which violates our editorial policies. The story was revised on March 17, 2014, and attribution to original sources were added.

Barry J. Ewell is author of "Family Treasures: 15 Lessons, Tips, and Tricks for Discovering your Family History" and founder of MyGenShare.com, an online educational website for genealogy and family history.