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Genealogy: Records & Resources

A guide to useful records and various resources available at the BPL and beyond.


Ancestry Library Edition is one of the biggest genealogy resources in the world, and can be a useful place to start your research. This section will offer some search tips for using the database, along with instructions for using some of it's functions.

Note: this database is available for in-library use only, and can be accessed from any BPL location.

Search Tips

Basic Search Tips

  • Make sure to pick the appropriate category if you are looking for a particular kind of record (i.e. military, birth & death, Census etc…) If you are looking for anything at all, use the general search page.
  • We strongly suggest that you click on “show more options” and then check the box marked “match all terms exactly” when using multiple fields in your search. Otherwise you may get tens of thousands of hits that will take a long, long time to wade through. See the Using the “match all terms exactly” option box below for instructions.
  • If you really get stuck, email for help.

Location Search Tips

  • Countries borders can also change, particularly during and after major wars.
    • Keep this in mind if you find conflicting information about where a person was from and/or what language they spoke.
    • For instance, a man in the 1940 Census who is recorded as being born in Austria but who spoke Italian was probably from a disputed territory between those two countries.
  • Try to be somewhat general when using locations in your search, unless you are 100% certain of where the person was living.
    • Many people might think that their ancestor lived in Boston when they actually lived in Somerville or Cambridge.
    • Searching for “Massachusetts” would locate the person much more easily instead of searching for “Boston.”

Name Search Tips

  • Records often contain misspelled or hard to read names, leading transcribers to make mistakes.
    • Try every possible spelling variation of a person’s name and make use of the “sounds like,” “similar,” and “Soundex” options when searching. See the Using the Variant Spelling Options for a Name box below for instructions.
    • If you have enough other identifying information (such as age, birthplace, etc…) and the name is giving you trouble, searching with just the first or last names can help.
    • Sometimes you may not even need to search with the name if you know enough other information about the person.
  • Keep in mind that if the person immigrated from a non-English speaking country that their surname may have been anglicized (i.e. Mueller to Miller) or completely changed (i.e. Vogelgesang to Herman.)
    • This applies to first names as well (i.e. Karl to Charles.)
  • If you’re dealing with an ancestor with a common name (i.e. Nellie Farrell) try to search using other identifying information if you know any.
  • If you do not know or are unsure of the name of the person you are looking for but you do know the name(s) of someone who would have been living with them during the time period you are researching, use the “add family member” option in the “show more options” menu on the search page.
    • For example: if you are looking for Jeannette Archey but you’re not sure how her first name was spelled in the Census, but you do know that in 1940 she lived in Pittsfield, Massachusetts with her father Henry, searching for Henry Archey in Pittsfield should also locate Jeannette on Henry’s record.
  • Searching for records relating to women can be difficult depending on the time period you are researching.
    • If you are searching for information about a married woman, try searching with her maiden name if you know it.

Specific Record Type Search Tips

  • Some vital records may have been recorded in multiple places, if the person in the record had a connection to a different place than where they were living.
    • For instance, a person born in Malden might have a parent from Medford who recorded their birth there as well.
  • The types of information included in various types of records changes over time.
    • For instance, the Census did not record the names of everyone in a household until 1850. Prior Censuses had listed the heads of a household only.
    • The Census also did not record the relationship of each member of a household to the head of the household until 1880.
    • Generally speaking, records would include more and more information as time went on.

General Issues in Records

  • The transcriptions of the records do not always have all of the information contained in the record.
    • When it is available, click on “view original image” to see the actual record.
    • Some records however will only have transcriptions available and no original images (i.e. anything from the Social Security Office.)
  • There may be inconsistencies from one record to another.
    • This can be due to transcriber error, or the person supplying incorrect information for any number of reasons.
    • If most of the information in various records matches or is close, it is reasonable to assume that they all pertain to the same person.
  • The related records feature is useful but not perfect.
    • Sometimes, the linked records will not be about the same person. They were linked to due to similarities in name, age, and/or location.
  • The database has a lot of records, but not all records. If you cannot find a specific record there it does not necessarily mean it does not exist or that the information you already have about a person is wrong, it just means the information is not in the database.
    • This could be because:
      • The record was destroyed (i.e. the fire that destroyed much of the 1890 Census)
      • The record was not taken (i.e. Census takers often skipped buildings or blocks in immigrant neighborhoods)
      • The records have not been digitized yet (i.e. most vital records from New York State)
      • Ancestry just hasn’t added the right collection of records yet.
    • If you don’t find what you’re looking for on the first try, you can go back periodically to see if it’s been added.

Using the “match all terms exactly” option

Click on the "Show more options" link

Check the "Match all terms exactly" box

Using the Variant Spelling Options for a Name

Type a name in the "Last Name" box

Click button below the Last name box labeled "Exact"

A drop-down menu will open

In the drop-down menu, check the boxes next to "Sounds like", "Similar", and "Soundex." Click SEARCH at the bottom of the box.