Large record repositories such as National Archives are home to a vast collection of records that may potentially help you answer your genealogical research questions. But do you know everything that is available to you and where to find it? Even the indexes, inventories, and card catalogs available online don’t always tell the whole story. Before tackling your research in a given area or repository, take the time to seek out inventories, research guides, and finding aids prepared and published by various repositories, societies and even individuals to learn what may be available to you.
Before you begin research at a new repository (or even in a new record group at a repository you’re already familiar with), a preliminary search in published finding aids or inventories may provide detailed descriptions of records pertaining to your research and expedite your time accessing records once you arrive at the repository.
Online card catalogs are often a good place to start, but once you’ve narrowed your search to a particular collection or record type it is worthwhile to see if more detailed finding aids also exist. Such finding aids may cover many record groups (these are often called Research Guides or something similar), or they may cover a particular record type or record group, or even a specific type of document within a particular record group.
Types of Genealogical Research Guides & Finding Aids
Research guide, finding aid, inventory, and similar terms are often used interchangeably, but here is a general feel for what you might expect to look for or encounter.
Genealogical Research Guides
These may take many forms, from general record inventories of multiple record groups available in a particular locality or from a particular repository to how-to guides that cover both research strategies and at least some of the available records that cover the particular locality or topic addressed by the guide.
- Research Guides/Information Leaflets of the UK National Archives
- Guide to Research Materials in the North Carolina State Archives: County Records by the North Carolina Department of Archives and History (older 2002 edition available online)
- NGS Research in the States series produced by the National Genealogical Society
Inventories generally offer descriptions of the holdings of a particular record repository. This may take the form of an inventory of all available records of an individual repository, or be more specific, as in the case of a series or collection-level inventory.
A finding aid can be generally classified as anything that helps you to locate or find something. In this general sense, online indexes and databases can be classified as a finding aid. More specifically, a finding aid may be written to describe in-depth the available records of a particular collection, such as a manuscript collection. In this way they are much like an extremely detailed inventory.
- East Carolina Manuscript Collection Finding Aids – Includes detailed descriptions, historical/biographical background, container lists, card catalog entries and preliminary inventories.
From time to time government agencies, historical societies and other organizations conduct surveys to identify and inventory records related to a particular topic, or to verify the existence and location of records and archives.
- WPA Historical Records Survey – This nationwide series of projects conducted by the U.S. Works Progress Administration (WPA) between 1935 through 1942 resulted in a boon for historians and genealogists in the form of an invaluable roadmap to the availability and location of a wide number of historical records and manuscript materials in counties, churches, and archives across the United States.
A word about relying completely on online finding aids and inventories as your sole source of information on available records with potential genealogical information. In some cases, the finding aids published online by a particular institution are the most detailed available, while in other cases the online version may be abbreviated, with a more detailed inventory or finding aid available in published form, or even from an alternate source.