It's probably not a surprise to anyone that I’m a huge fan of uncommon sources (my Legacy webinar on 25 Uncommon Sources for Your Genealogy was recently released) and I’m always on the lookout for them. Why? Because they can provide you the genealogical information you’re looking for and so much more. They are especially important as substitutes for records that no longer exist.
Where did my love of uncommon sources start? My background is researching women's lives and so records that document their lives have always been a favorite. Friendship quilts and community cookbooks are particular favorites of mine. I also love other sources that provide surprising information like Farm Directories that I have found that include directory information, and in some cases, the wife's maiden name.
As a beginning genealogist I devoured the book Hidden Sources (2000) by Laura Szucs Pfeiffer. This guidebook of little used sources, some that are more common in today’s world of digitized records, was one I studied chapter-by-chapter learning more about exciting sounding records such as Body Transit Records, Bird’s Eye View Maps, Midwife Records, and the US Serial Set. She taught me that that there were other records genealogists needed to use aside from the more common genealogical sources of the US Federal Census and vital records. Reading about these records and then looking for examples is what hooked me into wanting to learn more about what could possibly exist.
The idea about using unusual sources really is that we need to think more in terms of what is available for a time and place and not just what are “genealogy sources.” It’s sort of like going to a local bookstore. You could look at the “genealogy” section but you could also find relevant books in the history, sociology, and even cookbook sections.
So where do you find unusual sources?
- It’s probably no surprise that I’m going to say that you should READ! I read a lot of magazines, online articles and non-fiction books. I always turn to the bibliography and footnotes and see what they have that might be relevant to my own research or for me to know to suggest to others.
- Go through the FamilySearch Catalog. Choose the State or country you’re researching and go through the various subjects. What do you see that you’re not familiar with? If you narrow your search by Online (look to the right of your results list) you can go through the records you find and to become more familiar. Once you conduct that search, do a second search for the county or similar region and go through those subjects.
- Listen to more webinars! Ok, you know I had to say this, right? But I am serious. I’m a huge believer in continuing education and Legacy’s over 1000 webinars is the perfect example of how you can learn more. Choose a topic or a favorite presenter and listen. If you’re a subscriber, download the handouts and take note of any source you’re not familiar with.
- Decide on an uncommon source goal. Think of a source you’re not familiar with and make it a goal to learn more about it this coming year. I’ve done that in the past like the year I decided to study all of the women’s repatriation records at the National Archives at Riverside. Studying various records whether it’s at home through a website or in person is the way for you to learn more about what is available.
This year I’m taking a closer look at voting records (2020 is the anniversary of the 19th amendment here in the United States), runaway wife newspaper ads, and divorce records. My hope is to learn more about these records, why they exist and what they can tell us about our ancestors.
Now it’s your turn. I want to learn from you. What is an uncommon source that you love? What’s something you’ve used in your family history but it seems like few people know about it. What’s a source that you are going to spend time learning more about? Tell me about that source in the comments below.