Skip to main content
It looks like you're using Internet Explorer 11 or older. This website works best with modern browsers such as the latest versions of Chrome, Firefox, Safari, and Edge. If you continue with this browser, you may see unexpected results.

Genealogy Resources: Search Tips

Genealogy Research

Genealogy research can be exhausting, but it can also be very rewarding. It's a little like detective work where you search for clues, piece together the bits of information, and come to reasonable conclusions.

You might encounter errors, inaccuracies, or contradicting information during your research, so this page provide some tips for searching and explains how to gauge the information you might encounter.

Some genealogy sites have a feature that allows you to create your family tree. A Family Unit Sheet is also a helpful tool for keeping track of family members as you locate them. It's also a nice (secondary!) document to pass along to family members. Try this printable Family Unit Sheet from the Mid-Continent Public Library/Midwest Genealogy Center.

Alternate Spellings -- Less is More!

The records that appear in genealogy research sites like FamilySearch are entered by hand by people who have to decipher the handwriting on very old documents. This can lead to errors or inaccuracies and sometimes makes it difficult for you to find records. 

Instead of searching the full last name, use a wildcard (*) to search just the first few letters.

For example, when Frank Starzak arrived to the United States in 1902, he was listed on the New York Passenger Arrival List as "Franciszek Starzak." On the 1920 census, he was listed as "Frank Stzarsek." To allow for alternate spellings of names, you might use wildcard searches that look like this: Fra* Star* or Fran* Starz* or Franc St*

Primary and Secondary Sources

A primary source is an official record that was created at the time of an event. Primary sources tend to be more accurate than secondary documents. However, it's not impossible for primary sources to contain errors. A secondary source is a record created later by someone else.

When possible, use primary sources to verify the information you need. 

Many documents can be used as both primary and secondary sources. See some example below of each, with explanations.

Examples of Primary Documents Examples of Secondary Documents

Vital records when used for the purpose they were created, such as birth, marriage, death certificates.

For information on how to use vital records, visit Online United States Birth, Marriage, and Death Records from FamilySearch.

Vital records when used for information other than the purpose of the certificate. For example, when using a marriage certificate to obtain birth information about a person, the marriage certificate would be considered a secondary source.

Personal letters Newspaper obituaries, where the information is provided by a friend or relative who may not know the deceased's exact date of birth. 
Church records Census records, when used for information
like birth dates
Court documents History books
Factual newspapers articles written and published at the time of the event Newspaper articles written later by someone
analyzing an historical event
Military records Compiled family histories (family tree or Family Unit Sheet)
Census records (a primary source for information at that time, like address and occupation) Oral family histories
Naturalization records  
Passenger lists  
News film footage  
Artifacts like clothing, furniture, or photographs  

Census Records

A bit about census records:

  • Census records are useful for tracking your family over a period of time.
  • Census records contain information about the person who lived in the home at the time the census taker visited them.
  • A census is taken every ten years.
  • The questions asked on census records have changed over time.
  • The 1940 census is the most currently available record for historical research on genealogy sites.
  • The 1950 census will be available in April 2022. For more information about when census records are released, read about "The 72-Year Rule."
  • The information provided to the census taker may not be 100% accurate. Typically, the "head of the household" provided the information, but if there were language or communication issues, the family's information may have been provided by a child, or in some cases even a neighbor. A child or the neighbor may (unknowingly) have provided inaccurate information to the census taker.
  • The information about a person on a census may change from one record to the next. For example, Angela Starzak (how she was known to family) was listed on the 1920 census as Angeline and on the 1930 census as Angline. (This is another example of how using a wildcard to search would be helpful.)
  • Not everyone listed on a census living in a household was related to the family. Some families took in "lodgers" or "boarders."

For more information about what you'll find in census records, visit Census Records from the National Archives.