How to Search the U.S. National Archives Online Catalog for Genealogy
Elevenses with Lisa Episode 40 Show Notes
Elevenses with Lisa is our little slice of heaven where friends get together for tea and talk about the thing that never fails to put a smile on our face: Genealogy!
The National Archives is a wonderful resource of unique genealogical records. Though the archives are closed, the website is open, and it’s a great place to search for records and prepare for future genealogy research trips.
The National Archives website and online catalog can be a bit mystifying. If you’ve ever tried to search it and wound up frustrated, you’re not alone. This is often the case because the nature of the archives and the search function of the online Catalog are not genealogically focused. Armed with an understanding of how and why it is set up the way it is, and the know-how to search, refine, and download documents, you’ll be ready to add it to your genealogy toolkit.
In this video episode and article, we’ll be answering important questions such as:
- What kind of genealogy records can be found at the National Archives website?
- Which genealogy records are not available at the National Archives?
- How do I search for records at the National Archives online Catalog?
- How can I retrieve only digital items from the National Archives Catalog?
- How can I get better search results in the National Archives Online Catalog?
- How do I download files from the National Archives Website?
- What is the Record Group Explorer?
Original Air Date: Jan. 21, 2021
The National Archives Website: https://www.archives.gov
Search the Catalog: https://catalog.archives.gov/
What Kind of Records Can be Found at the National Archives Website?
To understand the types of records we can expect to find we must first understand the role and mission of the National Archives. Their role is preserving and making available only the permanent Federal Government records. Some have genealogical value.
- These records are arranged as the agencies created them, so there is no master subject or name index.
- While they have 110 million + digitized pages in the Catalog, this represents just a small fraction of the holdings.
- The Catalog contains descriptions for their nationwide holdings in the Washington, DC area, regional facilities, and Presidential Libraries.
- The Catalog currently contains descriptions for 95% of the records, described at the “series” level.
- You can find basic information about the records, including size and location, from the catalog description.
- The National Archives is regularly adding more file unit and item descriptions, many of which include digital files.
Some traditional genealogy records can be found at the National Archives such as:
- Census Records
- Passenger Arrival Records (Immigration)
- Land Records
- Military Personnel Records
- Court records
- Fugitive slave cases
- Naturalization records
- Federal employees
- Applications for enrollment in Native American tribes
Most if these records are available in person. However, all National Archives locations have been closed since March 13, 2020 and remain so as of this writing.
Genealogy Records You Will Not Find at the National Archives
Because the following genealogy records are not created at the federal level, they would not be cataloged or found at the National Archives:
- Death records
- Deeds and wills.
To obtain these records, check with the appropriate state or county.
What to do before you search the National Archives Catalog online
Before you begin your online search:
- Write down your research question.
- Decide what topic you want to browse.
- Think of possible ways your ancestor interacted with the Federal Government.
On the National Archives website they provide a great example of a research question that a genealogist might have and how it can lead to records.
QUESTION: Why did my ancestor have a significant decrease in net worth between the 1860 Census and 1870 Census?|
ASK YOURSELF: How might your ancestor have interacted with the federal government that could help explain this discrepancy?
RECORDS TO SEARCH FOR: The Bankruptcy Act of 1867 allowed many people to file for voluntary bankruptcy. The genealogists could search in the National Archives Catalog for bankruptcy AND [state where you ancestor lived during that timeframe] to see if bankruptcy records are available that could help answer the question.
How to Search the National Archives Catalog Online
There are three key types of searches you can conduct in the catalog:
- Keyword searches
- Filtered searches
- Advanced search
Let’s start with a keyword search:
- Go to https://catalog.archives.gov
- Enter keywords in the search box in the center of the page.
(If you are looking for an exact phrase using two or more words, put them in quotation marks example: “bounty land”)
- Press the magnifying glass button to run your search.
- The results will be returned starting with best results at the top.
- To view a description, click on the blue title.
You can use the filters on the left side of the results page to narrow down your results.
Refine your search results by type if you know the type of material you want. Example of material type include photos, maps, or textual records.
It’s important to remember that just because the item appears in the result does not mean that it is available online. Many of the descriptions don’t include digital images of the records.
How can I retrieve only digital items from the National Archives Catalog?
You can dramatically narrow down your search results to include only digital items that you can review from home. To do this, on the search results page, click on the filter Archival Descriptions with Digital Objects. This will revise your results list so that you will only see descriptions of items with images attached.
How can I get better search results in the National Archives Online Catalog?
It never hurts to try searching by name, although many record descriptions will not name the people who are named in the records. You can improve these searches by using quotes around the entire name, or just the surname. This will restrict results to only items that exactly matches what appears in the quotes.
You’ll notice that there isn’t a specific search field for names in the National Archives Catalog. Here are several additional search strategies you can use when searching for the names of people:
- Search on the person’s full name in first name-last name order.
- Search for last name – first name within quotes
- Search on the surname only. Again you can use quotes.
- Search on spelling variations using the search operator OR. This works well when searching name variations such as: Burkett OR Burkette.
- Search on variant spellings of the first name, including “Americanized” versions.
Example: Joseph Maggio OR Guiseppe Maggio.
Again, keep in mind that most descriptions in the National Archives Catalog do not include the names of people mentioned in the record. If you know an individual participated in event, search for related keywords and look within the records. You will need to read them to see if your ancestor is mentioned.
Another way to improve your search results is to shift your focus from people to topics. This is strongly recommended by the National Archives. You are much more likely to get a greater number of results because people aren’t usually named in descriptions. Be sure to read the description carefully to see if the item will be helpful and worth requesting.
When searching topics, think about and make a list of relevant phrases and keywords. For example, when searching for Land Records, try searching for phrases such as:
- “Bounty Land”
- “Land Entry”
Premium Members Exclusive: Downloadable National Archives Topic Search cheat sheet (PDF)
How to Download Files from the National Archives Website
After clicking the description on the search results page you will be on the record page. If there is a digital image, it can be downloaded. Look below to see if there are additional pages. You can click to select the desired page and then click the download icon just below the image.
If you would like to download all of the images, look below the list of images to see if a compiled PDF is available. This will allow you to download and save all of the images in one convenient file.
The Record Group Explorer at the National Archives Website
The Record Group Explorer offers a unique way of visualizing and finding records at the National Archives website:
- Allows you to browse NARA’s holdings by Record Group
- Use it to get a sense of the scale and organization of records
- Explore what is available online via the Catalog
- Provides an overview of the digital scans available online within a Record Group: textual records, photographs, maps and charts, electronic records, and more.
Records are grouped by specific government agencies. Each group is represented visually in a section. The section is light blue, signifying the total volume of textual records. If a dark blue bar appears in the section, it is an indicator that some of the records are digitized. The percentage or number (depending on the view you select in the grey Record Group Explorer Tools bar across the top) of digital images will be shown.
If the section is green, that indicates that there are records online but they are not textual records. They may be items like photographs or films.
If the section is grey, there are no records available online at all.
Click a section to learn more about that Record Group and explore the records.
Record Group Highlight: Motion Pictures
The National Archives holds a surprising number of motion pictures. As you browse or search, focusing on topic will likely be more helpful than searching by name. Consider looking for your ancestors’ homes, businesses, military service, events and associated locations.
Check out Motion Picture Library Stock Shots, ca. 1953 – ca. 1959
“A series of films: 306-LSS, a group of more than 400 black and white reels of stock footage that ended up in the hands of the United States Information Agency (USIA).”
Answers to Live Chat Questions
One of the advantages of tuning into the live broadcast of each Elevenses with Lisa show is participating in the Live Chat and asking your questions.
From Sue M.: Do they hold WPA and CCC records?
From Lisa: Yes to both!
From Steve S.: Can you use the * and ? as search operators in the NARA catalog? Also thanks for de-mystifying this site! you have made it much more understandable.
From Lisa: After the show Steve did some searching and found this handy page providing additional search tips and operators supported by the website. Thanks Steve!
From Michael R.: Are the Naturalization records in the National Archives different from those in local courthouses?
From Lisa: I haven’t looked lately, but about 15 years ago I filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request and received my great grandfather’s federal naturalization paperwork. It included a photograph that was not included at the county court level.
From Lynnette B.: I had my parent’s old home movies put on DVD’s several years ago. What is the next step in making them more available? Adobe spark video? YouTube? I want to identify each person on them?
From Lisa: An easy way to get started is by making Adobe Spark Videos (see episode 16) which is free and easy. Use the Titles feature to add text explaining who is who. Uploading them to your free YouTube account channel is a super easy way to share them.
- Get My Free Genealogy Gems Newsletter – click here.
- Bonus Download exclusively for Premium Members: Download the show notes handout. (Not a Premium Member? Become a Genealogy Gems Premium Member today.)
- Premium Members Exclusive: Downloadable National Archives Topic Search cheat sheet (PDF)
Source Citations for Genealogy
Here at Genealogy Gems we believe that genealogy is FUN, and finding great sources of information is part of that fun. But citing those sources may not be so much! My guest in Elevenses with Lisa episode 60 is going to make the case why source citation is a vital part of great genealogy research and she’s going to give us the resources to help get the job done right.
Watch Elevenses with Lisa Episode 60:
Click these buttons to share this episode with your friends:
Add my YouTube channel to your “Favorites” list on YouTube:
Click here to add my channel to your YouTube favorites. Subscribing for free to the Genealogy Gems YouTube channel will make it super easy to return to my channel and Elevenses with Lisa any time you’re on YouTube. Thanks!
Download the Elevenses with Lisa Genealogy Source Citation Cheat Sheet
Premium Members can download the BONUS 2 page Genealogy Source Citation Quick Reference Guidebased on today’s episode. (Not a member yet? Click here to learn more and join today. Premium members can find the full length 18 page show notes PDF in the Resources section at the bottom of this page.
Episode 60 Show Notes
Lisa: Genealogy is FUN, and finding great sources of information is part of that fun. But citing those sources may not be so much! My guest in Elevenses with Lisa episode 60 is going to make the case why source citation is a vital part of great genealogy research and she’s going to give us the resources to help get the job done right. Gail Schaefer Blankenau is a history and genealogy research expert, author and speaker. She specializes in German genealogy, reading old German script in Midwestern and Nebraska roots, land records, as well as lineage research.
The Pain of Citing Sources for Genealogy
(01:31) Connie from Port Orchard, Washington wrote in recently to say, “I started researching my family about four years ago and your podcasts are very helpful. Thank you. Like many people, I started with the census where I discovered that a great great grandfather had fought in the Civil War. So, from then on, I was hooked. The reason I’m writing is to ask if you would consider doing an Elevenses episode on source citations. I wanted to do the right thing. So, I started researching for how to cite the digital newspaper articles I’d found. I was quickly bogged down in a quagmire of styles, punctuation, and metallics. That’s all well and good for academia. But I’m not writing a thesis. Thankfully, I have Rootsmagic to handle most of that. However, I still have problems when I want to cite my sources. Anywhere else like online trees, I stare at their form for a while wondering what to put there. And then I usually give up, I know I’m making it harder than it is. But I have an irrational fear that if I do something wrong, Elizabeth Shown Mills is going to find out and scold me. (Editor’s note: She won’t. She’s very, very nice!) You’ve done such a wonderful job of taking the mystery out of so many things. So please consider helping us conquer our fears, of citations.” Gail, I know that you’re the person who can help us with this. Do you hear this quite often from other genealogists?
Gail: I do. And I actually share her pain because even though I’m a published author in several genealogical journals, as well as genealogical magazines, I don’t always cite the way the editor wants. I just did a master’s thesis in history and I had to change some of my citing, and I was using genealogy citations. So, she’s right, there is a mix of citation styles. It sounds like she’s doing a good job at the main thing, which is to do good research. But when you want to share your research, people have to be able to check it. I have some ideas for her to maybe consider that we can talk in a little bit more depth today.
Lisa: Excellent. And I like your title, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
Gail: And I’ve seen it all. I kind of call it the wild, wild west of citation of evidence because we have different citation styles. We as genealogists really enjoy the detective work. I mean, I love detective stories! And I like to solve puzzles. I think most of us who really get into genealogy are like that. So, when we get to the point where we have to maybe write it up or share it with others, we really need to cite our sources, even for ourselves. But you know what citation can be a little boring. And if you feel that way, you’re not alone at all.
Noel Coward Quote About Footnotes
(05:00) “Having to read footnotes resembles having to go downstairs to answer the door while in the midst of making love.” (Goodreads, Noel Coward Quotes, http://www.goodreads.com/quotes/185342-having-to-read-footnotes-resembles-having-to-go-downstairs-to : accessed 15 April 2017.)
Doing source citations feels like interrupting something that we’re enjoying, to do something really not that much fun. But I want to encourage you to cite as you go. And when I say cite as you go, it doesn’t have to be a perfect citation. But it’s important to have all the elements that you’ll need to massage it later. It’s a lot better than going back and redoing what you just did.
Anthony Grafton Quote about Source Citations
(05:35) Historians feel the same way. Anthony Grafton was a historian for Princeton. And he says, “Footnotes seem to rank among the most colorless and uninteresting features of historical practice.” I feel like genealogy is a subset of good history. He does, though, write about citations and their importance, because they counter skepticism from people who feel like there’s nothing that’s true. And there’s nothing that can ever be proven about the past. And so, although it might seem a little bit boring, the fact is, the evidence behind (the source citation) is not. So, we need to be really careful about citing sources, because sometimes we don’t have evidence for our assertions, or we have it but we’re not convincing people that we do.
Definition of a Source Citation
(06:32) I’m going to quote Elizabeth shone Mills because she is considered the Citation Maven for all genealogy. “Citations are statements in which we identify our source or sources for a particular assertion.” (Elizabeth Shown Mills, Evidence Explained, p. 42.)
I would add that almost more important is that the sources for an assertion actually say what we say it does. We’re going to share some examples where they don’t do that.
Resources for Genealogy Source Citations
(07:08) So here are just a couple of three of the style manuals that I’ve used both as a historian as, as a genealogist:
Source Citations Reference Manuals
- The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th Edition
- Evidence Explained: History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace 3rd Edition Revised by Elizabeth Shown Mills
- A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations, Ninth Edition by Kate Turabian
I have to say that when I did my thesis, my professor was talking about the census citation. Well, I used this Ancestry.com quick guide. I think it’s really good. Quick Sheet: Your Stripped-Bare Guide to Citing Sources Pamphlet I used it in my thesis. I had to go back and redo every single citation of my senior thesis!
Preparing for Citing Sources
(07:42) I should have asked ahead of time of my thesis advisor, “how do you want me to do it?” So that’s just a lesson we might have to learn. Some people find evidence explained citations to be too long, especially people who are going to do something in print. So, we do need to strike a balance.
Lisa: I think you’re making such a great point that part of the equation is what you’re going to be using the source citation for. Your thesis is a great example. It’s important to find out what’s required and what the guidelines are before you begin your project.
It’s also important to think about who your audience is. I know that Connie was saying that she’s not doing it for a thesis paper, she’s just doing it for her friends and family. Although, of course, it’s super important because her friends and family may want to pick up the genealogy down the road. If they can’t make sense of where any of her information came from, they’ll have to start all over. Right?
The Problem with Source Citations
Gail: Right. And you don’t want to have to recreate the wheel. There are two problems that can occur with citations. One, that it’s not a good enough citation for people to find it. We’ll cover the elements that a good citation should have in just a moment. I’m not one of those people that gets really mad at you if you use a comma instead of a semi colon. I also don’t think there’s any one right way. But once you choose your way, whether it’s Chicago style or Elizabeth Shown Mills, be consistent.
There was an earlier book by Elizabeth Shawn meals that’s much slimmer that a lot of people use because they find Evidence Explained too much. They use her earlier book. I like A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations, Ninth Edition by Kate Turabian. They’re all based on Chicago style. Turabian gets it done for me most of the time. When I have a question that’s very specific to genealogy I might go to Evidence Explained. There’s no one right way.
Consider the Reader in Citing Sources
I always think about the reader as well as the editor. I find out what the editor wants, but I also think about the reader. We’re all readers of genealogies. Think about what you experienced that didn’t go so well. When you were trying to figure out what someone was doing or saying in an article, or especially in the old genealogies that are not well referenced. Think about that. Pretend you’re that person who wants to find that source.
Let’s start with some ugly examples of source citations, and this should convince you why you need to have good citations. Whatever form you use, they need to be good, and they need to be complete.
Fraudulent Source Citations
There’s a man named Gustave Anjou. We should know something about him just by the fact that he changed his name. This is kind of a pen name that he used. He was a professional genealogist in the early 1900s. His real name was Gustaf Ludvig Jungberg.
He was hired by some wealthy families who had colonial American roots. They hired him to write their genealogies. The reason why I don’t want people to get so hung up on citations is that they lose track of doing good genealogy. He had lots of citations! And they were formatted well, and they were looked good. And most of them were good. Robert Charles Anderson, who is one of the more famous genealogists looked at some of these old genealogies and he said a lot of the citations were went to legitimate sources. And they were. They said what he said they said, but interwoven into all of these beautiful citations he basically put in false information. He told these people that maybe they were related to a nobleman or the signer of the Declaration of Independence, because really, back then a lot of people were doing it for reasons like feeling their roots were maybe a little bit more glorious than they were. The thing is, he was a fraud. But he did cite his work thoroughly, and they were well put together. People can make stuff up. And appearances can be deceiving, which is why I want us to always keep our eye on the main ball of citations that are informational. It doesn’t have to be perfect, especially if they aren’t going to be published. Your viewer Connie doesn’t need to really please anybody but herself. But I do want her to pretend that she’s the reader that might want to track down that citation and see the original. That’s mainly what we want to do.
Robert Charles Anderson did write an article (Fraudulent Lineages and More Fraudulent Lineages) about fraudulent lineages. If you Google Anderson fraudulent lineages you’ll see some of the early genealogies that were bogus. I have some families in there. When I was a beginner, I went to the genealogy library and I looked at some of these genealogies. I put them in my pedigree chart. And then later on when I went back to really do my real research, I had a lot of correcting to do! So, you might as well do it right the first time and know that there are some bad genealogies out there.
Genealogy Source Citation is a Balancing Act
What we have to balance is the importance of citing your sources and getting it right. Source citations are so critical to our own research. We’re running across these kinds of things all the time. So, in a sense, we’re doing them for the benefit of others and making the case that to the best of our knowledge, this is accurate, and this is where I got it.
Source Citations Help When Family Tree Questions Arise
We all at some point probably hear from somebody who says, ‘I don’t know that that’s right.’ They see our online family tree or they want to question something we did. It’s nice to be able to go back and quickly be able to reorient yourself to where you got that information and be able to make that case. It doesn’t make you a bad genealogist to discover ‘Oh, gosh, he’s right, that person isn’t correct, or that document isn’t right.’ Or it may eventually turn out that the information has been disproven. So, we all want those trails leading back so we can make the fixes.
Use Prestigious Genealogy Journals as Sources
(17:19) I’m not saying don’t look at genealogies ever. You might you want to know what’s already been produced. But that literature search should also include the more prestigious genealogy journals.
One of my first major genealogy articles was in the New England genealogical historical register. And it was correcting the Mead genealogy. I think Spencer Mead did a good job on his direct line. But this was a comprehensive genealogy. My line was so wrong that I didn’t even know where he got it. And it wasn’t well referenced. I wrote a three part article, and that journal rarely does three parters. But there were so many errors that I corrected that it merited that large of an article.
Another time a person asked me, “well, where did you get that? Because the tombstone doesn’t say that.” If you have a good citation, then you’re OK. Your citation can even talk about discrepancies. I certainly don’t remember 10 years ago what my thought process was about that. I know I did the analysis.
I’m doing a book right now for the Nickerson Family Association. When I have something that I really feel needs discussion, such as there are two different birth dates or they’re two different death dates for this person, I talked about those sources and the comparison I did in the footnote.
Lisa: Wow, that’s a wonderful piece of information for those who will come after you later down the road. They will be able to see that discussion. I love that idea. What you’ve shown us so far as the ugly. You’ve got some BAD citations, too, right?
An Example of a Bad Genealogy Source Citation
(19:00) Gail: I do. This is going to be my True Confessions. I started when I was really a teenager, and then I really got into genealogy in my teens. When I was in college, I was working at an office at college and taking classes. I ducked into the genealogy library on my lunch break. I’m interested in my second great grandfather, William Nicholas Johnson, and he was a civil war veteran. I’m just pulling everything off the genealogies shelf. That was back when they actually let you into the stacks. They don’t do that anymore. I had a little notebook that I would write things down in and then think “I’ll get back to it later.” And this was a note I had.
And I just laugh at myself, but kind of with the idea that I don’t want to cry about it. It says, “W N Johnson, Life Sketch Civil War.” Well, Johnson is a common, so I don’t know if it’s my guy or not. And it’s Maryville Tribune. I know, he’s from Missouri, but I left out Missouri. It would have been nice for other people to know, but I knew it. And it says February 18. No year? What book did I get it from? I have no idea. (I wrote it down quickly and then went onto other family lines.) Now it’s many years later, and I run across this cryptic, and I mean, cryptic little intro. That’s why I say cite your sources as you go.
I don’t care if you get them in the right order, but at least write it all down. Because you don’t want to go back to the library and try to figure out what book it came from. I finally did come across it in the Missouri Historical Review. And you can see I circled, basically, I wrote down what I circled.
The year was on the prior page, which I didn’t write down. Maybe I thought I’d get to it sooner, but I didn’t. I spent quite a bit of time in the library tracking down the Missouri Historical Review. What if I had done something more like this:
Example of a Proper Genealogy Source Citation
“Historical Articles in Missouri Newspapers, January-June 1925,” Missouri Historical Review, Vol. 21, no. 2 (January, 1927), 321, Nodaway County, Maryville Tribune, 18 Feb 1925, “Life Sketch of W N Johnson.”
It’s super easy for me to check now. So not only do you want to do it for other people, but you want to do it for yourself.
Lisa: It makes me realize that it’s important to know the pieces, the elements within the source citation. Like you said, even if you just jot it down, and you intend to put together the proper citation later back at home at your desk, you’ll have all the pieces that should be there.
Gail: I never would have been able to use that citation in an article. But now I have a proper citation. It also led me to find out whether this was really my guy. By the way, if you do have Missouri ancestors, the Missouri Historical Review is a really neat resource. It’s digitized online now.
That’s a bad citation but there’s another kind of bad citation. I had a Bennett Posey Family. I think he is my fourth great grandfather, maybe third. There are probably thousands of trees online because we’re very prolific. They all have his wife as Rhoda Hobart. As a professional looking back I’m saying this wasn’t really Rhoda Hobart. This Posey Genealogy had really good citations and it looked good. Now I don’t think he was like Gustav Anjou trying to fool anybody. But I took a look at the citation to his will (and wills sometimes do help you to figure out who married whom.) The will doesn’t say at all what he said it said. That’s the other kind of bad citation you can find. I didn’t have a problem finding it. But the citation didn’t support the assertion. I looked at another will and I thought, oh, this was the will he meant. Even though it was closer to supporting it, it turned out that Rhoda Posey was a guy, not a girl. So, I don’t think Bennett married Rhoda Posey the guy. I think he married some other woman that I saw. She’s still blank on my tree because these days I’m doing everybody else’s genealogy research except my own. But that’s an example of another bad citation that didn’t support the assertion.
The Cost of Bad Genealogy Source Citations
Lisa: That’s a great example. And it’s a lot easier to get help from other people, like a reference librarian, if you have a great source citation to offer them.
Gail: Yeah. I mean, they don’t even charge me which is nice. Other times they’ll charge five dollars. But a lot of times, they’ll say, “Well, unless you can give me a good citation I can’t help you.” Or you end up paying a professional to spend two hours chasing something down rather than just giving them where to look in the first place. They might be pulling a record for you that you don’t have access to online. There are a lot of things that can happen. So again, get all the elements, you can always massage it later, you can always check Turabian’s book or something later to get it right. So, source citations save us money! And time is money. No matter how you slice it, you really want to write as much down as possible and always think, “how am I going to find this again?”
Gail: I think I’ve convinced everyone not to get hung up completely on the format or wherever the comma goes. Just make sure you have all the elements that allow you and others to check it and make sure it really is saying what you think it says. I have a style guide for books that I use, so I copy and paste from there. Just be kind to yourself, but also be diligent. So, let’s talk about some good.
How to Create Good Genealogy Source Citations
(27:49) This is the best part! Number one, I want to talk about types.
Types of Source Citations:
- Source list entry
- Full reference note
- Subsequent reference note
Sometimes I notice that people kind of get them confused. There’s a source list entry, which is kind of like the bibliographical reference. This is the actual source. You can have a full reference note, and that is for the first time you cite that particular source. These are usually longer. That’s the one that’s going to allow you to find it.
If you’re writing up your genealogy, then you have following or subsequent reference notes. This is out of Evidence Explained. But they say the same thing that The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th Edition
says, and the same thing that A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations, Ninth Edition by Kate Turabian. They all say the same thing.
Some of you might be MLA, some of you might be MPA. It doesn’t matter. We all have these three different types that we may be using. And here are the elements:
Elements of a Good Source Citation
- Title or creator of the source
- Author(s), editors, or compilers
- Publisher (year published)
- What it is
- Page #
- Film #
- Record group name and #
- URL for online source
- Repository (sometimes)
Now, depending on what you’re looking at, the elements will differ. You’ll want the title of the source or the creator of the source, and sometimes both.
Author(s), editors, or compiles – If you’re citing a book, you will want all the editors, the authors or compilers and say whether it’s an edited work, or a compiled work. You’ll want the publisher if there is one. Some things are self-published, and then I just put in brackets [self published] and the year it was published.
What it is? Is it a marriage book? Is it a Bible? What is it?
Page Number – If it’s paginated, if it’s not page numbered you say unpaginated. Do tell people that it’s not. Don’t make people guess whether there’s a page number so that they don’t obsess about it.
Microfilm Number – If you’re using microfilm, you need to put the film number because that’s what you’re looking at.
Record group name and # – If you’re looking at primary sources include record groups if they’re pertinent. If I’m at the courthouse, I include the courthouse and where the courthouse is. Sometimes I’ll put such and such a county, because how many Washington counties are in the United States?! Make sure you’re sure you say the state. Say that it’s in Bellevue, Nebraska, not just Nebraska. There might be more than one place like that in a state, not necessarily the same named county, but there might be towns with the same name nearby.
URL for online source – Obviously, if the source is online, you need to give the URL.
Repository (sometimes) – And sometimes you will want to have the repository where it used to be located. If you look at a book, say what repository you found it. If I looked at a book, if it’s a famous book, you know, and every genealogy library has it, you don’t have to put the repository. But obviously, when I’m citing the fugitive slave warrant, that I found at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library in Springfield, Illinois, I need to say where it is because no one’s going to be able to find it unless they know where to look.
All of those elements mean there’s no one right way, but you do have to make sure all the elements are in it. Once you choose the style, be consistent. If you’re using A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations, use it consistently. Don’t go off and do something else unless it really is an unusual thing that Turabian doesn’t seem to cover in her book and just try to do the best you can.
Lisa: I imagine it’s just like with naming your files on your hard drive. It’s probably more important to be consistent than to have it be somebody else’s view of perfection. You want it to include all the important pieces. So, that’s reassuring for folks to hear there isn’t just one right way. You’ve offered up some of the styles and things that we should be looking for. And I know you’ve got other resources as well that will help guide us in the right direction, right?
Gail: I do. The book Evidence Explained by Elizabeth Shown Mills is really good, but I don’t use it as much as I used to. And I do think it can be really daunting. There are people out there who will say your citation is wrong. They’ll say, “Well, if you want to stress the document, start with this, if you want to stress the person start with that.” I don’t know what they’re looking at. And I’m thinking “well, yes, it is actually that I wanted to stress the document, because this is a document and analysis. So, the purpose of what you’re using it for really, really matters. Just keep that in mind. Again, for your listener, she should stop stressing about it because she’s probably doing a good job.
Genealogy Software Source Citations & Style Guides
(30:00) By the way of some of those reports – I don’t want to use names – but their databases that we use, I don’t always like the output that they do for their citations. But at least they’re there. But a lot of them are a little jumbled. And they don’t seem to adopt any particular style, though they have all the elements usually that you need. So that’s good. But I’m not into doing that.
I usually do my citations in a separate Word file. I always make my own style guide for every project. I have one source that was in what’s now Poland, but it was Pomerania. And I had my own style guide for that, because I was using an online Polish website that had digitized records. The records were in German, so I could read them. So for my citations for that I had the Polish name, I had the German, and then I have the English translation. I just decided I don’t want to rewrite every citation every time I cite this. So, for my reference, I had a style guide. And that’s a really good idea. Put the work in at the beginning, in a Word file and say, “Okay, I’m gonna spend some time maybe a whole day figuring how I want to cite it, but that’s what I’m going to use.”
Lisa: I like that idea. Using a template, it speeds things up, and it keeps it consistent.
(31:51) Gail: Exactly, exactly. And again, this was something that a lot of people weren’t citing, because they’re really daunted by the Polish website. It took me a while to learn how to navigate it. I don’t speak Polish, I speak German and English in French, and some Spanish but I learned it because I’m a genealogist and that’s what we do. Right? Genealogists are great learners. They will power through the most difficult things to get to where they want to go. So, we don’t want to let the daunting nature of citations continue to stop us from doing it at all. Better to do it, do it in your own style, your own template that you’ve come up with, hopefully, based on these resources that you’re providing, but at least doable rather than saying “Oh, I’ll do that later.”
Like I said, you can always rearrange some things or add an element later. But you need the main things, and you need to be consistent. You’ll save yourself a lot of trouble later on if you cite what you see. And this is also in Evidence Explained, but all the other style guides say the same thing.
If I’m holding the death certificate, I cite the death certificate. If I have a Bible, I cite the Bible and where it is who owns the Bible. Sometimes you have to say as of the year you referenced it. I may not know where it is this year, but at least you’ve got breadcrumbs.
(In the video Gail shared an example of a photocopied of vital records for James Arnold of Rhode Island.) I’m citing the book because I’m not looking at it online. I always check the original whenever I can. The reason I looked at the original is because there was a discrepancy in two sources. And then Cirilo said, oh, by the way, this is a copy too. And we don’t know where the originals are, we think they were destroyed when they were copied. He even gave me who copied it, and when. So that made it into my citation because this is as original as it gets. Sometimes when people transcribe, they don’t mean to, but they make an error. But that wasn’t the case here. But you have to do your due diligence. Whenever you see something that doesn’t make sense, or you have a discrepancy, you’re going to have to track down the original. And I still think it’s better to have the original anyway.
In another case, another Rhode Island one, I had a Samuel Reiss Smith within the vital records. But when I tracked down that original, it said Samuel Royal Smith, so it was my guy. I knew my guy was saying Royal because I had the Bible Arnold had, he just had a hard time reading the handwriting. So I went back and looked at the handwriting. Nope, this is Royal. So, you do want to get the original as much as possible. It made my case.
Citing Genealogical Image Sources
Which brings us to the very important subject of images. Most of us are using lot of images online. Remember, images might be enhanced. And that’s sometimes a good thing. It’s also sometimes a bad thing because there might be some things left out. The other thing is that there may be another one out there, but it may not be the same, kind of like the editions of books. And the series might have a gap.
In my thesis, I’m citing lots of censuses, and slave schedules, because I’m exploring some enslaved women who left enslavement in 1858 from Nebraska territory. I’m using the 1860 territorial census, and it’s online at Ancestry. It’s also online at FamilySearch. When I go to the Nebraska State Library and Archive, there’s a page at the front of the census for their county that lists all these slaves, all the enslavers and the number of people they have enslaved. And that is not online. But it’s critical if you’re looking for African American ancestors. So the census enumerator didn’t follow the rules. They were supposed to fill out a slave schedule separately, but they didn’t because it was a territory. So, they made it up. And there is a record, but it’s not online. So remember, if you’re looking for something and you’re thinking, Oh my gosh, it’s not there, you might have to kind of dig and look at the film and maybe even have someone go to an archive and say, “can you look at this?” Sometimes people don’t mean to but when they’re filming, they miss a page and, of course, it’s going to be the page that your ancestors on!
Lisa: Of course, that’s always the way it works. You know, Gail, you mentioned that images might be enhanced. Tell us a little bit more about what you mean by that.
Citing Enhanced Images
(39:22) Gail: They might be enhanced by changing the colors so that it’s a little bit better and sharper, which is good. But for instance, I did a lot of my initial German research off of microfilms now at Matricula. For the Catholic records, they’re in color, and they’ve enhanced it by coloring it and sharpening them so they’re easier to read. There’s a lot of underlining done in German records, and sometimes the underlines are in red, and they didn’t show up on the microfilm and they show up on the digital image. So you do need to go back and kind of look at original images and see what you’re not seeing online.
Lisa: Being able to make a notation about this in the source citation. I mean, these days, my goodness, any digital image could be altered.
Gail: Exactly, and people can add things to them. And I have an example of why it’s important to say, even when you’re looking at what you think is an image of an original, (which is generally in genealogical standards considered almost as good as the original) But sometimes it’s not. So, this is where Evidence Explained is right. You do need to be really thorough. Are we doing good work? That’s always the question you need to ask yourself. Does that source that I’m citing actually support my assertion or not?
So this the top one, as you can see, it’s white on black. Now of course, that’s the microfilm. But we’re pretty sure the original wasn’t black on white. But they were having trouble getting a good image. So they changed it. I cited the film St. Andrews Verdan Evangelical Church. It’s unindexed. And it’s a baptism, 1800, and I give the FHL microfilm. And I added, thank goodness, citing film from a manuscript in Berlin. Now, she may not like that, she might want me to say what manuscript in Berlin it was. But you know what I feel like – and my history thesis person said – I cited too much. So can you find it? Yes, you can. That’s the question. But the reason it was important for me to put the extra thing about where the film and the manuscript is, is because Ancestry digitized it years later. And you start with Ancestry, usually, with the name of the database. You say that it’s a digital image, so that you know that you’re actually looking at a scan of some original. And in truth, St. Andrews Verdan Evangelical Church, and this manuscript is in the Niedersachsen, or Lower Saxony archive. And do you see any differences in those two things? Because I do right away. Number one, it’s a better image. But there’s a 42 on the lower one, and there’s no 42 on the other one, and the other one has page numbers, and the other one does not. They’re the same record, same church. If you don’t do a lot of German genealogy, what you don’t know is German parishes make duplicate records by law. So one is the duplicate and one is the original. The original is probably added to later by the actual parish person. Or the duplicate, they went back later and said, “This is hard to use, because we don’t have any page numbers or entry numbers, so we’re going to add them.” I love looking at originals, because you can see that it’s different ink, you can see whether it’s a different color. And with imagery, you can always see that. So that’s two, same person say project. One is easier to find the record than the other because they added the 42. And you know, all those stamps on your digital image at the census record. Those weren’t there originally. That’s why we say page numbers stamp or page number written.
Knowing the Genealogy Records Makes for Better Source Citations
Lisa: Exactly which can get very confusing when people are trying to go back and find things. You’re really also making the case of how important it is to familiarize yourself with the records that you are going to be using. You can discover things like the fact that in Germany they legally had to make these copies and they distributed them and that would be different in a different country where you’re researching. I love reading the full descriptions of the records, whatever I can get my hands on. Genealogy websites can tells you more about the background of the record, how they acquired it, etc. All of that could help support them making an even better source citation.
Learn more: Watch Elevenses with Lisa episode 37 Provenance: The Story Behind Your Genealogy Records.
Citing Sources of Sources
(46:52) So the other thing, and I think I’ve kind of already alluded to it, is sources of sources. And this example is one from you know, the olden days. You can look at this in what they call the Massachusetts brown books. And this one is actually an image. So I’m going to add that I got it at AmericanAncestors.org.
Massachusetts Vital Records to 1850 (Online Database: AmericanAncestors.org, New England Historic Genealogical Society, 2001-2016), https://www.americanancestors.org/DB190/i/7687/338/141204368, Danvers Births, Vol. 1:338, citing First Congregational Church (Salem Village), Danvers.
Notice at the very end I say citing First Congregational Church, Salem village, Danvers. So it’s in the Danvers VRs, but it doesn’t mean that they were in Danvers, proper. So a lot of people might stop with Danvers, but that CR1 means Congregational Church, Salem village.
How do we find that out? If you’re online, you go to the beginning of the book and look at the abbreviations. Always see what’s in here. Does it matter whether your ancestor was a Baptist, Unitarian, Universalist, Congregationalist or a Quaker? Absolutely! So do know that those little citation citing something else, you need to kind of run that down and put that in your citation. That’ll help you and other people to make sure you know which John Smith you’re talking about. How many John Smiths do I have in my background? Quite a few! Was my John Smith, a Quaker? Well then it may or may not be the person who was at Salem Village in Danvers. And look: there’s two congregational churches in Danvers, one is Salem village, and one is in Middle Precinct.
Discussing Discrepancies in Source Citations
(48:21) And again, talk about discrepancies. You know, my Bristol one? I had that said he was born 11th December, and one that said he was born ninth December. And both of them were copies of original records that can’t be found. So, I just say, I looked for the original records, did my due diligence can’t be found, here’s what may have happened, they’re two days apart, but it’s definitely the same guy, and here’s why. So always handle discrepancies in your source citations.
Most Commonly Used Source Citations
(48:42) Here are two source citations that are fine:
- Williams-Schultz Marriage License and Certificate, Saunders County, Nebraska, Marriage Book 5:162, RG204, Film #3B, Nebraska State Historical Society, Lincoln.
- Saunders County Clerk (Nebraska), Marriage Book 5:162, RG 204, Film 3B, Williams-Schultz Marriage License and certificate, NSHS, Lincoln.
Somebody might write to you later and say that I’m wrong about this. But I have looked in Evidence Explained, I’ve looked in The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th Edition and either one of these is correct. But I wanted to show you why there’s no one right way.
I started with the first one William Shultz marriage license. And I like to use that format more where you say what it is, especially when you’re using end notes. I don’t know about you, but I really liked footnotes better because I could check right away. But a lot of editors and a lot of history books, you have to go to the end notes. So, if I want to check and there’s just tons and tons of footnotes, how much easier is it if you’re checking where I got the William Schultz marriage to start with a William Shultz marriage what it is? It’s easier to find for people, right? So, I always try to pretend I’m the reader who hasn’t been part of this big project that I know inside out.
Now, if it’s his license and certificate put that, because in some record sets the licenses are in separate books than the certificate. This one, the licenses is above and the certificate is below so it’s all one page. But I just let people know they’re both on here. But it’s not wrong for me to start with Saunders County Clerk who’s the creator, the marriage book, five 162, the record group because I’m looking at the archive. But I’m still looking at a film, I’m not at the courthouse. If I wanted to go to the Saunders County courthouse, then I would just say Saunders, county clerk marriage book five. And then I would say Wahoo, Nebraska, because that’s where Saunders county courthouse is. Now they know I went to the courthouse. You can do it either way. But make sure all the elements are there so people can check it.
Now I know some of your listeners might be wanting to publish an article or publish it for posterity, which is always good. I do encourage people, especially if you’ve done some really original research, that’s a breakthrough, I say get it published. Get credit for what you do, because people are going to take it from you, and they’re never going to cite you. I have a friend who’s done some incredible research. And I keep saying you got to write it up, you got to write it up! You are the expert witness. And it will actually help you to write it up, too. Because there’s where you see, “oh, maybe my train of thought was not as clean as I thought it was” or “Oh, I need to do a little bit more.”
The Right Way to Do Genealogy Source Citations
(51:45) You might be thinking, “just tell me the right way.” But when I’m writing, the right way is how the editor wants it. You have to study the publication. (In the case of writing it up for your family, you are the editor who gets to decide.)
For the footnotes for instance. 1790 census in this particular journal, which is peer reviewed by professional genealogists: 1790 U. S. Census, East Greenwich, Kent Co., R. I., p. 59.
Here’s a footnote that is a published footnote in there. It’s following footnote, but it’s a good footnote. Notice that they abbreviate County, they abbreviate Rhode Island. And as some people might not even put R. I., they might just do RI. That would be just as good, but that’s not how this editor wants it.
Here’s a very similar footnote for this journal, New England Historical Genealogical Register, another prestigious journal very well: 1790 U. S. Census, Norwalk and Stamford, Fairfield County, Connecticut, roll 1, p. 326.
I mean, if you read it in there, it’s been well researched. It’s been well cited. That’s their footnote. Notice they spell county out.
Is one right, the other one wrong? No, they’re just different. And they’re both helpful. You can find them.
And here’s Evidence Explained: 1790 U. S. Census, Fairfield County, Norwalk and Stamford, digital image, Ancestry.com (http:www.ancestry.com : access date), entry for Smith Mead, p. 326 (written) line 22, citing NARA M637, Roll 1.
That very same one that I just showed you from New England. And you know, if you’re going to print it on a paper, paper is expensive. Ink is expensive. So they’re going to do the shorter one. It’s just how it is.
Access Dates in Genealogy Source Citations
(53:15) And now access date. There’s still a debate about that. There’s a debate about whether you have to do HTTPS www ancestry.com. Some people are just taking that out, because everybody’s so familiar with Ancestry.com now, we may not need that whole URL. We just put ancestry.com, and everybody knows that. Or familysearch.org, access date. I usually put the year at least, because I’m already noticing that Ancestry.com has re- titled some of their databases. Just handle explaining your decision in the beginning of your book or paper. Explain where you’re coming from.
What I’m asking for is balance. I feel like there’s been a pendulum swing, because genealogists used to be really looked down upon by professional historians. There was a lot of sloppy genealogy done in the old days. Now I feel like sometimes we swing too far, you know. I do not always put that it’s the NARA publication number, blah, blah, blah, I put that in the intro. And then I shorten it because it’s going to be printed up and we don’t have the paper to do it. We just can’t waste all that paper. I’m being an ecologist here. But most good editors do strike that balance. They understand that, you know, it’s all about sources. It’s all about supporting your assertions. And as long as you’re doing that, you’re doing well.
Lisa: I like that. That’s a wonderful note to end on, which is, as long as you’re keeping these your audience in mind, you’re being consistent. You’ve turned to really reliable source citation reference materials like you’ve given us here. And we know we’re going to do a good job.
Gail: I want you to focus on the evidence, and the citations are your help. They’re not an obstacle, they should be your help.
Lisa: I like that idea very, very much. And the evidence is really the fun part, isn’t it? And we have to make sure we’re not so stressed out about source citations that we aren’t thinking clearly and evaluating the evidence that we’re coming across.
Gail: Right, exactly. I mean, I do think there’s some people who get too hung up on that, and they’re spending time on it that they could be using to do a little bit more analysis.
Lisa: Yeah, that’s a great point. And it’s easy to want to hyper-focus on what you feel like you can control. And you know, a lot of times, you can’t control the evidence, you can’t control your access to things. But we want to keep that end goal in mind of just do the best research that we can do. And you’ve certainly helped us with that.
Gail, tell folks, if they want to learn more about what you do, if they want to talk to you about research, how do they find you online.
- Download the 18-page ad-free show notes and the BONUS 2-page Genealogy Source Citation Quick Reference Guide based on today’s episode. (Premium Member log in required. Not a Premium Member? Become a Genealogy Gems Premium Member.)
- Watch past free episodes of Elevenses with Lisa.
- Get your official Elevenses with Lisa mug
- Subscribe for free to our Genealogy Gems YouTube channel so you’ll never miss another episode.
- Subscribe to my free email newsletter to get notifications of new videos and articles.
Questions and Comments
Please leave your questions and comments below. Gail was kind enough to answer questions from the live chat:
Q: I’m used to APA citation format, is the citation format for genealogy a lot different?
A: Excellent question. It is similar, but different enough that you may want to use Turabian or Evidence Explained. Sometimes when I am in Worldcat.org I will look at the different style formats they have in a dropdown menu just to see what the differences are. Once you decide on a format, then be consistent.
Q: If we use Roots Magic, is it best to use their templates or should we create our own style? It is up to you.
A: The templates can be very helpful as we are less likely to leave important elements out. In my own experience, it takes me longer to input through templates, but the difference in time is probably not so much that it would be discouraging.
Q: Tips for using Ancestry’s citations?
A: Although they have improved their citations through the years, Ancestry’s citations do not always meet the genealogical standard. A resource I use is “QuickSheet: Citing Ancestry.com Databases & Images, Evidence Style*”
Q: How do you cite inherited genealogy scans like family Bible, letters, and documents that you don’t know where it came from?
A: I would consult Turabian for this. As far as you can trace provenance, you need to have that in the first entry citation. Here is an example:
When you have repetitive items do you use IBID only changing the date and page? Yes. If you are writing for an editor, check with their style guide first.
Q: Where is Gail inputting her style guide source information within her genealogy software? Am I misunderstanding, she has a quick reference sheet she’s created in word, but how is she inputting it into her software of choice?
A: You are not misunderstanding. I have style guides for big projects that have a lot of repetitive elements. I have these in Word. I copy and paste into the manuscript. If putting it into software, I still copy and paste, but not all at once, as different programs have you input titles, authors, etc., in different order. Example: Census (U. S.) 1850-1870
*year U.S. census, * Co., *state abbreviated, *township, p. #, image database, database URL, dwelling#/family #, *name of individual and/or head of household.
Q: What does it mean in a citation to say “citing ” (as in “citing film”)?
A: It is a good practice to mention what you are either looking at or holding in your hand. So, I might say “Washington Deaths,” image database, website URL, accessed date, entry for NAME, date of death, citing FHL microfilm, etc. This tells the reader that I am using an image database, but that the digital image is a copy of a microfilm, not the original paper death register. So, I cite the microfilm, because that is what the image represents. I do not always use the terminology, “citing” but often I do when I am dealing with digital image databases. Some researchers still use access dates, but for instance, in my Master’s thesis, they did not want so many dates and long citations, so we said accessed in 2020, or in some cases, “various dates in 2020,” rather than littering it up with long date formats.
Q: Are templates for sources to be done for each project? Can templates be used over and over?
A: I use my Word style guides over and over, regardless of project. However, I also have special projects where I have a separate one. What I normally do is take my “usual” style guide and adapt it or add to it. For instance, I have one for when I am using the Polish State Archive, with my “normal” citations, plus the idiosyncrasies of that archive, another for when I’m primarily using Archion, and another one for the large book project (mainly Massachusetts but ultimately nationwide and into Australia), and of course, I have a separate one for the book I am writing under contract.
Q: My mother wrote a lot of things down for the family historian (me), some were dictated and some in her handwriting and actually some from a previous generation. For my personal genealogy can I use these as a citation? I plan on scanning her notes and adding it to my computerized tree and the originals in my wonderful books of saved documentation. (The class you did many moons ago)? Thanks for a wonderful cl
A: I love this question. Yes, I would cite your mother’s work. If dictated and you were the writer, you may want to call it interview notes, and the date, if you have it. Her own notes you would cite her as the author/compiler. Again, I would consult Evidence Explained and/or Turabian for this situation, and then decide what format and order you want to use. Once you establish your “first entry” note, you can then use a short form note for any other references to that particular part of your mother’s research.
New Irish genealogy records and moreNew Irish genealogy records top this week’s list of noteworthy new family history collections online from around the globe. Also, find records for Austria, Brazil, France, Germany, Guatemala, Spain, Wales and the U.S. (FBI criminal files and collections for CO, ID,...
Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps for Genealogy
Show Notes: Discover Sanborn Fire Insurance maps with Julie Stoner of the Geography and Map Division of the Library of Congress. Learn the best search strategies, how to download the Sanborn maps for free, and hidden online resources! Sanborn maps are an invaluable tool for family history because they provide an up-close look at the places where your ancestors lived.
Watch the Video:
Resource: Download the ad-free Show Notes handout
(Premium Membership required)
(This interview has been minimally edited for clarity.)
Lisa: Today we’re talking about Sanborn fire insurance maps and how we can use them for genealogy. They’re available at the Library of Congress. Here to tell us more about that is Julie Stoner. She’s a reference specialist in the geography and map division of the Library of Congress.
Julie: Thanks so much, Lisa. Happy to be here.
I adore the Sanborn fire insurance maps because they give us such a unique perspective and view of our ancestors’ world.
What are Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps?
Start us off and tell us exactly what are Sanborn fire insurance maps?
Julie: The Sanborn fire insurance maps are a uniform series of large scale maps. They date starting from about 1867, though, they mainly start in the 1880s, and they run mostly through the 1950s. There are some from later dates as well.
It was a company started by a man named D.A. Sanborn. He was drawing these maps at a building level to sell to fire insurance companies so that they could then assess how much to charge people for the fire risk of their building. We use them for a lot more things today than they were originally intended for because they show the building level details of a city.
We have over 12,000 cities and towns represented. Some smaller towns may only have a few sheets. But the larger cities may have multiple volumes. They would go back and create a new map every 10 or 15 years or so. Therefore, you can really see how a city changed over time and how the buildings changed over time, and how a neighborhood was built. These maps can be used for all sorts of things now.
Lisa: I love the fact that they have such detail and are really unique. There really aren’t any other maps quite like these, are there?
Julie: It’s true. We do have other maps, like real estate atlases, and things like that of maybe a few cities, here and there, like Washington D.C. or New York. We have land ownership maps, but nothing of quite this scale or detail.
Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps Online Collection
Lisa: Let’s talk about the scale of the map collection. At the Library of Congress you have the physical map collection, and then there’s the collection that we can access online. Tell us a little bit about the scope of the collection? And does it vary whether we’re online or in person?
Julie: It does vary a bit because of copyright restrictions. As I said, we have about 12,000 different cities and towns represented, that equals over 700,000 map sheets. So, that’s a that’s a lot of sheets of maps. And a few years ago, the library, in conjunction with a third party, took on a project to scan all of the public domain Sanborn maps. Public domain means that there are no copyright restrictions on those maps. So that included anything published before 1922 at that point. Then anything published before 1964, in which the copyright wasn’t renewed. The library took on this project to scan all those, and those are completed and are all online on our website and can be downloaded.
That copyright date is now a rolling date. This means that there are now maps between 1923 and 1926 that are public domain that we haven’t scanned yet, and we are working to get those scan to get those online. And as soon as new maps come into the public domain, we hope to process them and upload those when that happens. So, a very large chunk of the Sanborn maps are online. But, if they are not, you can always come and see them in person as well, because we do have the physical copies.
Sanborn Map Resolution
Lisa: You mentioned that the part that the part of the collection that is in the public domain is available online. And they’re downloadable. Are those pretty high-resolution maps, so that we’ll be able to use those in our own genealogy projects?
Julie: For sure! They are definitely high resolution. The library scans them at the highest resolution that we can and so there’s actually a variety of files that you can download. We have JPEG images, which are a bit lower quality but are good for something like PowerPoints or computer screens. And then we have our TIFF files, which are the largest high-resolution files which have. These are a good size for printing.
Lisa: I know that the online collection, which I think most of our folks would be interested in accessing from home easily, is at the Library of Congress at the loc.gov website at https://www.loc.gov/collections/sanborn-maps. Tell us a little bit about what we’ll find there on the website.
Fire Insurance Map Research Guide at the Library of Congress
Julie: Sure, so that link that you said is a landing page for our digital images. Let’s start with the fire insurance map research guide that we have that is about our fire insurance maps in general, not just the Sandborn maps. There are a few other companies though Sanborn took those over in time. They became pretty much became the only one.
On the research guide page, there’s a large section on the left side of the page that says Sanborn Fire Insurance Company Maps. If you click on that, you will find a number of links to help you with your research of the Sanborn Fire Insurance Company maps.
How to Search for Sanborn Maps
I want to point out the easiest way to find the maps. Under the searching for Sanborn Maps tab you will see some information including a link to our Sanborn Fire Insurance Map Checklist. This is the easiest way to find the maps that you’re looking for. It will take you to our fire insurance map index. And this is the easiest way to search for maps.
It’s so large that it can be a little overwhelming. This checklist is taken from a 1981 publication produced by the library that lists all of the Sanborn maps that we have in our collection. While the library has the largest collection of Sanborn maps in the world, we do not claim to have every one ever made. We are missing some. For example, if you found a map at your historical society that is not on this list, it just means that we don’t have it in our physical collection. Not that it doesn’t exist.
You can search by state at the Map Index. If you click on U.S. from the drop-down menu, you’ll find all the states. Scroll through and pick your state. I live in Virginia and I was born here, so I will search for Virginia. I will then see a list of hyperlinks with all of the cities available with Sanborn maps in the collection. Scroll through here and click on the city of interest. For example, if you want to click on Richmond you will get the list of Richmond maps here at the library. It’s a table and on the far left side you will see the date of the volume. And then you will see the number of sheets in that volume. Other geographic areas included sometimes in larger cities. The Sanborn Map Company would pick some areas farther outside the city to include in that volume, perhaps a few sheets. You’ll see a column called Comments which is mostly about the physical binding of the maps your library. And then a column called Website. If you click on the website link it will take you to the digital images.
Why are there multiple dates on Sanborn maps?
And just one other note about the date. If you look at the date, sometimes it can look a little confusing because you’ll see two dates listed. For example, volume 1924 through April 1950. So what’s happening here is that starting in the mostly the 40s and 50s, the Sanborn Map Company, decided it was faster, instead of making an entirely new map to cut and paste over an old map. So, this 1924 date is the face of the map. The 1950 date is the last time that they updated it. So, it’s really showing a 1950 era Richmond, but they’re just using that base map of 1924.
Downloading Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps
When you click through to these digital images, we can download them. Click on an image and you will see in the center of the screen the map that you can scroll in and out of, and then at the bottom underneath the image, you’ll see the download link. You’ll find that there are several options for JPEG images, a GIF file, and then the high resolution tiff file. It’s pretty great. We’re very happy that a lot of these are now online for researchers to use from outside of Washington, DC.
What do the colors and symbols mean on Sanborn maps?
Lisa: And when you look at these maps, there’s a lot of detail. There’s color coding, and all kinds of markings. Do you have resources on the website to help people interpret the map?
Julie: Sure we do. The best method first is to look at the first page of a volume. If you zoom in you will see that there is a map key. It’s a box usually at the top or the bottom of the sheet. That is going to show you what the colors and the symbols in each volume mean.
Different cities have different unique characteristics, and the Sanborn Map Company would map those. So, not every map is going to have every symbol. The key at the front is a really good way to see what specifically applies to that volume.
For example, pink typically means brick. Yellow typically means it was made out of frame, or wood. Green can change. I’ve seen it as cement, I’ve seen it as special, not exactly sure sometimes what that means. The colors indicate the type of building materials, and then you will see what the hash marks or the circles or the x’s mean, in various buildings. There are a lot of abbreviations that the Sanborn Map Company uses as well. D typically stands for dwelling, S for store.
If you want to see an entire list of the symbols, we have a great resource back on our research guides page. Go back to the research guide to the Interpreting Sanborn Maps section on the left. That’s going to tell you a lot more about the colors, the symbols, things like that.
If you go to the Internet Resources, under Websites, there’s a list called Sanborn Map Abbreviations and Legend created by Environmental Data Resources, who are the copyright holders of the Sanborn maps. They’ve created this great PDF that shows the most common abbreviations and symbols used to the Sanborn fire insurance maps. It’s pretty comprehensive.
Sanborn Fire Insurance Map Search Strategies
Lisa: That’s a fantastic resource! If we do the search and we don’t see the town that we have in mind in that list, is there another way or any other way to search to figure out if it is part of a bigger map? Perhaps it’s just too small of a town to have its own map?
Julie: That’s a great question. If it’s a really small town and you don’t see it on the list, the other thing you can do is search back on the index page. The main index page under the full text field. For example, there might be a few sheets of a smaller town on a bigger city. You can search for that in the all full text fields. That will search the other geographic location that we saw, like in Richmond. So say if we typed in Manchester, and we did a search for that. You would see that it’s here as well under Richmond, as well as its own city. So, you can see that maybe it had earlier sheets here in Richmond. If you don’t find it in the search, and you don’t find it in the search fields, and if you don’t find it in the list, then it’s likely that one was not made at that town. Unfortunately that does happen. A lot of small cities and towns just don’t have them sometimes.
Searching for counties and regions in Sanborn maps
Lisa: Well, that brings up another question. Are these always sorted by town or city? Or might we even see a county or even some other kind of regional area described in a map?
Julie: That’s a great question. You do sometimes see counties, I can think of an example off the top my head if you go to California, for example. If you scroll down to Los Angeles, you’re going to see that you have the city of Los Angeles, but then you also have Los Angeles County. That’s going to cover some of the county areas that are outside of the city itself. Typically they’re covering things like factories or industrial areas, or things of that nature, but you never quite know.
Another example would be in New Jersey. If you go to New Jersey, and scroll down to New Jersey coast which includes several different seaside towns. This would be an example of when you might want to do the full text search if you didn’t find it in the list. For example, New Jersey Coast includes Longbranch, and Monmouth Beach, etc. All of these volumes are kind of scattered down the coast.
I like to say that, for every rule for Sanborn maps, there’s an exception. It would be worth perusing that list just to see what other gems are out there are maybe very close by areas that would be worth taking a look at, even if we do find our cities listed or in a search.
The Sanborn Fire Insurance Map Index
Lisa: I can imagine there was a lot of effort that went into the indexing part of this collection, just getting all these cities and counties and everything listed. Was that work that the Library of Congress had to do? Or was that given to you by the company who now owns the copyright on Sanborn? And does it include anything besides a geographic place such as for example, any map with a saloon or any map with a particular feature?
Julie: That would be pretty amazing! Unfortunately, no, we don’t have anything that would list every saloon ever found, though, if somebody wanted to do that project, we’d be happy to take that.
This list was created by the Library of Congress in 1981, and we’ve added to it as we gained new material. The library is always looking for Sanborn maps that we don’t have in our collection. And when we find them, we do try and acquire them and then add them to our index. So, this particular list was created by staff at the library in 1981.
Lisa: What made me think of that question was I know that the David Rumsey collection out at Stanford is now working with and experimenting with a special type of OCR to pull that kind of text off maps. It’s amazing to see what technology might be able to do for us in the future.
Sanborn Map GIS Project
Julie: It is amazing what technology could do. And you’re right, there is a great project going on right now called machine reading maps that is experimenting with pulling the text out of the Sanborn maps to then create new products out of that.
We also have a new GIS project. GIS is geographic, geographic information systems. It’s basically putting information on a map so that you can see it and comprehend it at a glance.
One of the problems that we were having with our Sanborn maps, especially for our very large cities, like New York, LA, Chicago, is that there are so many volumes covering that city, and people would want to know where their exact address was. Well, there are, let’s say, seven or eight volumes of New York City. Which volume includes that address, right? So, we’ve created what we’re calling the Sanborn Atlas Volume Finder. You can find the link on our resource guide page. Click the link and you will see a map of the country. It’s going to pinpoint our current volume blinders.
We are hopefully going to be making more as we go. But basically, the first map is an index of what we have. Tight now we just have Los Angeles, Chicago and Detroit. We’re working on getting Washington DC and New York City out.
But say, for example, you’re interested in a map of Detroit, or an address in Detroit. If you click on Detroit on the pink pin, you can then click on the Sanborn volume finder. That’s going to take you to the Detroit map. It’s going to show you exactly what areas are covered in Detroit. It’s going to show you the extent of the Sanborn maps for the different years that it was mapped in Detroit.
If you look on the left side of the screen you’ll see the legend. This is a range of years for each set of maps that was created. You might see 1884 to 1896 and then 1897 to 1899. You can click the years on and off. So, if you just wanted to know the earliest maps of Detroit, you can see where it was mapped. And you can enter your address in the upper right corner of the screen. That’s going to pinpoint for you the address. Then when you click on it, it’ll tell you the volume where you’ll find the map, and a link that’ll take you to the digital images. So you don’t have to guess which volume your address is in anymore. It will tell you whether the digital images are available, or if the map is not available online, you can contact us to learn more about it.
Lisa: What an amazing tool. It’s exciting to think that will continue to expand particularly for these really big cities where like you said it, it’s like a needle in a haystack with the addresses.
Julie: Yes, there are a lot of volumes for some of these cities. It can be really difficult without expert knowledge how to find your address. We feel like this is really going to help researchers in diving deeper into the Sanborn maps and really finding what they’re looking for.
Accessing Offline Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps
Lisa: You mentioned that sometimes you’re going to see that it is not available online. That might be a copyright issue or something else. Explain to us a little bit about what our options are for getting access to a map that might only be available in person the Library of Congress. How might we go about the in person visit, or making a request online to get a copy?
Julie: It’s the geography and map division policy that we will not scan or send items that are possibly under copyright protection. In the case of the Sanborn maps, if they were renewed or after 1964 then they are copyrighted, so we can’t send those electronically to you. You can make an in person visit to the Library of Congress reading room. We’re open Monday to Friday 8:30 to 5:00, and we will pull out anything you want to see.
Another option is that these volumes have all been scanned in black and white by ProQuest, a subscription database. Those are all scanned in black and white. A lot of universities and public libraries subscribe to the ProQuest database. Go to your public library and ask if they subscribe to the ProQuest database. If they do, you can see them there, and you can download them. However, those are black and white, so that’s a little bit not as helpful sometimes if you’re looking for building construction, and things like that.
There is also on our research guide page, under Internet Resources a link called the Union List of Sanborn Maps. This is a list compiled by the University of California at Berkeley of other institutions that have Sanborn maps other than the Library of Congress. So if, for example, you are in California, and you can’t make it to the library, you can see if other institutions also have those physical copies that you could go to that institution to see.
Lisa: I’m familiar with ProQuest. Do you happen to know, is there one place where you can look up and see which libraries subscribed to ProQuest? Or is that just too much to ask?
Julie: I think you would have to do that individually by library. I’ve never seen a master list. But I find that librarians are usually very helpful people. So, if you called your local library or university library, I’m sure librarians there could tell you help you track it down.
The Growth of the Sanborn Map Collection
Lisa: So it this indeed a growing database? And do you continue to get both stuff that can go online as well as maps that will just be available in person?
Julie: We are always looking for maps that we don’t have here in our collection. Usually, most of those are going to be more recent, like 1950s, 1960s and 1970s maps. The library gained most of our early collection from copyright deposit. It used to be that you had to send in a physical copy of something for to get it copyrighted and that’s how our collection was built. We are still always looking for new updated ones that we don’t have. It is a growing collection. I wouldn’t say that we’re receiving them every day or anything. But when we do find them, and we do like to acquire them.
Final Thoughts on Sanborn Maps
Lisa: Wonderful. Well, before I let you go, you are the guru when it comes to the Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps over at the Library of Congress. Anything else that we should really know about, or look for as we’re working with these Sanborn maps?
Julie: That’s a good question. First, I want to say that we always welcome questions to our division. On the left of the research guide, or on our main library of congress homepage, there’s a link that says Ask a Librarian, and you’re welcome to send us any questions that you have, that we haven’t answered on our research guide, or that you’re confused about. We’re always happy to answer questions.
The Sanborn maps are a fantastic resource for doing genealogy, for finding out more about the town you lived in, and the buildings that were there, and the types of buildings. A lot of the buildings will say what was in them, for example, a candy shop or a hat shop or whatnot. So, they’re a great resource to just find out more about the town. There’s always more to learn about them. I’m still learning about things that I didn’t know about Sanborn maps, years later.
Lisa: Julie, thank you so much for coming and sharing this terrific collection, and giving us such a unique view of the places where our ancestors may have lived. I’m sure you’ll be getting many inquiries through Ask the Librarian.
Julie: Yeah, dive in, reach out. We’re here to help.
Lisa: thank you so much for joining us here today.
Julie: My pleasure. Thank you.
Citing Sanborn Maps
Julie: The Library simply requests an attribution to the Library and the Geography and Map Division when publishing material from its collections, the format of the citation is up to you.
Download the ad-free Show Notes handout for Premium Members.