Preface for Genealogists

The genealogist is a treasure hunter, but our treasures are not gold and silver. A genealogist’s treasures are snippets of information that have been hidden away in courthouses, libraries, and private homes for generations. Simply put, the genealogist is looking for recorded evidence of the existence of a person (related to them or not) and facts about the person and that person’s relationship(s) with others.

I have revised the 1983 edition of this reference guide in order to help both the genealogist and the librarian find materials in the University of Virginia Library, which contains one of the largest collections of material in the state on Virginia’s history. These resources are useful to the genealogist as well as the academic researcher. This resource is a selective guide, containing only the most important and useful references for the genealogical researcher. The creative researcher, with the help of a librarian, will find much more information in the University Library than can be covered in this work.

I urge the user to always check the online catalog for the current status of a title. If you plan to visit the University Library to use its resources, please contact us ahead of time to verify hours and holdings:

Alderman Library
Information: (434) 924-3021
Alderman Library’s website
Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library
Information (no reference questions, please): (434) 243-1776
Reference Request Form
Small Library’s website


Genealogical research takes much longer to complete than academic research — months, if not years. It is sometimes difficult to keep track of all the lines of your research, or your unanswered questions. You can impress the librarians you meet by being an organized researcher.

Know the basics of research. There are a number of useful guides available for the beginner, both online and in print. My section on Help for Beginning Genealogists can lead you to several free resources to help you start out.

Plan your research ahead of time. What are the questions you wish to answer in this research session? What resources have you identified in the University Library that are important to your research on this visit? Have a plan to make the most of your time in the library.

Create a “research log” whenever you are in a library doing research. In that log, write down what you are looking for, what sources you have used, and what you have found in them. Include a map of the U.S., and a picture of each state your ancestors lived in with each county designated. Carry other necessary materials in your research notebook, such as what information was recorded in each census year, how to apply Soundex codes, ahnentafel charts, lists of alternate spellings of your ancestor’s names, copies of forms (family group sheet, census transcription forms, etc.), etc.

Genealogical techniques and the format of genealogical resources have changed tremendously in the 22 years since the 1983 edition of this work was published. Not only is genealogy and family history an increasingly wide-spread interest among the public, but many genealogical resources are available in online formats and easier to get to for the typical researcher. For instance, images of the 1790 through 1930 U.S. Census documents, as well as indexes to them, are now available from several different vendors in CD-ROM and online formats. (In many cases this is a noticeable improvement — the digital images are in better condition and more readable than the microfilms held by libraries that have been in constant use for many years.)

Many of the classic published resources have been improved by the digital age. It is easier to locate materials that will help the researcher. Difficult-to-find, out-of-print books are now available on Google Books or CD-ROM. Printed book catalogs of genealogical materials in the Library of Congress (Washington, D.C.) and the Newberry Library (Chicago, IL) have been supplanted by direct access to the online catalogs of those libraries, along with many others. The catalog of the Family History Library (Salt Lake City, UT) is available online, along with the means to search the International Genealogical Indexes, the Pedigree Resource File, the Ancestral Files, and other unique resources held at that library. The catalog of the Allen County Public Library (Fort Wayne, IN) in also available remotely for the first time, in online format.

I should mention that some of the electronic databases listed in this guide are only available from a U.Va. location. I have noted these restrictions in this guide.

In spite of these changes in methods of access, the resources that a genealogist needs remain the same. Primary resources are of the utmost importance, such as

  • Business records. Some business records, such as plantation journals, are vital to pre-1865 genealogical research.
  • Civil and religious vital records. Vital records include birth, marriage, divorce and death records.
  • Court records. Court records can offer a glimpse of the relationships of a person to the other people in his community.
  • Federal and state census schedules. Census schedules identify family members, their birth years, birth places, and other facts about their lives.
  • Immigration records. Immigration record give the date and place the person arrived in the United States, and those who accompanied her or him.
  • Land records. Land records often include the names and relationships of family members who buy and sell land to each other.
  • Military records. Both service records and pension applications, among other military records, are useful for genealogy and family history purposes.
  • Naturalization records. Naturalization records include the names of immigrants, their dates and places of arrival and country of origin.
  • Newspapers. Contemporary newspapers may announce births, deaths, and marriages, as well as other important events in a person’s life.
  • Personal papers. Diaries, letters, day-books, and other records can provide valuable, in-depth information.
  • Wills and probate records. Wills and probate records identify family members.

Secondary sources, such as indexes, bibliographies, lists, and other resources, are useful as guides on the trail of the primary resources. You will find both kinds of information here at the University Library.

I wish you good hunting in your research! — Jean L. Cooper