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What You Need to Know About Genealogy Records

Yashna Wahal
What You Need to Know About Genealogy Records
Technological advancements have made it easier than ever to study and track your family's historical records. However, the information you find may be inaccurate or incomplete. If you’re not careful, you might inadvertently create false narratives about your family history or come to incorrect conclusions about relatives and relationships, as well as other things.

That’s why it's so important to understand what genealogy records are and how to interpret them. In this guide, we share seven of the most important things to know so you can begin your search for a reliable and accurate genealogical history. 

7 Things to Know About Genealogy Records

Before you access and use your family’s historical records, it’s good to have the following information.

1. What are genealogy records?

Genealogical records refer to a diverse range of data sources—such as names, dates, and places—that provide information about individuals and families across generations. These records of history can help you trace and construct your family tree, identify and connect with your relatives across generations, and understand your ancestors’ origins, movements, experiences, and life stories. 

2. Why are they gaining popularity?

Genealogy records have sparked increased interest recently for several reasons, as we explain below.

  • Technological advancements: Digital tools such as digitized records, online databases, and genealogy websites have made it easy to research and access historical archives from the comfort of your home. Before the internet, individuals may have had to travel far and wide to learn about their families and ancestors. 
  • DNA testing: Genetic tests that provide insight into your ethnic origins, family connections, and migration patterns have become more available and affordable. This has created excitement around the idea of digging deeper into one’s historical family tree. 
  • Traditional and social media: Documentaries, TV shows, and social media platforms have further popularized genealogy by showcasing the emotionally stimulating stories of people discovering their family histories and learning about close and distant relatives, among other things. There’s also been an increased societal focus on diversity and cultural identity, making people more curious about their backgrounds.

3. Why are genealogy records useful?

People find genealogical archives in history useful in a number of ways.

Providing a sense of belonging

Discovering your roots can provide you with a sense of connection to your past and solidify your sense of family and bonding with existing family members. 

Preserving family histories

Learning about your family’s experiences, legacy, and traditions can help you carry these forward and ensure that these stories are not lost over time. 

Connecting with relatives

Genealogical records might help you find and connect with relatives you didn’t know about. While most of these are likely to be distant, there are cases of individuals reuniting with close loved ones with whom they had lost contact.

Validation and documentation

Sometimes, these documents can help validate your identity. For instance, genealogical paperwork and DNA testing could help if you had to prove your lineage for inheritance or citizenship.

Understanding one’s identity and behavioral patterns

Insights into previous generations of family members or current relatives can help you make sense of your identity, explore similarities, connect to your past, and understand how your family history has shaped your present. 

Medical and health insights

Insights into your family’s health patterns and pasts are a starting point to learning about potential genetic predispositions and health risks. This way, you can take proactive steps to address future health concerns.  

Broader cultural, societal, and historical context

Genealogy records offer information about historical events, previous societal norms, migration patterns, and traditions, helping us better understand a larger history. 

4. What are the different types of genealogy records?

Genealogical data can be found in various forms, the main types of which we list here. 

Vital records

You can trace your family lineage by looking for birth certificates, marriage licenses, and death records that contain key information such as names, dates, and locations.

Census records

These are government records that track demographic information about individuals and households, offering insights into family structures and occupations during specific periods. For instance, today’s youth might find information about their grandparents or great-grandparents in the 1940 census or 1950 census.  

Religious records

These include records on baptism, marriage, burial, and other rites of passage stored by religious institutions such as churches. 

Immigration and naturalization documents

These records will contain information about how, when, and where individuals and their family members move across borders or gain citizenship in different countries. This can help you track their movements and locate existing family members. 

Property, lease, and land ownership data

You can find information about an individual’s land ownership deeds and property transactions with these documents. 

Military records

This data will tell you if any family members have been enlisted or discharged from the military. 

Wills and probates

These documents detail the distribution of a person’s estate after death and will contain names and other details for their heirs, assets, and familial connections. 


You may find obituaries, marriage announcements, and news articles relating to family members and ancestors in old newspapers, publications, books, and city directories.

5. How to access genealogy records

Follow the below steps and best practices when trying to access genealogical records:

  • Determine the type of record you want to access—for example, public birth records, immigration documentation, or population census data.
  • Identify the geographical location or jurisdiction where the records were created or are stored so you can determine if you need to access a physical repository.
  • Research online databases and websites such as MyHeritage, Ancestry and Findmypast that have digitized genealogical records and can provide you with paid or free family history records including names, locations, and occupations.
  • Visit or access census records online through government offices such as municipal offices and county courthouses that also hold property and land ownership information, passport and identification copies, and marriage, death, and birth certificates online or as paper copies.
  • Contact, visit, or look at the websites for local or national historical societies, libraries, and university archives that often include original manuscripts, diaries, letters, maps, articles, and photographs of individuals and families.
  • Religious institutions like local churches have physical or digital registers about baptisms, marriage, and burials that you can access by contacting or physically visiting these institutions.

While many records are now digitized, some may not be available online or may require special permission or a fee to access. You can request copies by contacting or visiting the relevant bodies.

Also, be aware of restrictions with accessing some records. For instance, data privacy laws such as GDPR or HIPAA make it difficult to obtain sensitive data such as health records for living individuals today. 

6. Understanding and interpreting genealogy records

Consider the below points when using genealogical records to create and interpret personal or familial narratives. 

Records can be inaccurate or misleading

Handwritten mistakes, transcription errors, and language barriers might lead to incorrect names and information. For example, you might misinterpret an ancestor’s birth date due to a difference in how dates were written. In addition, your ancestors may have used different names, nicknames, or aliases, resulting in potential misidentification. 

Also, remember that some data may have been lost or destroyed during historical events, wars, and natural disasters, leaving gaps and uncertainties in the information. It’s best to cross-check records across multiple sources or consult with a professional to verify accuracy. 

Context matters

Understanding the historical context such as naming conventions, migration patterns, geopolitical influences, and so on is critical. 

Imagine that you find two records of the same John Smith but with a birthday a few years apart. This may be due to discrepancies when collecting information orally. However, significantly different birth dates may indicate that one is the grandfather of the other because grandsons were named after their grandfathers in a particular time and place. Try to gain insight into these contexts so you can interpret information correctly. 

Read between the lines

These records can provide more than just names and dates. For example, a marriage certificate might tell you about the connection between two partners. But, if you study who the witnesses were, you’ll have glimpses into the relationships and social circles of those times.  

7. Lesser-known facts about genealogy records

Here are some intriguing facts about the types and uses of genealogy records. 

  • Information or photographs of tattoos are other unconventional means of understanding previous generations’ cultural symbols, important dates, familial connections, and personal identities.
  • Records of business partnerships can offer insights into your ancestors’ entrepreneurial spirit and involvement in certain industries.
  • It’s not uncommon to find records of children born outside of non-traditional relationships.
  • Some historical records contain details about ownership of pets or working animals, revealing familial attachments or involvement in occupations such as farming.
  • Thousands of orphaned or abandoned children were transported by trains to the United States during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, potentially explaining the sudden appearance of toddlers and older children in family histories.


Obtaining genealogical records can tell you a lot about who you are and where you come from. Technology and preservation efforts have made it easier to access information such as birth and death records, marriage and family connections, occupations, and more. 

However, stay mindful of potential inaccuracies, historical contexts, and lesser-known facts to build a reliable and well-rounded narrative of your ancestors’ lives and experiences. 

Yashna Wahal
Yashna is a business and leadership writer with over 9 years experience in HR. She held the position of VP of HR at JP Morgan, London and then Head of HR at Plotify Financial in London and New York. Yashna earned her BSc in Psychology from UCL and holds an MBA from Imperial College London.