Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Tuesday's Tip: Know Your Vital Records



I have spent a lot of time, thousands of hours, researching my ancestors and collateral relatives in vital records, especially in Michigan county birth, marriage, and death records. The more I became familiar with these records groups, the more I realized I didn't know much about the history of the records, their purpose, and their evolution over time. Reading Michigan Genealogy: Sources and Resources by Carol McGinnis answered a lot of those questions. But so did my observations while working in those record groups. I learned the records and understood their flaws and strengths, and knew why my ancestors did not appear in them, or appeared more than once. I learned to look for the same record at different government levels to get more complete information. I also learned how to save my money when ordering a copy of a vital record (but that's a tip for another day!).

We're not always able to spend thousands of hours in a new record group to familiarize ourselves with it immediately. However, here are some questions to consider when looking at a group of vital records:

  1. When were vital records required by the state (or province or nation, if looking at non-U.S. vital records)?
  2. What entities, if any, kept vital records before the state did? Were any kept at the town, city, municipality or county level? Did the local churches keep records? Where are these records now and how have they been preserved?
  3. What information was initially gathered for the original state vital records? When and how did this information change over time? For instance, were mothers' maiden names added to later records?
  4. How was this information collected? Was it gathered or reported? For instance, in some places, like Michigan, birth and death information was gathered by local authorities, census-style, once a year. This information was then sent to the county clerks, who after recording it in the county libers, sent the information on to the state, where it was recorded for a third time. In other places, doctors, midwives, coroners, and those present at births and deaths may have been required to report vital statistics. Each of these systems had their flaws and strengths.
  5. At what point did the system change from liber-style records to issuance of birth and death certificates? Was there an overlap when both systems occurred at the same time?
  6. How has information recorded on the certificates changed over time?
  7. What losses do we know that may have occurred to this record group? Are there substitutes?
  8. What about unusual vital records, like delayed birth certificates, or records of stillborn births?
  9. If the records have been microfilmed and/or digitized, how can I be assured that all the records were copied? If they are online, do all the records appear? Are they all searchable?
  10. What genealogy books or guides are available to familiarize myself with these records?
To my knowledge, all states list their laws online on their state websites. You might have to do some complicated digging, but you can eventually find the laws that govern the way vital statistics are now kept by the state whose vital records you are researching. You may even be able to access older, obsolete laws that listed how those records were initially recorded.

Knowing our record groups--their purpose, history, evolution, strengths and weaknesses--is so useful as part of the "reasonably exhaustive search" for sources which is the first element of the Genealogical Proof Standard.

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