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Genealogy : Getting Started at The New York Public Library: Locating records

A guide to getting started with genealogical research at The New York Public Library


Census taker, 1930 How do you identify the best record (or records) that will contain the information you need?

One question you can ask yourself is "What type of record (or resource) that describes me, might have a historical equivalent that would describe the same information about my ancestor?" For instance, you may have a birth certificate, a marriage certificate, a property deed, some form of identification, newspaper clipping, or photograph that describes you. What information about yourself can you glean from that document? Did your ancestor have a similar record? Where might you find that record, and get at that information?

Then you need to work out how you locate and access that record. Is it digitized? On the internet for free? Behind a paywall, in a subscription genealogy database? Or in another digital source, like digitized newspapers or archives? Or is that record in an archive? Or on microfilm? Has it been transcribed into a book? NYPL provides all sorts of free access points for finding records that will help drive your genealogy research.

If you are having any trouble matching your research question to a record type, or are unable to locate that record, you can email a librarian in the Milstein Division, at, or

Ask a Librarian in the Milstein Division of United States History, Local History and Genealogy


A canvasser in New York City in 1930, an era of skyrocketing urban populations, American Heritage, November 1989
The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Picture Collection

Identifying the right records

FamilySearch: United States Record Finder

FamilySearch: United States Record Finder is a great tool for identifying what US record or records will answer a genealogical research question. It also gives a researcher a sense of the many different sources that might contain valuable information. You might add to this list of resources historical maps and photographs.

Start with the basics

  • census (federal and state)
  • vital records (birth, death, marriage)

What records would answer the question about you?

  • Try to locate similar records for your ancestors

Do they exist?

  • When and where were records made and kept?

Where might they be found now?

  • Online?
    • Free online?
    • In a subscription databases?
    • Does the library have a subscription to that database
  • In print?
  • Archive?

Print sources

There are several ways that you can search for genealogy print collections at the New York Public Library, using the Classic catalog.

Search for indexes, transcriptions, abstracts, and compilations of records in books at NYPL using keyword searches to find subject terms. Finding a subject term is really useful, as this will help you find all of the books (and microfilm, and archive collections) that pertain to that subject term.

For instance:

You want to find out what print materials at NYPL contain genealogical information created in a particular place. Let's say you want to discover if NYPL has any published transcriptions of births, marriage or death notices in newspapers in Suffolk County, New York.

  1. Go to
  2. Keyword search a phrase that seems right. For instance, type in Suffolk County New York births and click search.
  3. From the results, select a title that seems to be about the subject you are researching - it doesn't have to be exactly right. For instance, the first title we see is Last wills and testaments, surrogates court, Riverhead, Suffolk County, New York 
  4. Click that title, and go to the subjects listed in the book's bibliographic record.
  5. Click the subject term Registers of births, etc. -- New York (State) -- Suffolk County. to find all other titles that are about that subject.

Go back to your original keyword search to look at the bibliographic records of other books to find even more useful subject terms. For instance:

  • Suffolk County (N.Y.) -- Genealogy
  • Suffolk County (N.Y.) -- Genealogy -- Periodicals
  • Suffolk County (N.Y.) -- Guidebooks.
  • Suffolk County (N.Y.) -- History.

Searching for family histories at NYPL.


Periodical Source Index (Persi)

PERSI is the premier subject index for genealogy and local history periodicals, and is produced by the staff of The Genealogy Center of the Allen County Public Library. Using this valuable resource provides citations to readily-available periodical sources, including titles in NYPL collections searchable in the NYPL catalog journal search.

Other databases

There are many other databases that contain information used by genealogists, including databases of digitized historical newspapers, magazines and journals, archive and manuscript collections, government legislation, and many databases relating to the histories of places and communities.

For instance:

You can search for databases by subject at Articles and Databases.

Reference librarians