Skip to main content
It looks like you're using Internet Explorer 11 or older. This website works best with modern browsers such as the latest versions of Chrome, Firefox, Safari, and Edge. If you continue with this browser, you may see unexpected results.

Genealogical Research in Government Documents: Tips

This guide tells how to use Federal Depository Library collections for genealogical research

Tips for Searching Full Text Databases

When searching full text databases like Hathi Trust or the U. S. Congressional Serial Set,

  • Enclose names and phrases in quotes.  For example,
    “George Washington Smith” will get better results than George Washington Smith.

  • Use the “OR” operator to string together name variants.  For example,
    “George Washington Smith” OR “George W. Smith” OR “G. W. Smith” OR “Smith, G. W.” 

  • Find out  if proximity operators are offered in the database.  In the Readex version of the U. S. Congressional Serial Set, an operator like NEAR will allow you to search for certain words or phrases near other ones.  For example,“George W. Smith” NEAR15 “St. Louis”

  • Use the parenthesis to build search strings if you want to limit /focus your results:
    (“George Washington Smith” OR “George W. Smith” OR “G. W. Smith” OR “Smith, G. W.”)  NEAR15 (Missouri or “Mo.”)

  • Understand the limits of digital scanning and Optical Character Recognition (OCR).   Here is some OCR from Hathi Trust.  Notice how it cut a name in half with a hyphen:

    "…Farr, who became private secretary to Governors Hart-ranft and Hoyt..."

Universal tip: To make words and images bigger on your screen, hold down the Control key and then press the + key.   Control with the minus key reverses the effect.

Answers to Census Mysteries

FDLP collections can be helpful for explaining cryptic abbreviations and notes found in government records of a genealogical nature.  For example, we found the following interesting notes about the Census:

  • The 1890 Census indicated that only 128 people in Missouri reported having Indian ancestry.  Many did have Native American background but did not report it to the Census Bureau.  In the words of the Census Bureau, they "were living like whites."  (Source)
  • Census enumerators would receive instructions on how to fill out the forms and record ambiguous answers to questions.  They were given standardized abbreviations as well.   For example, the 1910 booklet instructed enumerators:
    • How to record age.  Each person's age had to be at the last birthday before the official date of the Census.    In 1910, the census date was April 15.  In 1900, the official date was June 1.  Census takers could not make record of people who were born or died after that date, but they were instructed to record people who moved into their district after the Census date.
    • How to record birthplace.  The booklet reads: "Do not rely upon the language spoken to determine birthplace.  This is especially true to German, for over one-third of the Austrians and three-forths of the Swiss speak German." ...  "If a person reports that he was born in Russia and that his mother tongue is Lithuanian, write in Column 12 [Place of birth]  'Russ. - Lithuanian.'"
    • How to list people who are seldom home, such as sailors, railroad men, boarding school students, prison inmates, long-term patients in hospitals, and American citizens living abroad.
    • How to show the age of people who only approximate their age.  Usually such people would give an age ending in 0 or 5.  The census taker was to press for a more exact answer, but if he could not get one, he was to put the age given rather than "Un" for "unknown."
    • The instructions told the precise method for canvassing a city block: "Do not go back and forth across streets. Begin each block at one corner, keep to the right, turn the corner, and go in and out of any court, alley or passageway that may be included until the point of starting is reached."
    • To the question "Whether naturalized or alien" the census enumerator could put "Na," "Al" or "Pa."  Pa meant the individual had started the paperwork to become a citizen.
    • For "principal language spoken," there were about 40 official options the census taker was encouraged to use.  Specific instructions indicated to avoid "Austrian" as a language but instead to enter German, Bohemian, Ruthenian, Roumanian, Slovenian, Slovak, or whatever language the person actually spoke.
    • Under occupation for men, the census taker was to write "own income" when the person had an income without having a job.  If there was no job nor income, the census taker was to write "none" under occupation.
    • Children who worked as farm laborerers for others would have an occupation listed as "working out."  If they helped only on their own family farm, then there would be no occupation listed.
    • For the question "Whether able to read," the census taker should say "yes" for those over the age of 10 who could read ANY language.
  • Instructions to Enumerators, Eleventh Census, 1890
  • Instructions to Enumerators, Twelfth Census, 1900
  • Instructions to Enumerators, Thirteenth Census, 1910 - Ask in library for paper copy
  • Instructions to Enumerators, Fourteenth Census, 1920
  • Instructions to Enumerators, Fifteenth Census, Population and Agriculture, 1930

Govt Documents Coordinator

Marie Concannon's picture
Marie Concannon
MU students:
Make an appointment with me
in MU Connect
106-B Ellis Library
(573) 882-0748