If you're ...
- just starting out
- aren't familiar with the research sources available at the Nova Scotia Archives
- underway but looking for more ideas
... then you should explore this guide!
Recognizing that family history impacts how people view themselves, their history, and their connections to the world at large, the Nova Scotia Archives makes both on-site and online access to family-history related records a priority.
If your ancestors lived in Nova Scotia, the Nova Scotia Archives is your research epicenter. To help you get the most out of the extensive holdings, both online and on-site, this guide outlines basic sources that genealogists use, and provides directions for navigating the material housed at the Archives.
Before launching your research project, ask yourself:
- Do you know the first and last names of your grandparents and great-grandparents?
- Did these relatives have any siblings, and if so, what were their names?
- What were the maiden names of female relatives?
- Do you know the community or communities in which your ancestors lived?
- What was your ancestors’ religion? (E.g. Anglican, Baptist, Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian, Roman Catholic, United, etc.)
- Do you have any birth, marriage or death dates for them? (Even approximate time periods help.)
The answers to these questions will dictate how you approach your research and the different archival sources you will need to explore. Collecting this information is an essential first step.
If you don’t know the answers yourself, or are concerned that the information you have might not be accurate, ask relatives who can help you flesh out the fundamental details. Another potential source could be people from the community or communities in which your ancestors resided.
When conducting your interviews, make certain to record the name of the person who provided you with information and the date you talked with them. When you're doing research online or at the Nova Scotia Archives, do the same thing - write down the exact location, reference number, item number, etc. for what you found. This is important because you will accumulate a lot of material during the research process and accurate documentation from the very start will help ensure that you don’t confuse your facts and end up needing to recheck your sources.
It is also important to remember that although names and dates are key, there are other details such as land records and legal documents that can contribute to your research. For example, one of the questions above asked for your ancestors’ religious affiliations. This detail is crucial as the government did not require civil registration of births, marriages and deaths prior to 1864. Furthermore, there are no civil registrations for births and deaths between 1877 and 1908. Because of this, church registers of baptisms, marriages and burials are extremely important research resources.
Developing a Research Strategy
Typically, family history research is considered a linear process: you gather appropriate sources, read the material, and discover the answers you are looking for. While this approach is straightforward, it’s not always applicable.
When you’re studying family history, it’s sometimes unclear where you need to look and what information you need to gather. While the initial interviews you did with family and friends will set you in the right direction, there is no guarantee that you will find corresponding records once you start looking.
Dead ends and gaps are unavoidable in genealogy. Because of this, many successful projects also follow a cyclical research process: you find a relevant source, read the material, find a new source based on what you learned, and repeat the procedure until you’ve assembled enough information to satisfy your research goals.
As for those dead ends and gaps, one of the joys of genealogical research is that months or years later, you may find a new source of information and the answer(s) you've been looking for. That's why it's important to record the source for every piece of information you locate.
Another key element in a good research strategy is taking advantage of multiple types of archival resources. For example, a growing number of valuable resources can be found online today — but don't believe them just because you 'read it on the Internet'!
Primary sources (e.g., original records digitized and readable online, like you'll find on the Nova Scotia Archives' website) are generally accurate and reliable. So are the primary-source records found onsite in an archives. Secondary sources (e.g., transcriptions, compiled lists, narrative histories) are always suspect unless they tell you where their information came from... and you can check out that source.
Lastly, not everything is on the Internet! For every wonderful resource you find online, there will be ten more available in original documents, in secondary sources, or on microfilm in some archives or library, waiting for you to come in and work with them onsite. There are many reasons why these resources will never be digitized and uploaded, but don't overlook them in your research — they may hold the answers that have eluded you for years.
Terrence Punch's Genealogical Research in Nova Scotia (rev. ed. 1998) and the Genealogist's Handbook for Atlantic Canada Research (rev. ed. 1989) are both available at the Nova Scotia Archives. These are both excellent places to begin your research strategy.