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Beginning Your Family History Research

Beginning Your Research

Search our Catalog by Keyword for: genealogy manuals.

  • 929.1 POW  The Everything Guide to Online Genealogy (3rd ed.).
  • 929.1 Bre  Genealogy Offline: A Beginner's Guide.
  • 929.1072 ROS. The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Genealogy (3rd ed.).
  • 929.1 ALL. Family History Detective: A Step-By-Step Guide to Investigating Your Family Tree.
  • 929.1 CRO. Unpuzzling Your Past (4th ed.).
  • 929.1 MEL. Family History 101.

Also try these quick and easy genealogy books in the Children's Department:

  • j929 ORR. How to Research Your Ancestry.
  • j929 HIN. Basic Genealogy for Kids.
  • j929 GAG. Using Technology to Find Your Family History.
  • j929 LEA. Design Your Family Tree.

Please visit A Young Person's Guide to Genealogy for more resources.

Primary Sources

As your family's historian, you will spend most of your time tracking down the records produced by and about your ancestors during their lives. Called "primary sources", these documents include birth & death certificates, family bibles, military records, and more. The following resources can help you locate these records:

  • 629.3 KEM NCC. International Vital Records Handbook (6th Ed.).
  • FamilySearch Research Wiki offers information on how to find, use, and analyze records of genealogical value.
    Go to:
  • See our other genealogy research guides for more details on specific types of records.
    Go to:
Where to Write for Vital Records


The library subscribes to these databases:

  • Ancestry Library Edition includes actual images of nationwide census records, census indexes, vital records, military records, and too many other sources to list. Available In-Library Only.
  • FamilySearch: Large collection of original records and indexes. Free account required.
    A Family History Center is located at 2710 Redbud Drive, Gastonia.
                                 Go to:
  • Fold3 includes US military records, stories, photos, and personal documents of those who served.
                      Go to: Log into Fold3 with your library card.
  • HeritageQuest includes census records, books, and some government and military records.
                                 Go to:  Log into NC Live with your library card.
    • See HeritageQuest: FAQs for information on the contents of the database and tips on how to use it.
      Go to:
  •    ProQuest African American Heritage includes Federal Census, Marriage and Cohabitation Records, Military Draft and Service Records, Registers of Slaves and Free(d) Persons of Color, Freedman's Bank, and more.
    Go to:
  •   ProQuest Digital Sanborn Maps: North Carolina provides digital access to large-scale Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps of North Carolina towns and cities, searchable by address and GPS coordinates.
    Go to:  Log into NC Live with your library card.
  •  ProQuest Historical Newspapers: North Carolina Collection has 3.5 million pages of digitized content from over 1,000 N.C. county newspapers.
    Go to:  Log into NC Live with your library card.


Try these websites for free genealogy information on the Internet:

  • FamilySearch: Large collection of original records and indexes. Free account required.
    A Family History Center is located at 2710 Redbud Drive, Gastonia.
                                 Go to:
  • Rootsweb: Thousands of pages of genealogical information, mailing lists, research guides, etc. You do not need an Ancestry subscription.
    Go to:
  • USGenWeb Project: A page for every state and county.
    Go to:
  • WorldGenWeb: For finding resources outside the U. S.
    Go to:
  • Cyndi's List: A famous directory of genealogy sites.
    Go to:
  • Linkpendium: A collection of resource links, neatly organized by surname and by location.
    Go to:
  • PERSI (Periodical Source Index) is a subject index for genealogy and local history periodicals which provides citations for obtaining articles.
    Go to:
  • DigitalNC: Explore the history and culture of North Carolina through original materials from cultural heritage repositories across the state.
    Go to:
  • North Carolina Digital Collections of the State Archives of North Carolina and the State Library of North Carolina.
    Go to:

DNA Testing

Learn about the different types of DNA tests for genealogy and the ethical standards of testing for DNA.

Search our Catalog by Keyword for: genetic genealogy.

  • 929.107 SOU Southard, Diahan, Your DNA guide, the book : step-by-step plans to connect you with your family using your DNA (2020)
  • 929.107 WEI Weinberg, Tamar, The adoptee's guide to DNA testing : how to use genetic genealogy to discover your long-lost family (2018)
  • 929.1072 BET Bettinger, Blaine T. The Family Tree Guide to DNA Testing and Genetic Genealogy (2019)

Charts and Forms

Organize and interpret your research with these charts and forms:

Hints & Tips

When using a search engine like, try using the following search pattern:

  • "John Smith" OR "Smith, John" (The "or" must be capitalized.)


Genealogy "How-To" Videos

See this extensive guide compiled by the Alamance NC Public Library.
Go to:

Online Genealogy Consultations

Family Search offers Online Genealogy Consultations. Sign up for a free, 20-minute online research strategy consultation designed to provide you with research guidance, methodology, and next steps. Go to:

Random Acts of Genealogical Kindness (RAOGK) is a global volunteer organization. The purpose of this site is to help others obtain copies of documents, pictures of tombstones, etc., that can not be obtained easily by those who do not live in the area of their ancestors.
Go to:


NOTE: Although a coat of arms was only legally granted to an individual and not a family, understanding the symbols, colors, and patterns used in a coat of arms belonging to your direct ancestor may help you with your family history.

Using Heraldry for Family History

Heraldry’s ordered system of symbols followed certain rules and were used by individuals to indicate their noteworthy achievements and to show important images related to their heritage. This art form began in the Middle Ages and spread throughout Europe in the 12th century.

Heralds recognized and recorded these symbols worn by knights engaged in battles and tournaments. Knights relied on these symbols worn on their surcoats and shields to identify one from another while wearing helmets and body armor.

Arms were the signs and emblems usually located on the shield (and duplicated in embroidery on the surcoat) but could refer to the overall components of a heroic achievement, according to heraldry expert Arthur Charles Fox-Davies. The different components of a coat of arms, as they became known, can include a crest, helmet, shield, and motto. These components may reveal occupations, marriages, birth order, and rank/title. The colors used, the shape of the shield and divisions within it, and the position of the animals in a coat of arms will all have meaning. These combined symbols are a visual code of the lineage and deeds of the owner.

These “Arms” have been compiled in many books which provide detailed images and written descriptions (known as a blazon) to help you interpret the meaning of a coat of arms. Heraldry is not only found in books, but also on tapestries, containers, glass windows, and colonial grave markers.

You can also search Gaston County Library Catalog using SUBJECT search for heraldry.

Some of the print books available at the library include:

If you are researching a Scottish ancestor, genealogist Dr. Bruce Durie recommends searching by name in the online publication An Ordinary of Arms Contained in the Public Register of all Arms and Bearings in Scotland (1903).

This register contains descriptive recordings of coats of arms in Scotland and is still maintained today by the Lord Lyon, King of Arms (Scottish Heraldry), the heraldic authority in Scotland.

The U.S. has no legal heraldic authority like Scotland and England in which laws exist against misappropriating arms. The non-profit The American Heraldry Society is open to anyone “interested in the study and practice of heraldry.” Its website includes a roll of arms and a country-by-country guide to foreign heraldic societies.

NOTE: Coat of arms belong to individuals and not to surnames. According to certified genealogist Helen Hinchliff, "Genealogists should avoid adopting coats of arms purchased from mail-order firms or copied from books. Chances are, the former once belonged to someone who had no heirs (and cannot possibly be one's ancestor); and the latter have been inherited by specific, identifiable individuals who have a property right in them that is not generalizable to others who happen to share the same surname."

Hinchliff, H. (1999). A right to bear arms? An examination of commercial offerings for “Henderson of St. Laurence, Scotland.” National Genealogical Society Quarterly, 87(1), 6–15.


Heraldic Websites


Author: Gaston County Public Library
Title: Beginning Your Family History Research
Revised: 7 December 2022

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