How to Research your Family tree: Amateur Genealogical Research at CBRL

Lots of people are curious about their family history, but genealogy can seem daunting. There’s so much information that it can be difficult to know where to even begin. So, what do you do if you want to test the waters of amateur genealogy?

Start with what you know! One of the easiest ways to get going with family research is to look for information about a specific person, for example, your grandmother. If you know some basic facts, like her name, the town where she lived, the year she was born, and/or the date she died, you’ve already got a starting point for your research. Use simple details about a person to find more information about their life, which can then help you expand your search and track down other details about your ancestry. A search for one person can give you facts about numerous people connected to them, who you can then research and add to your family tree. 

The Cape Breton Regional Library (CBRL) has a great collection of historical books, documents, and even photographs from Nova Scotia and Cape Breton. You can find all sorts of interesting research rabbit holes to dive into just by browsing our collection, but here’s some suggestions of how to kick start your research and navigate the different resources available for your genealogical journey.

Marriage certificate with two gold rings

Nova Scotia Births, Marriages, and Deaths

The Nova Scotia Archives provides access to historical vital statistics online, which makes this a great place to start your search. You can search by first name, last name, place or county, and date range. Birth, marriage, and death records can give you more context about a person by placing them in specific locations, identifying other people in their lives (like parents or spouses or children), and even showing their occupation, depending on the record you find.

As of December 2022, the available statistics include birth records from 1864-1877 and 1908-1921 (delayed registrations 1830-1921), marriage records from 1763-1864 (bonds) and 1864-1946 (registrations), and death records from 1864-1877 and 1890-1908 (City of Halifax 1890-1908).

Search Tip: Try more than one spelling. Not all records for births, baptisms, deaths, and immigration have the same degree of completeness and accuracy. Older records in particular can pose a challenge, partly because they were handwritten but also because of issues like lower literacy rates and language barriers. Searching for different variations of first and last names will give you a better chance of finding the records you want.

Another way to search for vital statistics is to consult Vital Statistics from Cape Breton Newspapers by Wayne MacVicar. These three volumes detail vital statistics that were published in Cape Breton newspapers between 1901-1912, 1913-1922, and 1952-2012. All of the books are available to borrow through CBRL.

Still not finding what you want? Library and Archives Canada also has census records from 1926 and earlier, some of which are available online. They also have a Census Search option so you can search for a person by name, year of birth or immigration, and location.

flowers placed on freshly turned earth


Since families often publish information about a loved one’s death, obituaries and funeral notices are a good starting point for learning about the person you’re researching. They often mention names of the deceased person’s relatives and some brief facts about their life. 

If you’re looking for Cape Breton obituaries, Wayne MacVicar’s Obituaries from the Sydney Post-Record are a great timesaver. These books compile a list of obituaries found in the Sydney Post-Record newspaper from 1933-1938, 1939-1944, 1945-1950, and 1951-1956. You can look people up by name to see whether their obituary was published and then use the publication date and page information to find the full obituary in archived newspapers.

Search Tip: Some newspapers have local interest sections that may mention the person you’re searching for, even if you can’t find their obituary. Older newspapers in particular are full of little blurbs about what local people have been up to. You never know what you’ll find, from in memoriam with clues about a person’s death to wedding announcements to snippets about which local socialites are visiting or going out of town.

ship at Pier 21 in Halifax

Immigration Records

You can find clues about when and from where a person immigrated when you search through documents containing vital statistics. Birth, marriage, and death records might include information about someone’s place of birth and help determine a timeline for when they were in certain locations. However, if you want to know more about your ancestors’ immigration history, Library and Archives Canada has a helpful guide to searching for immigration records.

soldiers silouetted against dusty orange sky

Military Service Records

If your ancestor served in the Canadian military, you may be able to access detailed records of their service. Library and Archives Canada has online databases that allow you to search through personnel records of anyone who served in WWI (1914-1918) and anyone who died in service during WWII (1939-1947). These records can include everything from the person’s birth, potential death, family members, addresses, and more.

reading glasses sitting on yellowed old newspapers

Newspaper Archives

Browsing through microfilm reels of old newspapers is a good way to find more information about someone, especially if you’re looking for details about a specific event (whether that’s an obituary or just a newsworthy story). CBRL has microfilm versions of the Cape Breton Post and its preceding publications (Sydney Post, Post-Record) from 1901 to present. You can visit the Sydney branch to access these records.

Search Tip: It is always easiest to look through microfilm records if you have a specific date or date range for the event you want to find. It will take a lot less time to search for an obituary from November 5, 1922 than it will to search through all the papers from 1922!

In addition to the microfilm copies of newspapers, CBRL collects newspaper clippings from the 1960s to present. These are organized by subject in our Nova Scotia Vertical File, which makes them a great resource if you want to browse general information about a topic rather than reading through old newspapers based on a date.

There are also historical newspaper archives available online through Nova Scotia Archives. Including several Gaelic newspapers out of Sydney.

Cape Breton's magazine issue #1

Magazine Archives

When you’re searching for the history of a specific family or area, you can sometimes also find excellent articles in the archives of Cape Breton’s Magazine. An index for the 1972-1999 articles can be found online (the articles themselves are not available online at this time). You can also browse the 1972-1999 magazine contents by author, volume, or subject in the Cape Breton’s Magazine Index and Finding Aid, which is available as a reference book at CBRL’s Sydney, Baddeck, and Ingonish branches.

Once you find an article title that seems relevant to your search, you can easily access a physical copy of the magazine in the CBRL collection.

woman in front of large smart phone showing virtual bookshelves

CBRL Catalogue

CBRL has an entire collection of special materials and rare books focused on local history called the Nova Scotia Collection. The collection includes reports that collect vital statistics from small geographical areas, street and business directories, school year books, phone books (from 1935, 1953, and 1962-2018), and, sometimes, self-published books of family history. The Nova Scotia Collection can be very helpful for your research, especially as you start to learn about your history and uncover more questions that you want to investigate.

Search Tip: You can easily search the CBRL collection by typing your search term in the search bar on the top right corner of our website. Try searching for “vital statistics”, your family name, the name of the town your family is from, “Cape Breton Phone Book”, or one of the following directories:

  • The Cape Breton Polk City Directory (1997-2000)
  • The Cape Breton Directory (1948 and 1961)
  • The Cape Breton Directory by Might Directories (1928)
  •  The Cape Breton Business Directory (1998-2000)
  • The Nova Scotia Directory for the Year 1871 (shows the name of professionals and businessmen living in Nova Scotia)
  • McAlpine’s Nova Scotia Directory (1890-1897, 1901-1902, 1914, 1918-1919, and 1923)

Making Use of Search Engines and Free Online Resources

Sometimes, the person you’re searching for proves harder to find than you expected. When that happens, you know it’s time to expand your search!

One way to find a person’s date of birth and/or a date of death, which can give you a starting point for further searches, is to use a site like FindAGrave is a free resource that collects millions of graves from all over the world. It has a simple search engine that just requires the name of the person you’re looking for. You can also narrow the search down by geographical location and approximate date of birth and death. Looking through the graves that come up in your search can be a handy way to find an exact date of birth/death and also opens up options to search for spouses or family members who are listed on the same grave.

There are also plenty of free, online genealogy websites. One option is It provides gateway access into a variety of other sources and links to help you find records. Any user can create family trees so the records have varying degrees of completeness and reliability, but some family trees are thoroughly researched and provide links to birth, death, marriage, cemetery, and news records.

Search Tip: Fact checking is always your friend. Free sites like this can be used by anyone and oftentimes there are overlapping, or potentially inaccurate, results. While websites and even Google searches can save you time and help in your search process, it is best to check the sources and verify them against other information.



Archives are always a great resource for historical information, and some of their records are easily accessible online. MemoryNS is a resource created by the Council of Nova Scotia Archives that collects digital information from archives in Nova Scotia. It’s a useful place to find documents, pictures, and facts about historical/famous people or events, especially if you want to expand your research beyond purely genealogical information.

If you can’t find the information you’re looking for online or in CBRL’s collection, it might be worth heading to an archive in person. The Beaton Institute is a local archive located at Cape Breton University. You can search through some of their resources online or visit them in person.

If you’re in the Halifax area, the Nova Scotia Archives are also open to the public. The Nova Scotia Archives have records for all areas of the province. Many historical land registry and Deeds are kept at the archives. You can contact them for research help or more information about their hours and services.

Other Local Resources

Cape Breton Genealogy and Historical Association (CBGHA) provides local history resources, including a wide variety of information from historical records and vital statistics. It also gathers genealogical information researched and collated by other individuals. CBGHA is a membership-based organization. Some of their online information is only available if you have a current membership. You can also visit in person (location and hours of operation are available on their website).

The Nova Scotia GenWeb Project provides free local history resources. Not all the links included on the site are current, but there are still many potentially helpful sources to explore. 

Nova Story has digital collections from Nova Scotia Public Libraries, in particular the Pictou-Antigonish Regional Library. The collection includes documents, photographs, cemeteries, maps and other resources about Nova Scotia history.

CBRL Local History Portals

CBRL also has four online research portals that explore interesting local history. While they’re focused on specific historical figures, they may provide some historical context for your research and might be helpful if you discover that the ancestor you’re researching has some connection to the topics in the collections. The collections are:

Finally, CBRL staff are always happy to help you on your genealogy journey, whether you need more guidance when you’re starting out or you’ve hit a snag in your research. Reach out to us at 902-562-3161 or for further support.

Summary of resources listed in this article:

scattered black and white photographs and handwritten documents