Church records are a vital source of genealogical information, and this is certainly true for German family history research. Once you discover your ancestor’s place of origin, the local parish registers can take your as far back as the mid-16th century. Such research has challenges. Besides the language barrier, you must also be familiar with the handwritten script used in various periods of record keeping. If only there was a short cut!
Luckily, you might find one in the form of an Ortssippenbuch (OSB). Ortssippenbuch (plural: Ortssippenbücher) translates as “local clan book.” You may also see them under the names Ortsfamilienbücher or Familienbücher, and some titles use the phrase, “Die Einwohner von… (“Inhabitants of…”), as in the OSB, Die Einwohner von Oppau und Edigheim, 1480–1813. Regardless of what term is used, OSBs feature concise genealogical information about inhabitants of a specific village or parish, based primarily on surviving local church records. They cover the period from the beginning of church records (as early as the mid-16th century) to about 1900. Some OSBs use local civil records, such as tax lists and court records, to expand and supplement the vital information found in the church books.
OSBs present genealogical information by family groups. Their use of a standard format and common symbols, terminology, and abbreviations makes the entries easy to decipher, even if you do not know German. Families are listed alphabetically by surname, and some include surname and place-name indexes.
Let’s look at an example from Ortsfamilienbuch Heinersreuth, 1559–1900 mit Denzenlohe, Flur, Vollhof und Tannenbach: eine Familiengeschichtliche Untersuchung (Genealogical Register of Heinersreuth, 1559–1900, including Denzenlohe, Flour, Vollhof, and Tannenbach: A Family History Investigation). Heinersreuth is a village near Bayreuth, a city in northern Bavaria.
* = birth
~ = baptism
† = death
The symbol for marriage (∞ or oo) is not found in this example, because individuals are listed by marriage date within the surname.
Each individual is assigned a reference number for cross-referencing purposes. The text for individual no. 791, the first entry above and shown in detail below, would read as follows:
791—Marriage: 21 July 1646 in Bayreuth
Hacker, Johannes; Protestant (ev.); stockman in Mosing; born on 15 Nov. 1610 in Unterpreuschwitz; baptized on 15 Nov. 1610 in Bayreuth; died in Aug. 1666 in Heinersreuth; buried (begrab.) on 22 Aug. 1666 in Bayreuth.
[Wife] Popp, Margaretha; Protestant; born on 19 Jan. 1611 in Laineck; baptized on 19 Jan 1611 at St. Johannis Church in Bayreuth; buried after 1653.
In this case, Margaretha does not have a reference number, which indicates that no information about her baptism or parents is available in records used in for this OSB.
Information about their children follows, and you will find more information elsewhere about them under the reference numbers in brackets.
Let’s look at their son, Andreas.
3) Andreas, born on 11 Dec. 1650 in Heinersreuth, died on 3 June 1710 in Heinersreuth. 
Further down the page you will find under no. 793 the individual entry for Andreas Hacker with information about his marriage and children. In this case, Andreas married Anna Weigel, who appears as a child of the couple listed at no. 3226.
Other Possible Information
Genealogical information is the main feature of OSBs, but many also include histories of the community, the church, the school, and civic organizations. Some include lists of emigrants with their destinations, information about “non-locals” (Ortsfremde) or refugees (Flüchtlinge, Exulanten), and rosters of soldiers killed in war.
Finding Out if an OSB is Available for Your Ancestral Place of Origin
OSBs are not available for every village, and they are more common for some areas than others. Many are available for places in Baden-Wuerttemberg and the Rhineland, for example, but few exist for Lower Saxony (outside of East Frisia) or Schleswig-Holstein. Many have been published for German-speaking villages outside of Germany, such as in Alsace and Lorraine in France, and in the Donauschwaben settlements in present-day Serbia, Romania, and Hungary (Banat and Batschka).
No comprehensive name index for OSBs exist. It is therefore absolutely necessary to know your ancestor’s place of origin. Once you have the location, consult the OSB lists on the GenWiki website. Villages are listed alphabetically. Clicking on the village name will return the title of the OSB and relevant bibliographical information.
Finding an OSB
Once you have the OSB title, look for a library that owns it. The St. Louis County Library History & Genealogy Department has one of the largest collections of OSBs in the U.S. A list is available here. OSBs cannot be checked out or requested through interlibrary loan, but the library staff will do lookups and copy up to 30 pages. Send requests to firstname.lastname@example.org. A limit of three requests per email applies.
The Family History Library, New York Public Library, and some academic libraries also collect them. The Peoria, Illinois Public Library has many for East Frisia. You can also check WorldCat to find a repository that has the OSB you are looking for.
OSBs as Secondary Sources
The information in OSBs were extracted and compiled from original records and are therefore subject to the accuracy, interpretation, and criteria of the person doing the work. OSBs are reliable, but you should take the additional step of checking the information against the original records yourself, if possible. OSBs include a list of sources (Quellen) from which information has been extracted. Online access to German church records is increasingly available and bring the task into the realm of possibility as never before.
More information about OSBs and aids for using them are available on the St. Louis County Library History & Genealogy Department website.
About the Author
Scott Holl is manager of History & Genealogy at St. Louis County Library in St. Louis, Missouri. He holds a BA in German from Fort Hays State University, an MA in Theology from the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, and an MLIS from Dominican University in River Forest, Illinois.