Owing to privacy laws, it is not always easy to gain access to the birth, marriage, and death records for people in the twentieth century. Access is often (but not always) restricted to the individual of record and immediate family members, at least for a period of time. Each state has its own privacy laws, some more restrictive than others. Other types of records may also be restricted to some degree: even the U.S. census can only be made public after a period of 72 years.
First, you will want to check the restrictions for you area of interest; some records are held at the state and some at the county level. It may be easier to find records for ancestors born in the first decade of the twentieth century, given we are now past the 100-year restriction that is often imposed on records. If you are unable to gain access to the original sources for birth, marriage, and death, you may want to consider the following resources, but do keep in mind the need to verify the accuracy of research data gathered from derivative (other than original) sources.
Vital Records Indexes. Some states have published more recent birth, marriage/divorce, and death indexes online. Such indexes often include information about parents, including the maiden name of the mother.
Census Records. Aside from vital records, the census is one of the best resource for this time period, including the U.S. Federal Census for the years 1900-1930, and the long-awaited 1940 census, schedules for release in April 2012. The census can generally be accessed free through you local library.
Military Records. Considerable information is available online, most on commercial websites, for those who served in the military such draft registrations, enlistment records, muster rolls, etc., and casualty lists from recent wars.
SSDI. The U.S. Social Security Death Index (SSDI) is a free online index of people possessing a social security number and whose death was reported to the Social Security Administration. The SSDI is updated frequently to include recent deaths.
Cemetery Records. Hundreds of cemeteries have been surveyed with transcriptions posted online, often available without charge on websites such as the USGenWeb, and RootsWeb. Findagrave.com is a great resource for looking up grave sites. You may be able to find even more information in the sexton records of a particular cemetery.
Newspapers. Obituaries are one of the best resources from newspapers, and number of newspaper databases are online and name indexed, including those that are free and fee-based. Other items of interest include birth, marriage/divorce, and death notices, as well as a wide range of social events and announcements.
City Directories. City directories are another resource, identifying adult residents in a community, along with their home address, employer and occupation. In rural communities you may find farm directories. Many city directories are available online for free and on commercial websites; many can also be found through various libraries, historical societies, state archives, and genealogical societies.
You may also wish to "Browse by Location" the record collections at FamilySeaerch.org, to see the types of records that may be available in your country and time period of interest. The filters in the left-hand column (place, date, collections, etc.) can help narrow the results. Information of a modern time period can also be found in non-traditional sources such as the Genealogy Today Funeral Cards, WWII Ration Books, and Railroad Records, and Criminal Records databases. A wide range of traditional and non-traditional, original sources is available in the Genealogy Today Subscription Data; new data is continually added and is free to search.
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