The Internet and Family History

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Computers and Genealogy

This article is part of a series.

Overview of Computers and Genealogy
The Internet and Family History
NGS Guidelines for Publishing Web Pages on the Internet
Family History Software
Collaboration and Sharing
NGS Guidelines for Sharing
Online Options for Family History Education
Security Concerns with Technology and Family History
Other Gadgets and Helpful Technology

This article originally appeared in "Computers and Technology" by Juliana Smith in The Source: A Guidebook to American Genealogy

Searchable Databases and Indexes

Among the most spectacular areas of growth over recent years are the offerings of various websites. Databases are also among the most popular of online resources. When the Statue of Liberty'Ellis Island Foundation launched its database of passenger lists in April 2001, the site was flooded with 26 million visitors in its first 54 hours of operation. Libraries, government agencies (on local and national levels), genealogical and historical organizations, and commercial entities are seeking ways to better utilize the potential that the Internet offers when it comes to preserving and sharing their collections with a wider audience. As the popularity of these online databases and indexes continues to grow, so do the number of sites that offer them, so it is wise to do periodic reviews of what is available for pertinent areas of interest.

This section will cover some of the types of websites that may hold the resources you seek. Later in this chapter, we will discuss locating databases and indexes in some of the websites mentioned in this section. For a more detailed look at some of the larger databases and indexes that are available online, see chapter 3, 'General References and Guides.'

Government Websites

Government agencies, such as vital records departments, use the Internet as a way to provide access, and streamline record requests with the ability to order directly from a website or print out an order form. With request procedures, contact information, fees, requirements and restrictions posted on websites, agencies can reduce the time employees spend on answering these types of questions. Many have even taken it a step further by including searchable indexes so that those seeking the records can do the preliminary searching so that staff members can locate the records using the information found in the databases. Some will also accept electronic requests for record copies and payments via credit card or online payment services.

Many state archives offer electronic copies of records, in addition to online versions of catalogs and finding aids for their collections. The Illinois State Archives website, for example, includes searchable databases of public domain land tract sales, Illinois servitude and emancipation records, Illinois veterans' records, and statewide marriage and death databases. More localized content can also be found on the site, with county databases for coroner's inquest records, probates, naturalizations, almshouse and poor farm records, birth registers, criminal case files, and more.

The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) website not only makes available its catalog to the many holdings in Washington, D.C., branches and in its regional facilities, but also includes electronic records on the site. NARA's Access to Archival Databases (AAD) System includes databases from the Korean War and World War II, The Japanese-American Internee File, 1942'1946, and the Famine Irish Passenger Record Data File (recording 604,596 persons who arrived in the United States, 1846'1851). Other indexes in the collection that may be useful in adding background information to family trees include indexes to historic photographs, Index to Civil War Sites, and the Work Stoppages Historical File, ca. 1953'ca. 1981.

In addition to these resources, the Research Room of the NARA website offers a number of research guides and a page created specifically for genealogists, as well as links to important information on using NARA facilities. This page should be your first stop when planning a research trip to the National Archives in the Washington, D.C., area or in any of the regional branches.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

Since 1894, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church) has been collecting records significant to ancestral research. With the release of the FamilySearch site in May 1999, the LDS Church began bringing some of its collections to the Web. The site launched with the posting of the Family History Library Catalog (FHLC), the International Genealogical Index (IGI), and the Ancestral File. Newer additions include the Pedigree Resource File, the Social Security Death Index (SSDI), Vital Records Index (currently Mexico and Scandinavia), every-name census indexes to the 1880 U.S. Federal Census, the 1881 British Isles Census, and the 1881 Canadian Census, and a database of family history websites.

Ethnic Websites

As immigrants came to the United States, they tended to settle in communities along ethnic lines, and there are many ethnic organizations that are preserving and disseminating some of the records these immigrants created through online access. One example is the Polish Genealogical Society of America (PGSA). Its website houses a number of databases, which include, among others, indexes to death notices in Polish language newspapers from Chicago and Baltimore, a marriage index for Polish Catholic parishes in Chicago, Polish Roman Catholic Union of America (PRCUA) Insurance Claim Records, Poles of Chicago 1837'1937, and Haller's Army Index (Polish immigrants recruited in America to fight in France for Polish independence during World War I).

Comparable sites exist for many other ethnic backgrounds, including African American, German, Lithuanian, Italian, British, Irish, French, Eastern European.

JewishGen, a website created to assist researchers of Jewish descent, includes an online discus-sion group, reference tools organized by topic and country, community-based information, geographic tools, and a variety of databases. According to the site, 'JewishGen's online Family Tree of the Jewish People contains data on more than three million people."


Just as a research trip to an ancestral hometown should always include a trip to the local library, your online excursions for research in a particular town should also include a trip to the local library's website. Many libraries provide online content, making local collections accessible from anywhere in the world. For example, the Brooklyn (New York) Public Library has made available digitized images of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 1841'1902 on its website.

Even smaller local libraries typically maintain a Web presence and you may find databases of local obituaries, cemetery transcriptions, vital records, church records, directories, or institutional records, depending on the collections they have available. Many libraries also have their catalogs available for searching online. The use of these tools is described later in the 'Research Planning' section of this chapter.


Genealogical and historical organizations, which have long worked to preserve important records, are also using the Internet to make their collections available on a much larger scale. Some sites require membership to access data collections, while others make information available to members and nonmembers alike. In some cases, requests for more in-depth research can be submitted via online forms or e-mail.

The New England Historic Genealogical Society (NEHGS) website is a good example of what organizations can offer online. Members of the society have access to this ever-growing online collection of cemetery transcriptions, vital records, biographical compilations, immigration records, periodicals, military records, maps, and more.

Volunteer Projects

A number of online volunteer projects are also making valuable contributions in various areas of family history research.

One of the largest volunteer networks,, which is supported by, Inc., has at the time of this publication grown to host in excess of 29,000 mailing lists, more than 155,000 message boards, 385 million names in the WorldConnect family trees (which it shares with sister site, and more than 32,000 free websites for individuals, genealogical organizations, and volunteer projects.

Some volunteer projects, like the USGenWeb and WorldGenWeb <> projects, are organized geographically, containing location-specific reference information and data on country, state, and county levels. Others might address a particular record type, such as the Obituary Daily Times <> and the Immigrant Ship Transcribers Guild. Databases and helpful information can also be found on the websites of individuals with websites dedicated to family history for a particular area or family.

Commercial Websites

Commercial websites like and HeritageQuest have made large collections of data available'some free and some available by subscription. HeritageQuest differs from in that it only sells its subscriptions to libraries, although it also makes many of its images, databases, and indexes available to individual users through the sale of CD-ROMs, DVDs, print publications, and microfilm or microfiche. The largest online collection is available at, which has databases containing more than 5 billion names. With access to these large data collections, subscribers can do much more research from the comfort of home, at hours convenient to their schedule, freeing up valuable time to search other records that have not yet been made available online.

Among the most popular online resources are user-submitted collections of electronic family trees. Typically hosted by commercial entities online or published on CD-ROM, users submit their electronic family tree databases along with their contact information to large collections in the hopes of connecting with other researchers working on the same lines. While the quality of the trees varies greatly among users, they can be useful in providing clues as to where to look for records that will substantiate the data. In addition to the research benefits, these trees often reunite family branches that have been separated, sometimes for generations, and the sense of kinship that is often born among long-lost cousins can be one of the most rewarding aspects of family history research. More on these collections can be found in the Collaboration and Sharing section later in this chapter.

The most exciting aspect of online research lies in the growing collections of images of original records that can be accessed online. Because of the inherent cost of this type of endeavor, these collections are usually housed on commercial sites and available only to paying subscribers. All available U.S. Federal Censuses (1790'1930) and some U.K. Censuses are now available online at commercial sites by subscription. These census records and the posting of numerous city directories make it possible for researchers to identify their ancestors through the years and zero in on where to look for records that are not yet online.

While this has only been a broad overview of the types of databases and indexes that can be found on the World Wide Web, a more complete look at databases and indexes can be found in chapter 3, 'General References and Guides.'

Reference and Background Materials

Historical events left an imprint on the lives of our ancestors, just as the events of today affect us. Wars, disasters, and economic factors all had an effect and may have caused our ancestors to make decisions that altered the course of their lives. Job and land opportunities; environmental factors like drought, flood, pestilence, and so forth; wars; politics; or religious intolerance may have played a role in an ancestor's decision to move.

Biographies and local histories can add significant details to what we know about an ancestor's world. For years genealogists have compiled indexes to biographies so that family historians could learn more about their ancestors and their ancestor's contemporaries, and now many of those indexes are available online; the American Genealogical Biographical Index and the Biography and Genealogy Master Index, both available at, are two notable biographical indexes that can be found on the Web. As we learn about the customs and conventions of the era in which our ancestors and their contemporaries lived, we can combine this information with the records we have located to gain a clearer understanding of the choices they made.

Historical information is becoming increasingly easy to find on the Web. The websites of libraries, archives, universities, municipalities, commercial Internet properties, and individuals host a wealth of information that can be useful to family historians.

The Library of Congress's American Memory Project, is an excellent example of what is available, with interviews and narratives from various eras of American history, as well as photographs, sound recordings, and video footage. There are also online exhibits offered at the websites of many museums and historical societies that can teach us much about our ancestors' lives in the context of history. The Encyclopedia of Chicago can be found on the website of the Chicago Historical Society. Photographs, maps, broadsides and newspapers from Chicago's past can be searched or browsed through this project.


Historical newspapers have long been sought as a valuable source of both genealogical data and of historical information for the times and places in which our ancestors lived. For those of us who were not fortunate enough to inherit diaries from our ancestors, historical newspapers can help fill that gap. They can provide details about town gossip; display local reaction to national or global events; give us information on weather, famine, politics, and war; record biases and prejudices of the times; show products our ancestors may have used; and report the prices of goods, services, and living space throughout their recorded history.

The number of historical newspapers available online continues to grow. Libraries like the Brooklyn (New York) Public Library and the Digital Library of Georgia are digitizing newspapers, making them searchable and viewable, free through the Web. includes, as part of its subscription service, selected newspapers from the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom spanning the late-eighteenth century to the present. In addition to projects such as these, which display images of the newspapers, there are also projects where volunteers transcribe items of interest, such as obituaries and sundry clippings.

Local History

Municipality websites often have historical information on the formation and early years of an area; it can be useful to visit the local Chamber of Commerce website as well. The Oregon State Archives hosts a Historical County Records Guide for each county in the state. In addition to records inventories, images, and maps showing boundary changes, county seats, and geography, there are also county histories available.

The Ohio Memory Project, a cooperative effort between the Ohio Historical Society and a number of other historical organizations, libraries, and museums in the state, features a searchable database of more than 25,000 images of photographs, artifacts, archives, manuscripts, natural history specimens, and published materials online.

Even smaller municipalities are seeing the benefits in posting historical information online. Be sure to check for websites on the city and town level, as well as on the county level. Look for a link, or if the site features a search box, search for 'history.'

Historic Events

University websites can also be good sources of information. The University of Rochester is compiling a History of the Erie Canal online and the University of Virginia hosts a comprehensive Civil War project called The Valley of the Shadow: Two Communities in the American Civil War <>. Through records such as correspondence, newspapers, and various others, it chronicles life in two communities, one Northern and one Southern, from 1859 through 1870.

Chronological History

In addition to historical exhibits associated with geography, events, and physical components of an area, there are also resources dedicated to various eras. A collaborative effort between the University of Michigan and Cornell University, the Making of America ( found at and is self-described as 'a digital library of primary sources in American social history from the antebellum period through reconstruction."

Military History

Throughout U.S. history, men and women have served in military conflicts. Their service records and the records of their military units can be very helpful to family historians in providing detail and background material. The military aspect of history is among the better-covered, as branches of the military, historians, reenactment groups, veterans organizations and individuals'veterans and civilians alike'seek to preserve the memories of those who have fought for this country.

There are many projects that have been created to make military history records more accessible. These include the U.S. Civil War Soldiers and Sailors System, a project of the National Parks Service in cooperation with the Genealogical Society of Utah and the Federation of Genealogical Societies. The project indexes and includes basic facts on both Confederate and Union servicemen. Additionally, it includes 'histories of regiments in both the Union and Confederate Armies, links to descriptions of 384 significant battles of the war, and other historical information.'

Military Link

While some of these facilities, agencies, or organizations may hold some information on individual veterans, many are more focused on historical information regarding military history, units, and conflicts. Please refer to the Web pages for details on the holdings, research, and reference policies before requesting information.


Mapping out boundaries and streets is important for research anywhere, whether it be in a city or in a rural area. Pinpointing where your ancestors lived is critical to locating records. Addresses are often found in directories, vital records, court records, military records, some census enumerations, and naturalization records. For example, by plotting these addresses on a map along with local churches, it is possible to determine where our ancestors worshipped, and where more records might be kept. The addresses can also tell us what civil districts to pursue in checking for locally created records.

In the nineteenth century, many towns sprang up along railroad lines. During this period, railroad routes often determined the routes of travel and migration of our ancestors. The Library of Congress's American Memory Project has, as a part of its larger map collection, a collection of 623 Railroad Maps, 1828'1900.

In addition, boundaries often changed over the years and being familiar with these changes can save you time and money that could be wasted looking for records in the wrong jurisdiction. If you were looking for ancestors from the area around Palmerton, Pennsylvania, you would need to know that it fell in Northampton County until 1843, when the county boundaries changed. Since then it has been in Carbon County, Pennsylvania. Similarly, state boundaries may have been redefined and your ancestor may have changed states without even moving.

Many historical and contemporary maps are now available online. One of the largest resources for locating maps is Odden's Bookmarks: The Fascinating World of Maps and Mapping, which contains links to over 21,500 cartographic sites. The Library of Congress's American Memory Project also contains a large historical map collection.

Sites like Google Maps and MapQuest can help pinpoint addresses, but it's important to remember that street names may have changed or been renumbered over the years. For this reason, it's best to use a combination of contemporary and historical maps.


Photographs bring an added dimension to family history and while photographs of ancestors may not always be available, it may be possible to locate photographs of the areas in which they lived. Again, the Library of Congress's American Memory Project contains both photographs and images that can give researchers a peek at the world as it looked to their ancestors.

Libraries, historical societies, museums, and local governments are good starting points in your search for historic photos. The San Francisco Public Library maintains a database of 30,000 photographs that can be viewed by subject (e.g., biography, buildings, businesses, churches, cemeteries, districts, orphanages, schools, and streets), or by the decade from the 1850s through the 1990s.

When using these images, it is important to remember photographs and other materials found on the Web are subject to copyright laws. For more on copyrights, see chapter 1, 'The Foundations of Family History Research.'

There are a growing number of 'orphan' photograph and memorabilia websites now online. These sites rescue lost or abandoned photographs and other mementos from flea markets, garage sales, and online auctions, and post images or descriptions of the item on the site in the hopes of reuniting it with an associated family. These sites include Dead Fred: The Original Online Genealogy Photo Archiveand Ancient Faces. Online auctions such as eBay are also a source of old photographs and postcards.

The Web as a Finding Aid

The Web is also useful in locating other family history artifacts. Family bibles, family histories, and various records in print and on CD-ROMs also often appear on online auction sites. The National Genealogical Society (NGS) website has a searchable index of Bible records that are in its collection.

Online bookstores like and Barnes & Noble make it easy to locate and order reference materials quickly and easily from home. For used, rare, and out of print books, the Advanced Book Exchange provides a searchable database of publications from booksellers around the world.

The Web has also made it easier to look into the collections of distant libraries through their catalogs. Library websites can be located using search engines or through websites such as LibrarySpot. Once located, these websites may allow you to order a publication of interest, or copies of certain pages from it, through your local library via an Interlibrary Loan (ILL) request.

The Family History Library (FHL) of the LDS Church has the largest collection of genealogical materials in the world. The catalog of these materials is available online at its site. Microform publications can be ordered for use at its Family History Centers throughout the world.

Research Planning

Many of the types of resources listed above can be very helpful in planning research. Before traveling to do research, online sources can be referenced to make your trip more productive.

Many libraries and other research facilities now maintain websites that should be visited prior to any trip to learn hours of operation and any usage restrictions. Good examples are the Allen County Public Library in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and the FHL in Salt Lake City, which are popular research destinations for genealogists from across the country. Despite the easy access to this information, it is a good idea to follow up with a phone call or an e-mail to ensure that there are no unscheduled closings and that the collections you plan to reference will be available. Sometimes construction, reorganization, or repairs will not be noted on the website.

The website may also have an overview of the collections that are available at that facility. Finding aids and any catalogs that are available on the website, consulted at home, can help you to plan your trip and save valuable research time once you arrive at the facility. It's also a good idea to look around on the Web to make sure that the records you are interested researching onsite are not already available to you online. Should you find that they are, you can focus your trip around records that are not yet available online.

Once materials for a planned trip are located in the catalog, write down or print the complete bibliographic citation. This can save you time locating them in the catalog at the facility. As an added measure, inquire with the staff after arriving at the facility to see if there are any collections that may be useful that are not included in the catalog.

When traveling to do onsite research, government entities also maintain helpful information on their websites detailing policies and what levels of access family historians can expect.

The websites of religious administrative offices and archives should be consulted. The website of the Archives of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is a good example of what is available. A special page is dedicated to 'General Information for Family History Researchers' and an online exhibit is described as 'a genealogical guide to the congregations, pastors, and records of the numerous Lutheran congregations in Chicago.'

Search Tips: Locating What Is Needed

The key to genealogical research has always been in the location of records, and the location of ancestors in those records. When it comes to searching on the Web and in databases, as with traditional research, a little forethought and a good working knowledge of the tools at your disposal can greatly increase your chances of success.

Web Searches

The Web is often compared to a huge library, and using that comparison, the catalogs to the contents of that library are search engines. There are many different search engines, and they differ in the way they compile listings, the search functionality they offer, extra features that are available, and the way they rank their results.

Some search engines gather listings by 'crawling' or 'spidering' websites. These applications are mainly used to create a copy of all the visited pages for later processing that will index the downloaded pages to provide fast searches. Other search engines may create listings from data submitted by users. Meta-search engines will pull results from multiple search engines. Still other search engines may pull their listings using a combination of methods. Because of the variety of search engines, you will want to try your searches with multiple search engines.

Even with all the differences, there are some common strategies that can help you to get the most from whatever search engine you choose.

Use specific terms. If you are searching for a particular research facility, search using the name of the facility, rather than just generic terms (for example, Allen County Public Library, rather than just library). When searching for a city or town, include the state name as well.

Add a keyword. If a search is yielding too many results, unwanted sites can be excluded by adding a keyword or keywords. For example, if you are searching for genealogy sites related to the surname Dooner, rather than just searching on the surname, you might try searches for: Dooner genealogy, Dooner ancestry, Dooner descendant or, Dooner family. Search queries can be refined further by adding a location or date, such as a birth or death date.

Use advanced search functions. Most search engines have advanced search forms that allow users to specify how the terms being sought should appear in results or they may accept Boolean operators ('and,' 'not,' 'or,' and 'near') and search engine math (+ and '). Some search engines support both.

Use 'and' or the + sign to specify that results should contain both or all of the terms somewhere on the page. In some cases, the use of these qualifiers is not necessary because the search engine settings may default to only returning results where all terms are included. The popular search engines, Google and AltaVista, are two such search engines. For example, in Google, searches for Minnesota naturalizations, Minnesota and naturalizations, or Minnesota + naturalizations should all return the same results.

To search for an exact phrase, enclose the phrase in quotation marks (for example, Minnesota naturalization records will only return searches with the entire phrase listed exactly as it is typed.)

Use 'not' and the ' sign to exclude a term. For example, if the above search for Minnesota naturalizations was returning too many pages for immigration lawyers, a way to eliminate those hits would be to search for Minnesota naturalizations not lawyer or Minnesota naturalizations ' lawyer.

Use the word 'or' to produce results that contain either of the terms. Minnesota or naturalizations would produce results containing either Minnesota or naturalizations, but not necessarily both. This can be a particularly useful operator when searching for variations of surnames.

Use the word 'near' in searches to limit search results based on how near the search terms are to each other. The value of the proximity (such as 'within 10' or 'within 25') may vary from one search engine to the next, and some search engines will also allow 'followed by' or 'adj' (adjacent), which would require that one term immediately follow the other. This can be useful when searching for information about individuals. When searching for information on an ancestor named James Gosson, using the expression James Gosson will only produce results if the name appears as the given name followed by the surname. Searching using the keywords James near Gosson will also produce results where the website references him as 'Gosson, James.'

Watch word variations. Think of how words are likely to be used on the site and use them in that form. While most search engines are not case sensitive, they will not recognize variations of words. A search for Minnesota naturalization (as in Minnesota naturalization records) will return a different set of results than Minnesota naturalizations. A search for Minnesota naturalization OR naturalizations would cover both sets.

Explore features. In the intensely competitive search engine market, companies are constantly seeking to improve their services by offering expanded features. In addition to advanced search functions, other features include translation software, different types of searches (such as image, news, newsgroups, catalog, audio, or video searches, etc.), parental controls to weed out inappropriate sites, the ability to view cached sites, directories, and more. Read the help page. Look for the Help section to make sure that you are using the correct operators and understand fully the functionality of that particular search engine. Most help pages are clearly written and easy to understand, and by becoming familiar with how they work, your chances of success will greatly increase.

Another good resource for learning about search engines is This site features tutorials and reviews of various search engines.

Link Directories

Another option to locating information is to turn to websites that feature collections of links relative to a particular topic. Cyndi's List, is the most well-known of these sites related to genealogy. The work of genealogist Cyndi Howells, this site housed upwards of 240,000 links as of 2005, classified in more than 150 categories. The site is also searchable. Cyndi's List is a great place to see what kinds of websites are available for a particular topic, and, when used in conjunction with search engines, it can be a big time saver. It is also a great place to turn to for ideas on new avenues to pursue.

Other directories are available with more focused link collections. Vital Records Information provides contact information, fees, and links to U.S. vital records departments. Other directories are available online that, although they weren't created specifically for family historians, can be very useful. FuneralNet bills itself as 'America's most trusted online obituary, funeral, cremation, and cemetery resource.' The National Association of Counties website hosts a directory of counties that provides contact information for county courthouses and other helpful county information.

Living People Searches

There are a number of phone and business directories available on the Web. These resources can be very valuable when it comes to locating living family members with whom we have lost contact, or other entities such as funeral homes, cemeteries, churches, schools, libraries, and so on. Popular online phone and address directories include, InfoSpace, and Yahoo! People Search.

There are also pay services, such as the People Finder, and U.S. Search, that charge a fee to search more comprehensive databases for people.

Searching Databases and Indexes

Just as searching the Web requires some knowledge of search engines, when searching online databases and database collections a working knowledge of the search features unique to that particular database is important. Here are some tips for searching individual databases or groups of databases:

Take advantage of advanced search features. In some cases searches will turn up too many results, and in others there may be few or no matches. In either case, keywords and advanced search functions can help. Typically a keyword search is available, but websites frequently feature advanced search functionality tailored to the website's offerings. Separate fields may be available to narrow a search by location, time frame, or record type. When searching for a common name like Smith or Jones, this can mean the difference between spending hours or even days wading through irrelevant hits, or locating an ancestor in minutes or even seconds.

If you receive too many results, you can narrow the search by adding another piece of information. Look at some of the results, noting the fields that are available and the formatting (e.g., abbreviations, spaces, dashes, etc.). If the search interface allows you to specify a keyword, it can be used to help you tailor a more refined search. Some keywords might include a county name, maiden name, Social Security number, dates, military designations and units, or any field for which you have information.

If you don't get any results, try searching for Smith or some other common name to get a feel for what fields are included. Where there are a number of options available in an advanced search, looking at the format of the results and what information is included, you may be able to find some creative ways to search, such as searching for

  • a given name (no surname) and the name of the county or town,
  • a surname or given name and occupation,
  • an address,
  • a name and a year, month, or date,
  • a name and age, and
  • a location and age.

Sometimes less is more. If a search is narrowed too much by the inclusion of too much information, possible matches could be inadvertently excluded. Most databases will only give hits on exact matches. A misspelled given name, a date that doesn't quite match up, or a piece of information that is formatted a little differently than the way it is in the database can give false negative results, when in fact, an ancestor is included in the database. For this reason, it's best to start searches wide and, if necessary, narrow results slowly by adding a piece of information at a time.

When specifying a date, try including only the month and year as opposed to the full date. This is particularly helpful when doing advanced searches of databases like the Social Security Death Index (SSDI), as some dates are not included in their entirety.

Relevancy ranked searches. now offers an alternative search functionality, both on the website and through its genealogical software, Family Tree Maker. Using the Ranked Search, the database takes the information you include and returns the most likely matches found in its collections, including those with similar names, dates, or locations. For example, a search for John Smith could give results for Jon Smith and John Smyth. Because this greatly increases the number of hits on any given search, when using the Ranked Search, it is best to include as much information as possible. This will bring the best possible matches to the top of the results.

Try direct searches. When working with large database collections, better results can sometimes be achieved by searching the databases individually. While searches like the global search at are certainly huge time savers, there are certain advantages of going directly to a database of interest and searching it separately. Check to see if there is a listing of databases sorted by location for a particular collection. By looking at the databases in areas specific to research needs, focus can be directed to those of interest to make searches more effective.

Because these collections may contain a wide variety of databases, including varying degrees of information in different fields, sometimes a 'one size fits all' search interface will not be as effective as using one that is created especially for a particular database. Recognizing this, database purveyors may sometimes create more specialized search interfaces for some databases. Databases typically have a search field containing a space for the given name, surname, and a keyword, and some may have more advanced search options that are created especially to cater to that database's contents. For example, a database of passenger arrival records may include a search field for the name of the ship. A search of a collection of databases that include passenger arrivals, census records, military records, and so forth, will likely not have this feature.

Conversely, if an individual database of interest does not have the advanced search functionality needed, try using any advanced search features that are available in searching the larger collection as a whole.

Experiment and use informational help pages. Since every database and every search is unique, it is a good idea to familiarize yourself with the databases you use. As mentioned previously, note the fields available and the format of those fields, as well as the order in which the results are displayed, all of which can help you to find your way around obstacles.

In addition, look for Help or FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) pages. These pages can contain important information about a database's functionality and flexibility.

Read the description. It is important to read any descriptions, prefaces, and introductions to the records you are searching. What is the source of the information? What were the criteria for inclusion in the record set or database? What years and areas does it cover? How complete is it? Knowing the answers to these questions can help to determine whether or not your ancestor really should be included in the database.

Given names. If a given name can be specified in a search, be sure to also look for variations, misspellings, or abbreviations of that name. Sometimes only an initial or abbreviation is used, such as 'Chas.' for Charles or 'Thos.' for Thomas. Also look for variations and different spellings'Eliza, Beth, Liz, Liza, for Elizabeth; Alex for Alexander; Jim for James; Jon for John. You may find that some websites have added programs that will match common equivalent names and include them in search results, but this isn't always the case. In addition, when searching for an immigrant ancestor, try looking for the name in his or her native language.

Soundex searches or sound it out. Some databases allow Soundex searches. The Soundex is an indexing and filing system based on how words sound rather than how they are spelled. A detailed description of this system and how names are coded is included in chapter 5, 'Census Records.' Using Soundex functionality, a search for the surname Poland would turn up all surnames that share the Soundex Code P453 (e.g., Poland, Polend, Polant). When doing Soundex searches, it's important to keep in mind the name variants that you also want to search and make sure they share that code. Using the Poland example above, a Soundex search would not turn up Polan, Polen, or Polin, which would be coded P450. Despite these drawbacks, well thought out searches using the Soundex feature may help you to get positive results, despite misspellings.

For other databases, you may want to say the name aloud, perhaps with an accent, and imagine how someone unfamiliar with the name might spell it based on that sound.

Proximity searches. Where available, a proximity specification allows you to indicate how many words can come in between the criteria you enter. This is particularly valuable when you are searching for surnames that are also given names, such as William Dennis. With the proximity search set at the default of adjacent, this feature should eliminate false hits that show William Jones, John Smith, and Dennis Johnson by only showing hits where William and Dennis are next to each other. Unfortunately, you will still have to deal with entries for William Dennis Johnson.

There are also instances where you will want to widen the search. A search in an obituary database may show a listing similar to the one below:

Services for Agnes Huggins will be held at . . . Survivors include three sons, James, Ronald, and Joseph.

In this example, a search with a wider proximity setting, or no proximity at all, will also show this entry to someone who was searching for James Huggins, since both names appear in the entry.

Data range. Some websites may allow narrowing a search to a particular time frame. If you are searching for a common name, try entering your ancestor's estimated life span in these fields. This can greatly reduce the number of hits, ruling out unwanted matches from the wrong time period. Search for indexing, typographic, and/or OCR mistakes. When investigating the source of a database, it's also important to check these same descriptive materials to determine how a database was created. Depending on the method used, it is possible to predict the type of mistakes that might have been made. With databases created using Optical Character Recognition (OCR) technology, where a document is read electronically and reproduced using specialized scanners and software, similar-looking letters may be misidentified. If the index or database was created by humans, errors found may again be misidentified letters, or simple typographic mistakes.

With records produced using OCR, similar-looking letters and even smudges or spots on the document can confuse the 'computer's eye' and subsequently cause misreadings of the text, leading a researcher to missed and incorrect results. However, this technology is improving and while still not perfect, in some cases, it can be more accurate than manual transcriptions, as long as the print is clear and the record is relatively clean of spots and smudges.

For manually created records, with the handwriting that indexers often face, as well as faded print or poor-quality microfilms, it can be difficult even for those familiar with a name to pick it out. Given these challenges, it's not surprising that we run across an occasional misspelling. Some often-confused letters include the following:

  • L and S
  • T and F
  • J, G, and Y
  • I and J
  • K and R
  • O and Q
  • P and R
  • U and W

Vowels are also frequently misinterpreted, both as other vowels and as some similar-looking consonants. Switching similar-looking letters or vowels in the surnames you are researching can often solve this problem.

In many cases, there may be a problem with the index because of a simple typographical error. Try typing your ancestor's name very fast several times. Is there a common mistake you make? If so, try searching for that. Transposals often occur when one hand gets ahead of the other, such as 'hte' instead of 'the.' Look at the name you are searching for instances where one letter typed by one hand is followed by a letter typed by the other hand. Try reversing these letters. To find other possible keying errors, take a look at your keyboard and try switching some letters in the name for the letters around it on the keyboard.

Wildcard searches can also be helpful. At, for example, the wildcard must be preceded by the first three letters of the name (for example, 'All*'). This will turn up any misspellings that fall after the first three letters.

Trouble with titles. Titles can cause problems when searching for ancestors. A search of one 1850 census index using the given name 'Mr.' turned up 5,470 hits. In addition, there are 1,238 people who listed the title 'Dr.' as their given name.

In the same index, a search for 'sister' produced 332 matches. While many nuns included their last names, there are a number of them that only included a religious name as their surname ('Marlena, Sister'). These ladies would never be found in a surname search.

If you think your ancestor may have used a title, consider it when performing searches. This typically will not be a problem if the given name is listed in addition to the title and you search for the given name and surname, as the search will still typically pick up the given name as a keyword in that field.

Separated names. Sometimes an unusual space between letters in a name on a record may cause an indexer or transcriber to separate the name in the index. For example, one index to the 1930 census lists a 'De Loris Witt.' The extended space between the 'De' and 'loris' in 'Deloris' caused the indexer to separate the two.

The same principle should be kept in mind with surnames that might be interpreted as two words, such as 'DeWitt' or 'De Witt.' A search for 'oconnor' and 'o'connor' both turned up 38,871 hits in the 1930 census. A search for 'o connor' (including a space) turned up an additional 1,052 hits. In that same census, a search for 'mc donald' (with the space) returned 46,798 hits, while a search for 'mcdonald' (without the space) returned 58,516.

In addition, sometimes names that you would typically think of as always having a space are indexed without the space. For example, there are 3,725 St. Clairs but only 3,540 Stclairs in the 1930 U.S. census index at The omission or insertion of that space can mean the difference between a successful search and an unsuccessful one.

Occasionally spaces can cause problems at the beginning or end of a name, or in a field where text has been removed. If criteria is entered in a field to search and then removed, it is best to remove it by using the delete key or the backspace key. If the search interprets that space as a character, it will only give you results with a space in that field, which may lead to poor results.

CDs and DVDs

Many of the databases that are found on the Web, and some that are not, are available on CD-ROM or DVD. There are several things to think about when deciding whether to purchase data on this type of medium:

  • Is the product compatible with the computer that will be used to read it?
  • Are the contents of the product clearly listed and will the scope of the data meet research needs?
  • Is the data available online, possibly on a free website or through a collection you have access to through a subscription?
  • Are there product reviews available for this product or can you consult others who have had experience with it?

Citing Electronic Sources

With the huge quantities of information that family historians collect, citing the sources of that information has always been important. With the explosion of information that has been put at our fingertips with new technology, it has become even more critical. While genealogical software has come a long way in this area in recent years, there is still some room for improvement and the citation ability should be of primary importance when choosing a particular brand of software for use.

In addition to changing addresses (which will be discussed in further detail in the next section), there is also the fact that much of the data we receive has several layers of sources. It is not uncommon for a database to be three (or sometimes even more) generations removed from the original record.

While it would be impossible to address all of the forms and styles for citation of electronic sources here, this chapter will address what information should be included, as well as indicate references to resources, both online and offline, where more detailed information can be found. For data found online or on CD-ROM, the following information, where available, should be listed as follows:

  • Author'Sometimes this will be an individual, while in other cases it might also be a company or organization
  • Complete database, website, or publication title
  • E-mail address and any other available contact information for webmaster
  • Volumes (if applicable) included in the database
  • Original source information (what records or publication was this database drawn from), which should include the following:
    • Author (with address and contact information for individuals if available)
    • Source title
    • Source publisher
    • Date of original publication
  • If the source of the original publication is a repository like the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), a state archive, or the FHL, the internal publication number should also be included. This would include the following
    • NARA Record Group (RG) number
    • NARA Microform Publication number, roll and page
    • State archive series or other record publication number
    • FHL Call number
    • FHL Microform number
  • Image or page number where applicable
  • Database Uniform Resource Locator (URL) (i.e., the website address)
  • Date accessed
  • For information received via e-mail
    • Message originator
    • Subject
    • E-mail address
    • Other contact information where available.
    • Sent to or through (i.e., to author, or through 'Smith RootsWeb mailing list,' etc.)
    • Message date

Listed below are additional resources for more information on electronic source citations:

  • Gibaldi, Joseph. MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers. 5th ed. New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1999.
  • Grossman, John. The Chicago Manual of Style: The Essential Guide for Writers, Editors, and Publishers. 15th ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 2003.
  • Mills, Elizabeth Shown. Evidence! Citation & Analysis for the Family Historian. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1997.

The Regents of the University of Michigan. The Internet Public Library: FARQs, Citing Electronic Resources. Online at <>.

Outdated Internet Addresses

Locating Outdated URLs

One of the biggest challenges of citing electronic sources is the transient nature of Web addresses. Websites often need to restructure or switch to a different website host. When this happens, the URL may need to change. If information from a database is only cited with that address, it may be difficult to locate again for verification or for further research. In some cases the database may be removed indefinitely or permanently from the Web, making it completely unavailable.

Google has a cache feature and by searching for a website that has disappeared, it may be possible to access the cached version of the website after it has been removed.

If the information was cited properly, it still may be possible to locate either the website at its new URL, or the original source of the information in a physical environment. If the data is still available online, using a search engine to search for the exact website title or the website author's name may turn up its new location. If it is no longer available online, methods covered earlier in this chapter ('The Web as a Finding Aid') may be useful in locating the original records.

Locating Outdated E-mail Addresses

With mailing lists and message boards allowing users to interact and exchange information, there is also the problem of changing e-mail addresses. It's not uncommon for an individual to change e-mail addresses, sometimes several times over the course of a year. Internet Service Providers (ISPs) may be taken over by a different company, customers switch because of service problems, or they may have been using a work e-mail address as their contact information and have subsequently switched jobs. Whatever the reason, these changes can render e-mail citations useless, unless more contact information, such as a street address, is provided.

A number of the resources listed in the section on 'People Searches' may be helpful in locating a phone number and many also offer e-mail directories. In addition, there are registries available like the one at FreshAddress that may be useful. Many ISPs and other services also maintain voluntary e-mail directories, although some might only be available to others who use that particular service. The trouble with these is that they are typically voluntary, and if the person being sought never took the time to register his current address or a change of address, it won't be available.

Another option would be to enter the person's name into a search engine and see if it appears anywhere. If it is a common name, try adding genealogy or some other keyword, such as a surname interest that you share. You may locate a more recent e-mail address in this manner, perhaps on a message board or query website.

Analyzing and Assessing the Quality of Online Information

Regardless of the advances made by technology, there is still a margin of error that needs to be dealt with when using records found on the Web. Just as you would analyze any record you found in a library, courthouse, or archive, the quality and accuracy of resources found on the Web should be similarly analyzed.

In making an assessment, consider the source. If the information came from an individual's database, whether in an online collection or on a website, are sources included and in good form? If there are no sources cited, or if the citations that are included only lead to someone else's work, it should serve as a warning that the researcher may not be as diligent as he or she should have been, and the data may be suspect.

If the information comes from a larger organization or corporate entity, what is their reputation for quality? Are descriptive materials comprehensive, listing detailed information about the scope of the data? Are original sources for the data provided? What kind of reviews in reputable publications has the product or collection received? Genealogical periodicals are a good source of information on large electronic collections'both non-profit and commercial.

In assessing electronic images, again, consider the source. If the source is an organization or company whose reputation depends on providing quality genealogical products, there really isn't a reason to suspect that images have been manipulated to skew the facts. In fact, it would likely be more beneficial to that entity to provide an unadulterated quality product. However, if the image were the only evidence linking an individual to royalty or some kind of celebrity, it would be a good idea to also consult the original as a precautionary measure. Most of the time, there will not be a problem, but the verification could save time and money down the road.


Coming soon...

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