Back on November 12th I wrote about using general search engines to find the information you need on the Internet. But what about databases? There are a large number of databases on the Internet that we can use. Some of these are subscription based, and some are free. The difference is that information in a database is structured and placed in “fields.” When you find a page that asks you to type information into blanks such as “first name” or “last name” you are typically searching a database. Because of the format of this information, general search engines will not read it, so there is a specific database search engine for this information. Remember that computers are looking for an exact match on the information you place in these fields. Some search engines, however, have special instructions written to expand the search to words that sound alike or are similar.
The beauty of databases is that the information has been indexed however, remember that the information in indexes had to have been put there by some means, either transcription or Optical Character Recognition...both of which could introduce errors. I’m sure you’ve looked at an original document where you can’t read the handwriting? Perhaps the transcriber couldn’t read it either and skipped the name...or read an initial letter incorrectly...a sawyer or a lawyer? Some of the documents haven’t survived well. I’m convinced that my ancestors are always the ones under the big blobs at the bottom of the page. Complete documents may not exist and “selected records” should always put up a red flag. Perhaps your ancestor was there, but not included for some reason in the selection. Always read the database description so you understand what you’re searching.
Information stored in databases on the web is sometimes also referred to as “The Invisible Web.” Since search engines read HTML they cannot see into what is stored in a database format. Some of the online databases are subscription based and thus require a sign in. When a web crawler comes upon a page that requires interaction, it can’t respond so it moves on.
Databases can be wonderful places to find information, however you have to know that they exist, and then you have to understand their content and reliability. Just like Wikipedia, databases such as Ancestral File or World Family Tree without original images or source citations are nothing more that a clue to further research.
I was looking for my great grandfather David Moag in the 1910 census. He should have been there, he died in August of 1910 in Livingston County, New York, and in June of that year his daughter Clara was married there. Her marriage announcement stated that her wedding was small because her father was ill.
How did I find him? I used the Advanced Search feature of HeritageQuest. I put in the information I knew, but I left out his surname. Just because there is a blank you don’t have to fill it in. What did I know about David? I searched the 1910 census for Davids born in Ireland living in Livingston County, New York. I love HQ for the way it presents results. It gave me an
alphabetical list of all of the Davids in Livingston County born in Ireland and there was David Maag. A click to the original showed I indeed had the correct family as Ella was my ggrandmother, Clara and Buna were my great aunts and Sara was my grandmother.
Here are some suggestions for researching in databases.
Collect as much information as possible on the person your searching. The more information you have, the easier it will be to distinguish your Michael Daly from the 752 other Michael Daly’s that appear in the database.
Use Qualifiers to limit your search. If I’m searching for an obituary for Fred Crofoot, I might use Maude, his wife’s name, as a keyword.
Be careful about adding too much information to start. If you don’t get many hits, try removing some of the information...be careful searching on an age unless you have an option for an age range such as 40 - 50 or ± 2 years. I might not use a first name, since an individual could be identified with initials. I also usually avoid sex...I can’t tell you the number of times that is either wrong, or not entered. Remember if you put in something and there is nothing in that field you’ll get a negative result.
Use what you know to create a query that perhaps doesn’t use the surname such as where the person lived, where was he born.
For census research try searching for neighbors from a previous census and then check pages around that individual; if a child had an unusual name search for the child in an every name index, since ages tend to be closer the younger the child; don’t forget to search for adult children where a parent may be living with them in another state.
Remember, prior to the 20th century spelling didn’t matter. Also we know that census takers were not hired for either their spelling ability or their handwriting <g>. Try to say the name with the accent of your ancestor, then try to write it as it sounds. Strange results can also occur if you have an Irishman saying his name to a German.
You’re not finished until you’ve looked at the original record! You never know what information you might find in a record that is not included in the index
Keep a log of your searches...both successful and unsuccessful. Don’t be afraid to repeat them if you think new information has been added, but it also tells you what you have already searched.
Evaluating what you find on the Internet, whether it be a web page or database is critical. You must know the source of the information. I recently found a request for information on a message board that listed the birth dates of two individuals and their marriage date...the problem was that the groom was twelve years old and the bride seven years old! Clearly the author hadn’t checked his facts for reasonableness.
Here are some of the databases I use regularly. Let me know if you have any favorites and I’ll post them on a future blog.
Ancestry.com * http://www.ancestry.com
Ellis Island http://www.ellisisland.org
Family Search (LDS) http://www.familysearch.org
HeritageQuestOnline.com (check your local library)
The National Archives (US) http://www.archives.gov/
The National Archives (UK) http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/
New England Ancestors* http://www.newenglandancestors.org/
The Origins Network* (UK) http://www.originsnetwork.com/
“One Step” by Stephen Morse http://stevemorse.org/
WorldVital Records http://www.worldvitalrecords.com
* Subscription Databases