The launch of a big new database is genealogy’s equivalent to chumming shark-infested waters. Everybody and their brother (and cousins) rush in to search. Some people come out with tasty morsels; others come out empty-handed and frustrated. Whether you’re looking at the latest database on Ancestry or FamilySearch or exploring a new-to-you collection, here are 4 things you should do when using a genealogy database.
1. Read the Introduction
You’ve probably heard this advice when it comes to books. It’s true for databases, too. Don’t go by the title alone. Ancestry’s “Ohio, Marriages, 1803-1900” doesn’t contain all of Ohio for that entire timespan. The “About” section of the page states:
Records from the following counties may be found in this database: Allen, Ashland, Athens, Auglaize, Belmont, Columbiana, Coshocton, Clark, Crawford, Darke, Defiance, Fairfield, Franklin, Gallia, Hancock, Henry, Highland, Hocking, Holmes, Huron, Paulding, Jackson, Lawrence, Mahoning, Muskingum, Ottawa, Preble, Putnam, Richland, Ross, Sandusky, Scioto, Seneca, Shelby, and Wayne Counties.
That’s 35 out of Ohio’s 88 counties. Further, not each of those counties is covered from 1803 through 1900. The database covers Athens County only from 1851-1865, for example. You can avoid a lot of frustration if you go into this database knowing what it does — and does not — include.
Now, before you start putting the bad mouth on Ancestry or any other website for titling their collections that way, you should know that brick-and-mortar archives have titled their collections the same way for years. “Smith Family Papers, 1800-1910” might have one letter from 1800 and an obit from 1910, but the bulk of the material is from the 1880s. Read the introduction.
2. Search for the Known
When Ancestry launched their U.S. Wills and Probate collection, the first thing I did was search for a will that I knew existed (and that I already had a copy of). Why? Because I wanted to see how the search worked and how the results came back. Having an idea in mind of what I should see helped me get familiar with how they were giving me information.
3. Search for a Common Name
If the database you’re using doesn’t have something that you know exists, search for a common name. I’ve searched for John Smith and John Johnson more times than I can count. (Then again, my 3rd-great-grandfather was John Johnson, so I have a good reason to look for that name!)
Searching for a common name should give you plenty of results to get a feel for how the database works. I searched for John Smith in FamilySearch’s “Michigan Births, 1867-1902” and got almost 4,000 results. What I see from scrolling through the results is that the mother’s maiden name usually isn’t included. If I’m trying to narrow down results using mother’s maiden name as a criteria, it isn’t going to work well.
I also like to see how first names come back. When I do a search for the first name Thomas, do the results include “Thos.”? If not, I need to do a separate search for that abbreviation (or see if I can search for just Tho or Tho*.)
4. Explore Search Options
Can you use wildcards in your search? It depends. Some databases will allow them; others won’t. Look for a link that explains the search options for that website. You can also just do a search using an asterisk or a question mark and see what happens.
If I’m using a collection that has scanned text, can I limit the results to specific phrases by using quotes around the search terms? Again, it’s a matter of playing with the search to see how the results are.
What’s your favorite strategy for using a database you’ve never used before?