4 Things To Do When Using a Genealogy Database

Each genealogy database that we use is slightly different. (Some of them are really different!) That means that they can act differently, which can have an impact on the results we're getting. Whether you're looking at the latest databases on Ancestry or FamilySearch or exploring a new-to-you collection, here are 4 things you should do when using a genealogy database. 

4 Things to 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 whole 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 surname is usually her married name, not her maiden name. If I’m trying to narrow down results by using mother’s maiden name as a criteria, it isn’t going to work well. 

Michigan Births, 1867-1902 on FamilySearch

John Smith in the Michigan Births, 1867-1902 collection on FamilySearch.org. (Click to enlarge.)

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 (like a digitized newspaper or book), 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?

Posted: September 14, 2017.

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  • Well said! My favourite strategies are… all of the above, and in that order! It’s also important to figure out how the database handles names that start with Mc (some put a space after it) and names with an apostrophe (some leave it out).

  • Thanks again for sharing information and strategies ? I haven’t read the introductions to databases so that will be helpful. I can see how searching for a common name will give me a feel for how data is entered. Never thought of that. My Question… Could you give an example of using the ? in a search. I frequently use the * but right now i can’t think of an application for the single letter replacement ? wildcard.

  • Love these tips! I often (at least I often try – haha) to search using criteria like you’ve listed, but I get so frustrated because, as we all know, each database is different and taking the time to learn the differences of each can be tedious; however…with that being said, you’re spot on in your reasoning as to why we MUST approach each one in the ways you’ve mentioned. Thanks for reminding me to go back to “the basics” when I approach each database. Also – for me, anyways – it’s helpful to go through these steps again periodically – even after you’ve been using the same databases for a while. Things change over time.

    And boy do I understand your search problems with Johnson. My maiden name is Johnson and my great grandfather and his family were from Sweden; however, he was illegitimate, and I’m at a loss. It’s like a double whammy – Johnson and illegitimacy. Bah!

    Thanks for all of you great advice and freebies! I always look forward to your posts and newsletters!

  • Read the introduction. Unfortunately sites are always making changes to their programs and you have to start all over. Some are eliminating information. I have my personal list of sites I use; especially the free ones and it is becoming more frequent that the information may not even be there or in different format. findagrave.com is making a change can’t wait.

  • Another use for the common surname technique is to get into the database somewhere close to the name you’re looking for so you can look around for what you really want. As an example, “Massachusetts, Death Index, 1901-1980” on Ancestry.com is very poorly indexed. If I’m looking for a Brownell death and it doesn’t appear in the search results I’ll get into the database using the name Brown or Browne and then page forward to Brownell. More often than not I have found what I was searching for.

  • I’ve been like a kid in a candy store since the NYC vital records became available at my local FHC and affiliate library – but I’m a very organized kid, and I knew the candy store! I have my spreadsheet with film numbers, certificate numbers, dates of B M D – and have come away with a load of treasures!

  • I too look forward to your newsletter and plethora of advice. One almost has to keep a database of info on databases just to keep current on databases, there are so many differences. Talk about hard names to search for: Johnson (English), Clark, Smith, & Taylor are a few of my family lines that I’m constantly researching. Interestingly enuf, these lines go back to Richard Warren, Edward Fuller, & John Howland of the Mayflower.

  • Thank you for all your suggestions and ideas that just refresh all of our minds. What do you do when an expert genealogist tells you ur four times great-grandfather’s last name doesn’t exist.?

  • Thank you for this helpful info. I am researching my family name Cassel Well the census takes have really given me q challenge. I fave found Castle, plus several other spellings and the most challenging spelling was Dartle, which i assume is a case of bad handwriting.