5 Things You Might Be Missing on Ancestry

It’s easy to focus on the searches and the results when we’re using Ancestry. However, there are some features of the site that you might be overlooking — features that can make your research more productive. Make your searching more effective with these 5 features.

Generations Cafe Podcast, Episode 56

You can listen to this episode by clicking the play button below. (You can also listen on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Stitcher, and most other podcast apps.) Length: 15 minutes.

1. The Card Catalog

Ancestry Card Catalog menuYes, we’re talking about Ancestry, a company with billions of records not books, but their card catalog acts like the one for your local library: It helps you find resources. (And let’s be honest: the card catalog at your library is probably misnamed, too. We ditched the cards a long time ago.)

To get to the card catalog, log into Ancestry and click the Search tab at the top of the page, then select “Card Catalog.”

The card catalog will help you see the resources that Ancestry has available for a particular location. Because of the way their databases are titled, when you enter the name of the state or country (if outside the U.S.) in the Title field, you’ll get a list of all of the resources that are specific to that place.

Once you have that list, you can click on a database and search just in that one database. Talk about focusing your search!

2. The “About This Database” Information

It’s important to understand the resource that you’re using, whether it’s an original record, a book, or a database. Like you would read the introduction to a book, it’s a good idea to read the “about” section of any database you’re using. When you’re looking at a particular database on Ancestry, scroll past the search box and you’ll see information about where the data came from and more details about what is in that resource.

For example, “Michigan, Compiled Marriages for Select Counties, 1851-1875” doesn’t have marriages for all of Michigan’s counties. (You probably guessed that from the title.) But you might be surprised that it’s only 5 counties (Branch, Hillsdale, Jackson, Kent, and Wayne) and not all of those counties are covered for all of those years.

3. Browsing Images

Sometimes a search isn’t enough. Names can be misread or missed in the indexing. If the collection has images, it’s a good idea to browse those images and have a look for yourself. When you’re looking at a specific collection, look at the right-hand part of the page for “Browse This Collection.” There will be a dropdown menu where you can select a specific portion of the images to look through.

This comes in handy when you want to look through a specific county in the census. It’s also useful with collections like probate records or vital records indices where the original index itself would have been digitized. (Look at the beginning of most will books; there is almost always an index of the wills contained in that volume.)

Bonus tip about browsing Ancestry’s probate collections: When you’re looking at the collection for a specific state, use the “Browse This Collection” feature to uncover hidden gems: records that don’t necessarily deal with probate, but were digitized anyway. For example, when you browse “Indiana, Wills and Probate Records, 1798-1999,” you will find that they have Common Pleas court records and indentures for Whitley County and Coroner’s records for Dubois County.

4. Who Else Attached Records and Photos

When you see a scanned photo or document show up as a hint for one of your ancestors, take note of who uploaded it. They likely have some connection to your ancestor. (Otherwise, why are they uploading it?)

But what about when you’re the one who uploaded the image? Ancestry used to notify people when someone attached an image that you had uploaded. (Either they have ended that feature or the messaging system isn’t handling them correctly because I haven’t received a notice of that in I can’t tell you how long.)

Go to ancestor’s profile that you’ve uploaded an image or a scanned document for and click on “Gallery.”

Ancestry Gallery

Once you’re in the Gallery, click on an image that you’ve uploaded. I clicked on the image that I added of my great-grandparents Linton and Margaret (Kingery) Johnson. On the right, I can see everyone who has added that image to someone in their tree.

I can click on a user icon and get a link to that person’s profile and to the tree that they attached it to (if it’s a public tree).

5. Reference Books: Red Book and The Source

Ancestry’s Red Book and The Source are two of the standards in genealogy research. The text of each is available for free… if you know where to look.

NOTE: Ancestry took the text of each book and converted it to web pages; they didn’t digitize a printed book. When you click on the links below, it will look like a website; however, it is the text of each book.

The Source was originally published in 1984; the third edition (the most recent) was published in 2006 and edited by Loretto Dennis Szucs and Sandra Hargreaves Luebking. It covers topics from the foundations of genealogy to urban research. 

Red Book: American State, County, and Town Sources is a great guide of what is available for specific states. Some of the information is dated (addresses and phone numbers of government agencies, etc.), but the basics are still very good. I’m particularly fond of the state maps which show the counties and the county seats.


Posted: January 3, 2021.

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  • Amy–I was given the DNA test as a gift! When I received it , there is no reference to my Native American ancestry!!! How can that be?

    • Two possibilities: either you don’t actually have Native American Ancestry or you didn’t inherit the part of the DNA that would show it. If you do have Native American ancestry but it is many generations back, it’s entirely possible that you didn’t inherit that part of the DNA.

    • My sister and I inherited Native American/Canadian DNA but another sister didn’t. My son inherited it but my daughter didn’t.

  • Very helpful! After reading the first tip, I went to the card catalog, and to Gallia County, and found an index for Gallia County burial records. Boom! Right off, I found a record for a woman whom I was looking for just yesterday. My usual search techniques failed to find a death record, but this slick trick brought it up in a mere two minutes! Thank you!

  • Thanks so much for these very helpful hints. It amazed me when a picture I posted on my “price ate” tree showed up on someone else’s tree.

    • If your tree is private, the photos that you post are also private. Either someone attached it when your tree was public or they got the image from another source.

  • Thank you so much for this information! Very helpful. Can’t wait to check these ideas out over the weekend. Have a Safe and Happy Holiday Weekend.

  • How do you find info on someone who was adopted, and the records in the local courthouse burned? Any ideas where I can begin looking ? Also, are the websites like Ancestry safe from scammers? Where would be the safest software to use for genealogy info. THANK YOU SO MUCH!

    • It depends on the time period. Sometimes copies of birth records were sent to the state. Check the FamilySearch wiki for the dates in the state you’re researching in. As far as Ancestry and scammers go, my contention is that there are numerous ways that are easier for scammers to get your information than to go onto Ancestry. (That being said, don’t publish information about living people anywhere.) I’m not sure what you mean about the “safest software to use for genealogy info.” Again, don’t publish information about living people.

      • I have used the Family Tree Maker software for over 20 years. I consider it to be the best FT software, as it was designed by Ancestry-dot-com to work with their site, although they sold it to MacKiev a few years ago.
        They have upgraded it so you can color-code your lines, sort all female individuals by married name, if desired, create charts (including fan charts!), reports, maps, and even print-at-home genealogy books. It integrates with MyCanvas, which allows you to create a professionally printed book online.
        The software syncs with Ancestry-dot-com, so if you work within the software, you can integrate that with your online tree, and visa versa, so you never lose work you’ve done on either.
        It also integrates with FamilySearch, which allows you to match and merge FREE records into your tree.
        The current version, 2017, also has Photo Darkroom, that allows you to darken faded black and white photos.
        It is very affordable; I paid $25.95 (complete) for FTM 2007 on a beautifully carved wood USB drive. It seems to be safe…I’ve never had any hacking or other issues with it, and I’ve used it on both a Windows and Mac format.
        You can discover more and/or order the software at http://www.mackiev.com as a direct download or on the aforementioned USB flash drive.

          • Actually FTM was developed by Banner Blue (I had it as a 5 1/4″ floppy but didn’t really understand DOS so didn’t use it well until it became a Windows product) Ancestry acquired FTM when it took over genealogy.com.

  • Using the card catalog is a great help but just once I would like someone to address the difficulty of searching areas of Germany which can be listed in multiple of ways: Germany, Eastern Prussian Provinces, West Prussia, East Prussia, and Poland. There must be a way for Ancestry to make searching these databases easier.

    • It’s tricky for any data provider to accurately describe records from an area where the border was constantly changing. It sure makes it challenging for us researchers!

  • Amy Thank you so much. Very informative information. The gentleman in your line named Linton, is this from a surname in his line? My mom’s maiden name was Linton and the family lived in Ross county.
    Thank you, Nancy

  • I’m sure I don’t use the Card Catalog enough.
    When I notice that a book has been used, I try to look up the book on Google for Google Liby, Internet Archive or Hathi where they are free–sometimes only for search not full viewing, but it’s worth a try. I always find additional info that’s interesting. Or if not available there, I use World Catalog for the full reference info, which Ancestry NEVER gives. Also, you may find that there are additional volumes.

    • Remember — Ancestry’s Card Catalog only covers what Ancestry has. It isn’t a replacement for WorldCat, Internet Archive, etc.

  • I use my iPad for my ancestry, and need to remove some people from my tree (says I have a twin). Ancestry says I can’t use my iPad and will not help me with ideals on how to remove this mistake.

    • You might want to try editing on a computer rather than an iPad. (You can use the same login information.)

    • What generation of iPad are you using? Are you using the app, or working from the website?
      Perhaps the app doesn’t perform that function, but you should be able to visit the website.
      From the website, I was able to add and delete people on my old 2nd generation, as well as my new iPad Pro.
      You should be able to open an individual in their Profile view. On the upper right, click on the Edit drop down arrow. The 3rd option down is Delete Person.

  • I just want to think you for the links to the Red Book and the Source online. I used to have links to them on my Genealogy LibGuide until the links didn’t work anymore. Thanks to you I’ve been able to replace them on the “At the LIbrary” page of the Guide.

  • I remember where to find the Red Book and the Source before Ancestry redesigned its website, but I can’t find them anymore. Are they available under a certain tab in the ribbon? Thanks for your help!

  • The only one of these tips I had already used was the “Gallery” one, so I’m excited to put some of the others to good use. Thanks for these!

  • Thank you for this information!!! I will have to start putting them to use.

    I do have a question. What about people who up load you photo and claim it as theirs? I’ve had this happen a lot! I think it’s better to use the ‘share’ option so everyone gets credit for their photos.

    • I’m wondering, if you upload a photo, then you delete it, do the people who shared it then lose the photo too? Maybe that’s why they save it then upload it themselves?

        • No, it breaks the link between you and them, appearing as their own upload, but it doesn’t delete it from their tree.

          Often, contributing members get very offended when they discover their photos on others accounts, appearing as a new upload, because it looks as if the “offender” downloaded it, then uploaded it as their own. In most cases, however, the link gets broken by either the photo being deleted by the original owner, or a tree being deleted. There is no way to repair this broken link.

      • I have had photos appear on Ancestry trees that I know to be mis-named. For example, someone somehow got hold of one of my wedding photos, put it on their tree (attached to the correct adult in the picture, and incorrectly attached names to the children in the picture). Also there is a photo doing the rounds in various trees which is of my great-grandfather and his daughters – I have the original. It has been attributed to someone else entirely. In spite of my putting comments to the owners of the trees, there it remains as a hint wrongly named, and it is still on the ‘offending’ trees. I find that very frustrating, but I don’t think that there’s anything I can do about it. it does show, though, how careful one needs to be in accepting pictures as being of what they say they are of!

  • Great tips thanks, Just one question – if we transfer a photo or a document from someone else gallery to our tree should we take the time to thank the person who originally posted it? Even if the original person posted it even 5 to 8 years ago?

  • I am always surprised when the suggestion to search the card catalog and look at a specific location or collection is not accompanied by the fact that ancestry.com has made a business decision not to index all of their collections. They are asking to do something their computers could do. Please consider writing a post on how ancestry.com does not make our research life easier.

    • Which collections are you referring to? There aren’t many collections on Ancestry that don’t have at least a basic index. (They realized long ago that people tend to search instead of browse through images.)

  • I’ve been using Ancestry for years and thought I was doing everything right, but I learned a couple things from your article–thank you!!

  • Sadly Ancestry took away a function very similar to your 4th one listed above, Who Else Attached Records and Photos.

    Formerly, when you looked at a census or other record and viewed the actual image. if you looked in the Detail area off to the right, you could see everyone that added that record to a member of their tree, basically providing the same information you mention about photos, of who else added that record to a specific member of their tree.

    I truly miss this feature. And I have no reason why they eliminated it, as I have spoken to them about this, since it disappeared.

  • Hi Amy, I am unsure how to add an adopted cousin to my family tree in Ancestry. It’s a bit confusing as “Lynda” is the biological daughter of my first cousin “Alice”, on my father’s side and she was adopted by an uncle and aunt on my mother’s side (my mother’s brother and his wife). Thank you–your tips are great!