by Jayne McGarvey, Professional Genealogist with Genealogists.com
Regardless of whether you use a subscription service like Ancestry or Find My Past or a free service such as Family Search, it is tempting to pop their forename and surname into the little boxes and press Return, and then when you get a return of several thousand suggested records, or a big fat zero, for your heart to “sink to your boots”.
Just type in a name and press “enter”. If only it were so simple.
That said I always undertake this task – as a 5 minute exercise – simply because, sometimes, just sometimes, the very record I want comes up at the top of the first page! But this is rarely successful, efficient searching requires whittling the potential records into more manageable groups.
One potential route is to use the online filter. In many cases, this is sufficient to whittle down the records into a manageable number and easily locate the information you seek. However, sometimes this approach goes nowhere fast! Too many records, or too few, and wrong location or time period are just a few of the unwanted potential outcomes.
An alternate method is to approach your research by narrowing down the category to the individual record collection that is most likely to contain the ancestor you are seeking before searching for an individual or family.
Once you have established the information you want to find then you can refer to your individual ancestor profile and timeline. Use the information that you already have regarding both your ancestor and any known family members to estimate time periods – ask yourself questions such as how likely is it he/she will have been born, married or died before or after commencement of the recording of the vital record? Repeat this task with other appropriate information, such as location, type of event etc.
Next, look at the individual collections of records that cover the optimal time period and/or location. Are there special record collections that may quickly identify your ancestor because of profession, trade, and/or membership? Which sets of records are unlikely to provide the information you are seeking?
Take time to read the summary information for each record set of what is included within each individual collection of records and to check where any noted gaps occur.
This way it is less likely that you will spend time searching collections where your ancestors cannot be found because the dates and/or locations you require are not included as part of the collection.
Also worth noting is when a collection was last updated. This will also save you time in the future from unnecessary searches.
Regardless of which genealogy sites are your favorites, it is worth taking time to check if the record collections they contain are unindexed or only partially indexed.
These are the records that will not show up in a standard search.
An excellent example of this is the Ancestry’s Belfast Newsletter Collection of Newspapers.
Examine the source documentation from their Card Catalog:
Ancestry.com. Belfast, Northern Ireland, The Belfast Newsletter (Birth, Marriage and Death Notices), 1738-1925 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2011.
This collection was indexed by Ancestry World Archives Project contributors. Original data: The Belfast Newsletter. Belfast, Northern Ireland. Periodicals & Newspapers, Irish & Reference. Linen Hall Library, Belfast, Northern Ireland.
The collection covers the period 1738 to 1925. Look a little closer at the description:
“This database contains images of the Belfast News-Letter, an Irish newspaper. The collection also includes an index to birth, marriage, and death notices for the years 1828-1877. Notices from additional years will be indexed and added to this collection at a later date.” (Not very long ago this was for the time period 1828 to 1858!)
This simply means that if you are searching for a death or marriage notification for1901 that you won’t find it by using the search facility! Instead open the collection and browse the actual images for the dates you require. It may take a little longer, but it can be well worth the effort.
When you have reviewed the collections that can be searched on-line for your ancestor and none of them are likely to yield the specific information you want to locate, perhaps because they start too late or do not cover the location where your ancestor lived, then it is likely you will have to use non on-line sources to find more information. With current estimates of on-line information being in the region of 5 to 10% depending on where you look, the information for some of your ancestors will just not be available online.
This means that you will need to visit the appropriate archives, library, graveyard, newspaper office, council offices or court that may contain appropriate collections. If it is not practical for you to visit the archives yourself then you will need to look at hiring Genealogists.com, the world’s largest family history research firm, to visit the appropriate archives on your behalf.
To learn how the world’s largest family history research firm can help you learn about your ancestors, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
About the Author: Jayne McGarvey is a professional genealogist with Genealogists.com. Jayne has over a decade of researching Northern Ireland records and archives. She provides expert tips, tricks, and information on Ireland (mostly Northern Ireland), mingled with some humor.