Monday, August 24, 2015

Dear Randy: What is the Most Important Skill for Finding Digital Records Online?

One of my genealogy society colleagues asked me this question recently.  She is an excellent researcher in traditional resources (books, periodicals, FHL microfilms, local courthouses and recorder offices, state and national archives) for most record types, but she has struggled with searching online.

I had two answers for her:

1)  Learn how to search indexed databases on FamilySearch (free), ($$), ($$) and ($$).  Each website has extensive indexed databases, but their search algorithms are different.  Some sites provide variations in search terms from "Exact" down to "Broad" that the user can control (e.g., sliders, wild cards, check boxes).  Some sites provide the search results in one list of "Records" and some provide a "Categories" listing.  Some sites provide additional record hints for the target person.

It's difficult to learn all of the websites all at once, so concentrate on one website at a time.  If you have an subscription, then work with it until you are competent in searching.  Look for and find online educational opportunities on the Learning Center, the Facebook group, or on the YouTube channel for the data provider.  Ask for help at your local genealogical society meeting.  Find a mentor to shepherd you through the learning process.

Then move on to one of the other sites - say, FamilySearch.  And do the same thing - learn how to use it, practice a lot, investigate all of the bells and whistles.

2)  Learn how to use the "digital microfilm" on FamilySearch - that is, the "Browse images" collections that are not searchable from a search form.  Use the Historical Record Collections page at to find collections by record type or by location.  At present, FamilySearch has Probate Records for 30 states (some are by county) and 11 countries that are "browse images."  They have Land Records for only 4 states, but they have Vital Records from many states and countries (some indexed and searchable, many are not).

They have Land Records for only 7 states (only Massachusetts and New York are comprehensive), but they have Vital, Civil Registration and Church Records from many states and countries (some are indexed and searchable, many are not).  Researchers working in Europe and Latin America will find many "Browse images" record collections.

For the unindexed collections, the user has to use the Waypoints offered (e.g., County, town, volume numbers, etc.) in order to find the records of interest.  Most record collections of this nature were digitized from FHL microfilms, so they are organized into "digital books" similar to what would be found on the shelf at a local courthouse.

Unfortunately, the FamilySearch Learning Center has few (if any) instructional videos to help demonstrate how to use these "Browse image" record collections.

I recently made a presentation on "Using FamilySearch Digital Microfilm to Find Genealogical Records," at the Computer Genealogy Society of San Diego meeting, on this subject and look forward to presenting it to other genealogical societies.  I have written a number of blog posts about my own research in these "digital microfilm" collections.  I have also demonstrated how to find ancestral records during Mondays With Myrt and Wacky Wednesday Hangouts On Air with DearMYRTLE and Russ Worthington.  

My view is that probate, land, tax, town, and church records are the key to solving many difficult research problems.  These records have been "hidden" in courthouses and recorder offices for generations, and now the FamilySearch "digital microfilm" have made only some of them available, but researchers need to learn how to access them on FamilySearch.  However, we need to understand that not all records are currently available in digital form, and some problems will be solved only by visiting the local repositories and finding useful records in their holdings.  The National Genealogical Society Quarterly periodical publishes case studies every quarter that feature both extensive research in online and on-site resources.

What would you have told my society colleague about the most important skills for finding digital records online?  Please tell me in comments and I will pass them along.

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bgwiehle said...

Add a section on finding what records a site offers -- whether by "card catalogue", site map, or collections page. And that it's important to check collection details to see if the desired place and date are covered.
Also add a warning that search algorithms get tweaked occasionally, and tips and tricks will need to be updated.

Geolover said...

Randy, thank you for your many helpful "how to" posts. You are deserving of lots more thank-yous than folks send.