The Ins and Outs of Really Big Online Genealogical Databases

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In the past very few years, online genealogy records have grown to the point that the larger databases are talking in terms of billions of records. How can you begin to comprehend that many records? Where do you start and where does your searching online end, if it ever does? What do you do when you search for an ancestor’s name and there are thousands of results? And of course, the main question is, if you already know enough about your ancestor to search for him or her in the huge database, why do you need to do the search?

Some of these questions are very difficult to answer and some of the answers depend on your own research goals. But first, when I am talking about a really big online database, what am I including in that title?

By far the largest database of genealogical information is found in the commercial website Ancestry.com. But there are a number of larger databases that would qualify for inclusion under any set of criteria. In making a list, the question is where to stop? In this regard, I have to be somewhat arbitrary. But here is a list that includes some of the big databases and excludes others. I have included only those online websites that have some copies or indexes of original records. This limitation excludes huge online catalogs such as WorldCat.org because it has no copies of records, only links to repositories and libraries. On the other hand, my list includes the Library of Congress because it has online digital collections of newspapers, photographs, audio files and other such resources. Some of these larger websites require the payment of a fee, either to view the records or to download a copy. There are a few very large free websites. In making a decision about whether or not to pay the subscription cost, you may want to try to find access to the database first, either through a friend or through a library, to see whether or not you think the collections would be valuable enough to you to justify the cost. Many of these subscription websites are available for free through one of the more than 4500 Family History Centers around the world.

Here is the list:

There are many more commercial and non-commercial (free) sites that have huge collections, but this is a representative sample.

The rule for searching in these large databases is “less is more.”  If you enter all of the information you know about a person into the search fields, you will have a very limited success in finding people because the website’s search engine will try to match each of the search fields to a record in the database. The information you enter may not be exactly the same as that shown in the database. For example, you might be searching for “George Washington Smith” and the record in the database may have recorded his name as “Geo. W. Smythe.” Do not assume that the information you have about the individual you are looking for is either correct or the same as what was recorded in various records.

You should start out with just a name, a place and a date. An approximate date is sufficient and the place can be a generalized jurisdiction like the state or even the country but if you use a general location, you can expect to have larger numbers of wrong or inapplicable results. There is a possibility that you will find a record with this early limited search, but if not, try adding or replacing the information you have in the fields including searching just for a surname or just an unusual given name. If you do get thousands of results, then I do not recommend looking through more than a screen or two of those results. If you have used search terms that are in the database, even though the search may result in hundreds or thousands of returns, do no get bogged down in looking through lists. Like almost every rule, there is always an exception. If you have an ancestor with a very common name, you may have to do further research to identify a specific locality. If a child or the spouse of the person for whom you are searching has a more unusual name, search for the child or spouse first and you may find a record including your target ancestor.

Some of the databases will let you search an individual collection of records. By all means, if this option is available, use it. Many of the websites listed above, such as Ancestry.com and FamilySearch.org, will let you search a single database. If you get something close, follow up on the lead and focus in on the area suggested by the results.

Most of these huge websites have collections of records. It is always a better idea to focus on searching the individual collections. For example, Ancestry.com has over 30,000 collections, and with a quick general search of all of these records you are probably leaving a lot on the table. You can click on the Ancestry.com search link and go to their “Card Catalog” and use that list to focus on individual databases that pertain to the dates and places you are searching.

In many of these sites, such as Ancestry.com, MyHeritage.com and others, there are “user” contributed records. These records usually take the form of family trees or pedigrees. The accuracy of these records is heavily dependent on the sources cited by the user or author of the family history records. If there are no sources listed, then the information should be considered to be less than reliable.

Because these websites are so large, many of them have specific information about searching for records on their site. It is always a good idea to look for menu items or links that will help you to find the records. One notable example is the FamilySearch Research Wiki, a huge collection of links to genealogical resources and original records. The Research Wiki doesn’t have the records itself, but it does tell you where and how to find the records out there on the Internet.

This article was written by James Tanner

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