Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Looking online for real information about your family

Sometimes when I am doing genealogical research online, I can't see the forest for the trees. Let me give an example. I enter a surname into a Google search, something common, like "morgan." In the first go around, I get over 15 million results. Now, who can actually use 15 million surnames? In the nature of search engines, the most popular results come up at the top of the list, so I get things like the Morgan Motor Company and Morgan Stanley financial services. Following my own advice, I try to be a little more specific and search for "morgan genealogy."

Wow, that really worked, now I have only about 4 million results. This example illustrates a research principle, you usually get (or find) what you ask (or look) for and you may not want it. So here is one of the first principles of online research, be as specific as possible.

The next search is for "John Hamilton Morgan," who happens to be my Great-grandfather. Guess what? 24,100 results. (This is not really a fair example since I happen to know that John Morgan was quite famous and that there would be thousands of entries about him, but I am using him to make a point). The results include an entire Wikipedia article about him. But the question is what am I really looking for?

One thing I noticed when I searched for the Morgan surname was that many of the Websites that came up initially were very general sites with collections of surnames in user submitted files. Now, had there not been about a thousand or so of these files, I might have been tempted at that point to start in looking at various Websites. This is not a good idea. Unless your surname search involves an almost unique name, the possibility of finding an actual relative is rather slim and you can waste a whole lot of time searching at this point. You really need a much more specific research goal before you start browsing through Websites willy-nilly.

Another important principle here is the issue of source validation. Sometimes it is difficult to distinguish between a "real" source and someone's copy, especially online. You may wish to consider how to determine if a source is actual or not, by looking for documents from the time period in question. These may be certificates, such as birth, death, or burial records, journals, probate or court records, tax, real estate or school records, just about any actual documentary records about the individual.

Now, back to John Morgan, another search, this time for ""john hamilton morgan" birth death record." This time there are just seven results. In this search, I find references to the actual records, U.S. Census and other records, including a biography with source citations. (OK, I admit it, I cheated, I knew the records were online when I started this example). If you want to see another blog that shows how things should be done, look at Ancestral Ties.

What happens if you search for a name and don't find anything? Does that mean that the person is not to be found online? Well, to understand the answer to this question you have to know the difference between dynamic and static Web pages. The programs that catalog Web pages for search engines normally find static information, that is, information contained on a static Web page. However, these cataloging programs, like Web spiders, do not catalog dynamic information. There are huge databases of information that will never show up in Google or any other search engine. Let me give an example of material that is not yet on the Internet. This book, "Situación de los libros parroquiales Díaz Vial, Raúl" is in the Family History Library Catalog. The name of the book appears in six results in a Google search, but the contents of the book are only available in the book itself, in the Family History Library. Another example, this time of dynamic information, LeRoy Parkinson Tanner can be found easily in both the International Genealogical Index and the Ancestral File (See both on FamilySearch) but a Google search for his name does not show it in either database.

Don't be fooled or mislead by either too much or not enough information from your online searches. There is always one more place to look.

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