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

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Where would I search?

Most of the patrons I help at the Mesa FamilySearch Library run out of places to search right after they look in and can't find their ancestors in the U.S. Census records. When I begin suggesting places to look, I usually get a blank stare or even active resistance to my suggestions. I analyze this reaction as originating from a lack of research experience. Many budding researchers simply have no concept of the huge number of possible records that might contain information about their ancestors. When they don't find the information they are looking for immediately, they become discouraged and many times that it the end of their genealogical efforts for a while or even permanently.

I have to believe that the large online databases are responsible, in part, for this attitude. Too many ads on TV have portrayed genealogy as a "push button" activity where all the information about your family is easily obtained in a matter of minutes. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. A good example is one of my friends that I have worked with several times looking for specific sources about her ancestors. This has gone on for months as I have tried to help her see all of the possibilities for record sources. Then, this past week, she showed up with a sizable pile of paper copies. Guess what? All along she has had perhaps hundreds of copies of documents made by her mother about her family. Despite all of our conversations, she had yet to examine even one of the documents she already had sitting in box in her home.

Was this my fault that I had not quizzed her extensively about what she already had available? Perhaps. But the point here is that it took a significant period of time thinking about her family before she was motivated to look at what she already had. Her documents included copies of death certificates, wills, probate documents, and all sorts of other types of sources. At then end of this conversation, she finally said, "Well, I guess I should go home and sort out these documents to see what I have for each family." Yes, I agreed that might be a good place to start.

So where is the disconnect between seeking ancestors and having an idea that there is a connection between recorded documents and the information we are seeking?

I could go back and start laying the blame for this on our school system's lack of emphasis on original research. My grandchildren are being taught to regurgitate a specific lesson plan so they can pass a standardized test. They are not encouraged to learn anything much more than is necessary to "pass the test." In fact, they are cautioned not to use "Wikipedia" to do a report but are not adequately explained why they can't do so.

This attitude is pervasive. For example, we have a relatively large and valuable collection of books in the Mesa FamilySearch Library. That is the good news. The bad news is that very, very few of the patrons even bother to look at the books at all, even though they are sitting there in plain sight. In some cases, I have taken patrons back to look at the books and they have found surname books written about their family they did not know existed. All they would have to have done to find the book was put the surname into our online catalog of books and CD records. Do you think that some patrons might come having already searched our online catalog so as to maximize their time in the library? If they do, they certainly don't need my help.

As genealogists, we seem to do a good job of telling people what kinds of records are available, but what seems to be missing is the motivation or connection between knowing about a record and making a search for information pertinent to a particular individual or family.

Another aspect of the problem is that searching for records online involves searching huge databases of hundreds or thousands of different types of records. When someone does such a search, there is no connection between what they are doing and the different types of records they find. A search on surname in or might bring up a whole list of documents. But each of those documents has its own particular limitations and advantages. The person doing the search has no way of knowing whether or not what they are looking at is valid or simply a copy from some other person or record. All they see are names and dates.

I have suggested before that the larger online databases might want to get into a record rating systems where users could "rate" the record on things like accuracy, completeness, relevance and other factors to give the user some idea what they were looking at. If can do this for every product, why can't the online databases allow comments and a rating system for the records?

It looks like this topic is going to continue on a bit. See you next time.


  1. Great article James. I don't get discouraged so much but instead I get confused after awhile when I'm trying to compare dates to see if a person I've found could in fact be a possible ancestor.

  2. When someone says they hit a “brick wall” on and they have been working on it for five years --- this drives librarians crazy! Did they ever use a library? Unfortunately, this is happening frequently. “Those genealogists” (as librarians used to call them in the past) are now getting the same antipathy by librarians today as they did 25 years ago. Genealogists have finally gained respect they deserve and now it appears they are going backwards in part to poor research skills. Our education system needs to turn around and improve! It seems that instant gratification is more important, whether it is correct or not.

    It was shocking to learn that most people don’t understand that almost every library catalog is online and you can search by title, author, keywords, etc. And, sadly it is not understood that libraries in your ancestors’ home town is where the major sources for 20th century records would be located such as newspapers; obituaries; city directories; yearbooks; local histories; family manuscripts; and so much more. Sigh….