One of the most common activities performed on a computer hooked to the Internet is to search for information and genealogists are prime examples of this type of activity. Searching on the Internet is an acquired skill and when I teach classes on searching with Google, for example. I commonly encounter people who have no idea how to search or what they should search for.
One of my many early jobs was as a bibliographer at the University of Utah (now) Marriott Library. My work consisted of searching for the correct citation information about books ordered by professors and other staff members as additions to the University's holdings. This was long before computers were generally available to the public and one of my skills involved searching through the paper card catalog at a very high speed, flipping rapidly through the cards. I learned about such things as the American National Union Catalog Pre-1956 Imprints or NUC and the Library of Congress Catalog (in print version). I also routinely searched for books written in most of the Western European languages and Hebrew, all of which I had studied in classes at the University. I spent years, off and on, working at the library and then worked as a Reference Librarian at the Arizona State University Law Library, all of the time I was in law school until I graduated. I began working at the ASU Law Library three months before I started law school.
I relate all this to give you some idea of why my background gives me a somewhat unique background to talk about searching. In reality, online searching is no different than the activity I pursued as a library worker for many years. To be successful, I had to know all about the existing reference material and had to acquire the skills necessary to find entries from incomplete and often incorrect information. As bibliographers, we would be given a stack of 100 cards or so and our job was to check the information against the catalogs and make any corrections before the books were ordered. The entries on the requests were often cryptic and indecipherable and we had to guess what they wanted. It was a badge of honor not to go back to the professor and ask for more information.
Now, with that introduction, let's talk about searching online.
As I mentioned, part of the job involved learning about the sources we had in the library. The same thing applies to searches online. This is due to the fact that the information contained in the databases of the libraries and other repositories is not generally searchable using a search engine such as Google. For example, if you want to search in Library of Congress Catalog (LOC), you have to go to that catalog. The items in the LOC are not searchable by Google or other search engines unless they have been recorded on searchable webpages.
The difference here is between static pages which are searchable by a search engine and dynamic pages that are created from a private database only when that database is searched. So all of the huge repositories of genealogical information, by and large, have to be individually searched. What this means is simple, you have to learn how to adjust your search terms and processes to reflect the multitude of search engines employed by all of the various libraries and other types of repositories that have such catalogs on the Internet.
In my case, I had to learn how the NUC listed books. I also had to learn the LOC classification system and many, many other systems, including the method of using legal citations etc. If you think all this is easy or can be mastered in a short period of time, then you are not yet aware of the challenge or the problems involved in finding an elusive piece of information such as information about a particular ancestor.
Here is an illustration of one type of search. Let's suppose I am looking for an ancestor. I will pick one at random from my files: Robert Brownell (b. 1652, d. 22 July 1728 in Little Compton, Newport, Rhode Island). I don't recall searching online for this person before and for that reason I decided to use him as an example. From my experience, since he was likely an English immigrant and a resident of New England, I am going to suppose that I will find him if I keep looking. That is the first and basic rule of searching on the Internet: always assume the information you are looking for is there to find.
Now, what do I want to know about Robert Brownell? I see from my records, that I have yet to find any sources for this individual. I can also assume, that with a name such as Robert Brownell, there may be hundreds, if not thousands of people with the same name. But fortunately, I have some clues to go by. My records, obtained from other researchers, show a death date as well as a place.
Using that information, can I find more specific information about Robert Brownell? At this point, I haven't made even one search, but I expect I will on the first try. So here goes the search. (At this point, I typed his name and information into Google and did a search).
The very first person that came up in my search for "Robert Brownell" 1652 Rhode Island was an entry for exactly that person. That was the good news, the bad news was that almost all these entries appeared to be copied from someone else. So now the search actually begins with the need to find some original source data about this individual. Finding the name and the specific dates in my file is only the barest of beginnings. This leads to the second rule of searching: don't believe everything you find.
I used this New England ancestor for a reason. I knew I would find him immediately and I also knew that the entries I found would disagree and that few, if any of them, would have any source information.
I will write further on this issue in the near future.