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

Friday, June 8, 2012

Navagating the Maze

Looking for useful genealogical information online can be like entering the huge maze in the Harry Potter book, Goblet of Fire. We can often see the entrance but have no idea where to go or what we are looking for at the end. There are some basic rules about research on the Internet that can help get you above the maze where you can see the pattern and the ultimate goal. Here are some of my rules for optimizing online searches for genealogical information:

Rule One: Assume the information you are looking for is on the Web.
This rule assumes two facts; that you know what you are looking for and that you will recognize the information when you have found it. For example, if you are looking for your great-great-grandfather's birth certificate, you might want to find out if birth certificates exist at the time he was born, before doing an online search for a particular certificate. On the other hand, if you assume that the information you are searching for is there, you will try harder to find it.

Rule Two: Key words can be the answer.
Search engines, like Google, look for words and combinations of words. You need to imagine the document you are looking for and enter search terms that you assume are on that document. There are some limitations to this Rule because many of the documents you search for online are locked away in databases as images. You are at the mercy of the people who put the image up to be searched. But you have to guess at what wording about your topic was used by the people who put the document online. You ability to make accurate guesses improves with practice.

Rule Three: Look for categories of records and sources rather than individual documents.
For example, I happen to know that a copy of my Great-grandfather's death certificate is online in the FamilySearch Historical Records Collection. But if I do a search for "death certificate "Henry Martin Tanner"" I will not find it in my search results. There is another copy on the Arizona Vital Records Genealogy site. Likewise, even doing an extensive Google search will not show either of these easily found records. But if you search for "digitized death records Arizona," you will instantly find multiple references to both sites. Look for records by category.

Rule Four: Don't get distracted.
If is really easy to become distracted by extraneous information that shows up in a search. It is sort-of like going into the kitchen to get something and forgetting what you went to get because you were distracted by something else. (That's kind of awkward to write but I couldn't think of another way of saying it). Sometimes you have to write down what it is you are looking for so that you can remember when you inevitably get distracted.

Rule Five: Stick to it.
Patience is a great virtue and absolutely necessary for those who search online. You might have to try dozens of different combinations of search terms before you hit the right combination. But if you forget Rule One, you might give up when only a little more searching will find the document or whatever.

Rule Six: Constantly upgrade your skills and knowledge of repositories.
The Web changes minute by minute. An unsuccessful search today, may result in success tomorrow. Don't ever give up. From time to time, look for new information in repositories. For example, both and are constantly adding content to their huge databases of genealogical information. You need to be aware that they are added new documents daily and also learn about and be aware of all of the other places where documents might show up.

Rule Seven: Know when to stop.
You may think you have spent too much time looking for a document or source. Guess what? You are probably right. If you can't find what you are looking for, (Remember Rule One) you might want to stop for a while and come back to the search later. Give you mind time to think of alternative ways that the information you are seeking could have been identified on the Web. Once you come up with new search terms, go back to work looking for information.

There are likely more rules, maybe I will add them another time.


  1. Great List. I never thought about the paitence part so much till reading it here.

    You have me thinking.

  2. Failure to follow Rules #4 & #7 has wasted at least 100 hours of research time for me in the last couple years. Great advice... I should start taking it! The idea to write down my topic is especially helpful for staying on-track.