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

Monday, May 12, 2014

How do you find online genealogy records?

The title to this post poses a question that is deceptively simple. How do you go about finding online genealogy records? The reason it is deceptive is that the process of finding records is very complex and involves understanding the layers of information available online. Basically, it is a three step process; gaining knowledge of the existence of the records, finding a way to access those records and then searching the records in a way that increases your chance of finding the information you are seeking. Let me illustrate these challenges with a hypothetical situation.

Let's suppose that your remote ancestor lived in Berks County, Pennsylvania in 1780. How do you go about finding information about this ancestor online? Obviously, you need to become aware of the ancestor's existence by doing research back to this point in your pedigree. But more importantly, you need to have an understanding of the process of researching historical records and be able to find and identify records that may contain information about your ancestor. If you are familiar with online research, you are already aware of the time-saving convenience of having those records available on your own local computer. Let's further assume that you have done enough research to be reasonably sure that this particular ancestor lived in that particular county.

As a side note, one of the most common fatal flaws in historical research (i.e. genealogical research) is the failure to adequately document specific places, but that is the subject of another blog post. If you want an illustration of this principle, just go back through your present genealogical research and verify that every county named actually existed at the time of the event you have listed in your research.

Most researchers would dive right in at this point and begin doing searches for the ancestor by name, date and place in online database programs such as Since this is my hypothetical situation, let's suppose you choose to search on How do you know whether or not has any records from Berks County during that time period? Well, you might look in the Card Catalog that lists all of the record collections. If you did, you would see a list of about 52 record collections after filtering the records by place and time. The records would fall into these categories:
  • Census & Voter Lists 1
  • Birth, Marriage & Death 5
  • Newspapers & Publications 1
  • Stories, Memories & Histories 44
  • Maps, Atlases & Gazetteers 1
  • Schools, Directories & Church Histories 21
  • Tax, Criminal, Land & Wills 3
  • Reference, Dictionaries & Almanacs 1
If you were a careful researcher with some experience, you would then search each of these 52 databases individually, although you would note that some of these "collections" have as few as 6 records, so they can be searched rather completely and rather quickly. Now what?

You could do the same thing again with other online database programs such as etc. Now what? 

The point here is that you are basically looking for the same information in the same way but merely moving from one pile of records to another pile of records. The answer to your quandary is staring you in the face. Your first efforts at searching for records on gave you a filtered list of the types of records that may have information about your ancestor in a particular time and place, in this case, Berks County, Pennsylvania in about 1780. So now, if you are a very seasoned researcher, your investigation takes a turn. You begin to search for these types of records online. You could do this my using the list of 52 records as a sample of the search terms you might find. 

Another side note. You will, of course, already done a Google search for your ancestor's name and all the variations of the name to see if someone has already put this person's genealogy online. But that is so obvious, I am sure you would have already done that. 

Now, continuing with this extended hypothetical, you begin searching online for records similar to those found in (or whatever other sources you find). In this case, the first collection in the list of filtered results is this collection:

Pennsylvania Church Records - Adams, Berks, and Lancaster Counties, 1729-1881

Now this title becomes your search term on Google. That search using that the words in the title to that particular collection returns a surprising list of over 40,000 results. Here is a screenshot of some of the results:

That first pass at a search keeps you happily employed in doing research for a few hours (or days or weeks). What have you accomplished? Most researchers, in my experience, when faced with a list such as the one I got from the first record collection listed on would feel like they were swimming in the ocean out of the sight of land. But in reality, the records are going to be mostly pertinent. Will you find your ancestor's name etc. immediately? Maybe, maybe not. The point here is to begin focussing on records and places and times rather than just names and specific dates. Note that the first entry on the screenshot is the record on that you will have already searched. But the next entry is from the Research Wiki with all sorts of additional leads to similar records. 

The process here is a way to open up your research and find the records that are online. To do a more complete search, you would also need to continue your efforts into specific catalogs of repositories. You start by searching for the same topics on and its companion database,

The most common reaction to this method of research is disbelief and skepticism. The reason is that it does not produce a name, date and place instantly. This is the same reaction I get when I suggest that researchers read the county history where they are doing research before starting to look for records. Most researchers simply do not see the connection between knowledge of the history and knowledge of the records in finding their ancestor. I assure you, it works. 


  1. I had never thought about googling the title of a database from one of the big sites like Ancestry and FindMyPast not neglecting FamilySearch. I'll have to remember it.

    Many thanks.

  2. Thank you for these kind of articles. I am a fairly new to family research and at a brick wall with a family line. This has given me some new hope!

    1. Make sure you are looking in the right geographic place for records. Thanks for your comment.

  3. The problem with this, however, is that it relies on the fact that they already know how to use Google. Once I took out all the sites that are just referring to that collection on, and the databases' originator,, you're down to 7,600+ results and you still haven't filtered out all the linkbait, library records referring to their copies of the same records you already searched, and queries from other people talking about how they are searching that particular collection.

    If you can't filter those out on your own, this search is going to look daunting, and not helpful to most people who are looking for the maybe 50 or so gems out (county church histories, county records, diaries about the area, etc.) of that 7,600+ results that will teach them about the area they are looking for and what records might be out there to help them.

    I agree that reading the county and the city histories are a good start, but I disbelieve that searching for the record title of a particular collection will get folks to the best places that they need to be.

    1. Well, you are right that it helps to know how Google works. You are right though about the need for a some level of sophistication in filtering the results. No matter how you do a search, you may end up with thousands or more results. But it is only the first page or so that are at all helpful. The idea here is to give the researcher an insight into what other types of records might be available.