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

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Web Basics for Genealogists -- Wiki Searches

Searching in a wiki program is distinctively different than either using a catalog for searching or utilizing a Google string search. It is true that there are few, if any, purely catalog systems of search online and likewise almost all "string searches" have some underlying structure. Since a wiki program has a distinctive structure, searches for items within the wiki are relatively uniform in nature from online program to program. The largest online genealogy wiki is the Research Wiki.

There seems to be a conditioned distrust of the accuracy of wikis due to their cooperative and collaborative nature. However, I have found this attitude is usually expressed in direct proportion to the extent of the individual's contact with and use of a wiki. Wikis are self correcting and that feature alone is paramount in deciding their degree of accuracy.

The content of a wiki is determined by its originating sponsor as are its rules of operation. In doing both catalog and string searches, the idea is to try and guess the content of the search objective. For example, if you are searching in a library catalog, it helps to understand the library's system. If you are doing a string search on Google, it is important to try and guess an indexed phrase or text phrase in the documents you are researching. In a wiki search, you should automatically begin your search with the most general terms about the subject you can imagine and then allow the wiki to direct your further inquiry.

Let me give an example of a wiki search for an Arizona birth record using the Research Wiki. You would think that you would begin your search by entering "Arizona Birth Record." You could do this, but the best way to search a wiki is by starting with the most general search available. In this case, you would search for Birth Records. The best practice would have you begin with United States Birth Records. If you conducted the search in this manner, you would find the following articles:
  • United States Birth Records
  • Locating United States Vital Records
  • How to Find United States Birth Records
  • United States, How to Use Birth Records
  • How to Estimate United States Birth Information
  • Online U.S. Marriage & Birth Records Indexes
And likely many more. The purpose of the wiki is to answer questions and provide links to sources. By doing a very specific search, you are, in effect, defeating the purpose of the program. Let's suppose that you are already very experienced with the wiki and so do not need all this background information. In that case, the most efficient was to approach the search is by the geographic place where an event occurred. In this case, you go directly to a search for "Arizona" and then select Vital Records from the subject link for the state. However, you should be aware that just as with the subject search for birth records, a place search is likely to show results for jurisdictional subdivisions such as counties, townships, towns and villages. In the case of a search for a birth record, you would expect the wiki to provide you with information about the availability of that type of record at the time and in the place where your ancestral event occurred. 

What I find is that when a researcher does not understand how and why a wiki works the way it does, that searching in the wiki for specific information creates a great deal of frustration on the part of the researcher. In addition, it the wiki is functioning properly, the list of topics above ought to be listed as links on the United States Birth Records page. If this is not the case, any registered user of the wiki should be able to add in that information at any time. 

As you can see from my series on searches, there are significant differences between catalog searches, string searches and the functions of a wiki search. 

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