Suzanne Russo Adams, content strategist for FamilySearch, spoke on the topic of “Paradigm Shifts When Searching Online Genealogical Records” at this year’s BYU Conference on Family History and Genealogy. Even though Adams is employed by FamilySearch, she spoke to searching on Ancestry.com, FamilySearch.org, and other sites.
Adams said that a paradigm shift occurs when the usual way we think about something is replaced by something new and different. To that end, we need to understand the record collections we search. We need to understand data treatments, search methods, searching indexes, and browsing images. But we still need to use sound research principles and practices.
Online record collections may not contain what you assume from the title of the online collection or the associated offline collection. Always be sure to read the collection information provided by the publisher. On FamilySearch.org, look for the “Learn More” link. On Ancestry.com, scroll down below the collection search form. Look for information about sources, time coverage, missing records, and other anomalies. Also, take time to learn the search systems of websites you use.
Databases and online record collections are not straight transcriptions; the data is treated in different ways. To the extent you can, learn about how the data was treated. How did the publish index the records? Were human indexers or computers (OCR) used? Domestic or offshore indexers? Was data keyed as seen or interpreted? Are images included? Are collections updated? How complete are the collections? Is the content fielded or just a “bag of words.”
Different websites use different search systems. In addition to straight matching, some support phonetic matches, or wildcard matches. Some use phrase or proximity matching. Some support Boolean operators like AND, OR, NOT. Some have advanced search forms.
When you search indexes on Ancestry.com and FamilySearch.org, you can perform a global search across all record collections. Or you can search a category or a single collection.
FamilySearch.org has nearly a quarter billion records that are not indexed. You must browse through the images like searching through a microfilm. When you browse images be careful to pick collections that cover the right place and time and contain the records you desire. Check to see how the records are arranged. They may be alphabetical, chronological, or some other method. Look to see if the original record had an index at the start or end.
“No search engine can ever replace what you know or learn about the families you are researching. Don’t forget to use your mind…shift your way of thinking to search in new and different ways.”