Wednesday, April 3, 2013

RootsTech: Ancestry.com Search Tools

Searching Successfully to Reveal Your Ancestor’s Story on Ancestry.comI have to apologize to Anne Mitchell, presenter from Ancestry.com. Every conference my article on her presentation is, well, wanting. It’s no fault of hers. She gives great presentations.

During the conference it is all I can do to keep up writing about the keynote sessions. In the days immediately following the conference I next turn to newsy sessions about Ancestry.com and FamilySearch that announced new and upcoming features. These are usually presented by product managers. Ancestry.com product managers don’t present; FamilySearch product managers do. That means FamilySearch gets more than an even share of articles.

By the time I’ve been home a week my memory has faded. My notes don’t make any sense. I’m bored with conference articles. I’m ready to move on. That’s when Mitchell’s presentation inevitably comes up. Sorry, Anne.

Well, that time has come.

Fortunately, Anne has posted her slides online. With slides in hand, for once my notes make sense! You can find them at http://ancestry-reference-desk.com/links/slides-from-presentations/. (The Ancestry.com Reference Desk website is Mitchell’s new blog about using Ancestry.com or Fold3 in a library or institution.)

While Mitchell’s overall presentation was about writing up our Ancestors’ stories, I was most interested in the numerous search tips and tools (slides 8-26).

“There is not one perfect way to search,” said Mitchell. “If anyone tells you differently, just smile at them.”

Search tools #3 and #4 concern local and family history books. “Local histories and surname histories are great resources,” said Mitchell. In my experience Ancestry’s normal search is not likely to find your ancestors in these books. You need to first identify a book of interest and then read or search it. First, find the book by going to the card catalog. Filter by Stories, Memories, & Histories. Type in the name of the place or surname in the Keywords field—not the titles field. Once you have found the book, try searching, but don’t ignore the index found at the back of the book.

Search tool #7 is One World Tree (OWT). OWT is a combination (like FamilySearch’s Ancestral File) of the submissions of many people, stitched together by a computer into a single tree of all humanity. I wasn’t able to find OWT in the Card Catalog. To find it, I clicked on Search, I scrolled down until I found “Family Trees” in the right-hand column. Underneath it I clicked on “More…” Then in the right-hand column I clicked on OneWorldTree. What you can find through the card catalog is Ancestry World Tree (aka RootsWeb WorldConnect) which is one of the sources for OWT. OWT hasn’t been updated in a long time, but to the extent that people update their RootsWeb WorldConnect trees, they are more current. Try searching these two tree systems, particularly the Ancestry World Trees marked with a Sources icon.

“Can I guarantee you that every tree out there is correct?” asked Mitchell. “No. Can I promise you that you can find absolutely amazing stuff? Yes.”

Search tool #15 is to read the database search form to see what is indexed and searchable. Select Show Advanced. “If you’re here at a conference, you are capable enough to never do anything but an advanced search,” she said. Then look at all of the fields listed.

As an example, look at “New York Passenger Lists, 1820-1957.” Beyond the standard things, you can search on:

  • Arrival year, month, and day
  • Arrival port
  • Departure port
  • Origin
  • Destination
  • Ship name

(Try searching on Ship’s name on FamilySearch. Don’t get me started on how poor their search forms are.)

I have a question about one thing Anne said. She said that if it isn’t listed, it wasn’t indexed for searching. That wasn’t true when I worked at Ancestry.com. The Keyword field was provided for searching a few miscellaneous fields that aren’t used enough or useful enough to warrant their own search field. Is that no longer the case?

She gave another, unnumbered, tip I wanted to mention. Sometimes its nice to know how big a place is when you’re creating theories about unique identity. To find the number of people in Smithfield, Utah in 1910 I would search the 1910 census, set Lived In to Smithfield, Cache, Utah, USA (restrict to that exact place), and leave the name fields blank. Above the results it says “Matches 1–20 of 2,067.” That tells me the number of people in town. Now I know that Smithfield’s a pretty small place, so everyone probably knows everyone. That’s useful to know.

Say I have a record about John Pitcher of Smithfield. Does that uniquely identify a person? I could add the name (restrict to exact) and find out there are three John Pitchers in town. No. I need more information to determine which John is spoken of. If there were only one, then I would know all the details of the record applied to that one person.

Thanks, Anne, for all these tips.

Again, you can see the slides for yourself. They are posted on Anne’s blog.

1 comment:

  1. Why Ancestry Insider, you made me blush!

    And you are correct, OWT has been removed since RootsTech -- I will update my slides.

    And your points about the keyword are interesting. Anything that is stored in a record as text can be searched for via keyword. But things such as First Name, Last Name, birth year are indexed as being of that type. I need to ponder this and write it up. Blog post to come I am sure.

    A few words about Ancestry Reference Desk. It is the new blog for the Ancestry Library Edition. I'm looking to reach out to librarians and library patrons and help them make better use of both Ancestry.com and Fold3 in the libraries. And if we help a few other people along the way, that is good too!

    Again, thank you for the kind words. :-)

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