“Understanding State Collections on Ancestry.com” was presented by Crista Cowan, Ancestry.com’s Barefoot Genealogist.
Who was that guy in the Lil’ Abner comics who was followed around by a dark cloud? The dark cloud of technology troubles seems to have been following Ancestry.com presenters on Wednesday. Like Peter Drinkwater, Cowan was plagued by Internet connectivity issues. That was bad because she had prepared just four slides and no backup presentation. But Cowan is one of Ancestry.com’s best presenters and made attendance worthwhile, even though she didn’t get connectivity until late in the session.
I’ve attended some vendor presentations that feel more like infomercials. Most cater to the absolute beginners, product-wise and genealogy-wise. In fact, many vendor presentations aren’t presented by genealogists at all. Cowan’s presentation, however, was worthy of an attendee serious enough to attend a national conferences.
She didn’t mince words.
“We get so used to filling in search boxes we don’t stop to think,” she said. The three questions she emphasizes over and over are:
- What do I know?
- How do I know it?
- What do I want to know?
Cowan told us that Ancestry.com gives lots of different ways into their records. After all, they have 13 billion of them. “My job is to help you be more focused in your searches,” she said. To that end, she added two more questions:
- Does the record exist?
- Does it exist online?
A mainstay of genealogical research is the book, Red Book: American State, County, and Town Sources. Cowan keeps a copy on her desk and refers to it often. Few people know that it is also available online—for free! Go to Ancestry.com, hover over Learning Center (on the menu bar), and click Family History Wiki. On the right in the section titled “Explore the Wiki” click Red Book: American State, County, and Town Sources.
It is organized by state. Scroll down and click on a link to a state family history research page. Read it to learn what records exist. It will often also tell you where they exist. The further East you go, the more complicated it becomes to figure out what records exist and where they can be found.
From state overview page, the right column contains links to the different record types.
“I love these articles. I read them regularly still,” said Cowan.
Someone has added links at the bottom of each state vital records page to collections on Ancestry.com and FamilySearch.org. However, the links are about two years old.
Under a heading for each record type is a list of a few of the databases. These are specific to the state. Country-wide databases, such as Federal census population schedules, are not shown. Click View all to see all the collections, including country-wide databases.
Above the list of databases are three rectangles labeled Collections, History, and Resources. The history tab gives a short summary of the state’s history and some links for learning more. The resources tab has some resources for state research. It has links to other websites as well. (“Don’t tell anyone, but Ancestry.com doesn’t have all the world’s records online,” whispered Cowan.) This resource is available whether you are a subscriber or not.
Those who watch Cowan’s videos or hear her speak know how much she pushes the card catalog. (“Coolest thing ever!” she says.) The card catalog shows all 32,000+ databases. (Ancestry.com adds an average of two million records a day.) Filter by title, record type, and so forth to narrow the results to a manageably small set of titles. Cowan illustrated with an example, trying to locate an 1863 Carroll County, Arkansas marriage record.
A search for title “Arkansas” returned 57 titles. Filtering to Birth/Marriage/Death dropped the number to 14. Filtering to Marriage/Divorce dropped the total to 10. Why are there multiple Arkansas marriage collections? Because they come from different sources and as genealogists, we want to know where our information comes from. Reviewing the list you can see what records Ancestry.com has online.
Cowan selected one of the titles that included the year 1863, “Arkansas Marriages, 1779-1992.”
“Some of you are tempted to just start filling in the pretty search boxes. Stop that!” she scolded. First scroll down and read the database description. She did so for the selected database and the description indicated that it doesn’t include Carroll County.
To reiterate the point, she looked at the next database, “Arkansas Marriages, 1851-1900.” In the database description for Carroll County it states that “the records in this database cover the years 1869 through 1900.” This database doesn’t include 1863.
“We try to give you as many ways into the records as possible,” Cowan said in her conclusion. Once you’ve answered the question, “What do I want to know,” using the catalog and searching particular databases helps address the subsequent questions, “Does the record exist?” and “Does it exist online?”