Diane Sagers | Jul 31, 2018

Finding Elusive Records in FamilySearch, Part 2

This is the second in a series of three blog posts on Finding Elusive Records in FamilySearch, presented by Robert Kehrer, senior product manager of search and hinting technologies at FamilySearch, at RootsTech 2018. Read part one and part three.

FamilySearch has extensive records to help us find the families of our ancestors. Some records are easy to find, while others require us to dig deeper.

Before searching for new information, it can be helpful to examine records that have already been collected in Family Tree. From there, you can cast a wider net to gather information and then use certain tools to narrow the search and dig deeper. Here are several of those tools, continuing from the first blog post:

Method 4: Using Indexed Records

You can search indexed records by using search terms to narrow results. For example, you can open a record for a specific parish found in the FamilySearch Catalog and add search terms to boxes on the left to find records of specific people. Typing in just a last name may bring up many people with that name. Adding a first name will narrow the search.

However, not all records are indexed accurately, and errors may exist in original records. In his 2018 RootsTech presentation, Robert Kehrer, the senior product manager of search and hinting at FamilySearch, explained that FamilySearch’s search engine is somewhat intuitive to compensate for errors in transcriptions, common variations in name spellings, and so on.

Method 5: Using Name Variations

While you are searching, be aware of name variations, even for the same individual. A given name may be a variant, such as a nickname or a translation from another language. For example, Frank could be a derivative of Franklin, Francis, Frankie, and so on. Similarly, the last name Smith could be recorded as Smyth, Smythe, or Smeth. The FamilySearch system will bring up many close matches in its search. The system ignores capitalization (MacDonald), punctuation (O’Hara), and spacing (de la Vega) in order to include names commonly recorded with transcription errors. If the name you are searching is a common name, the search may yield too many results. Adding additional information such as places, parents’ names, or dates will narrow the search. But sometimes even that is not enough.

FamilySearch’s system is set up to score matches and close matches based on how closely the results correspond with the search terms. The results that closely match the search terms will appear at the top of the list. This means that if a search includes a name and a birth place, the results will have names with that birthplace at the top of the list, similar names with similar birthplaces listed next, and names that don’t include a birthplace further down the list.

Method 6: Using the Exact Search Tool

Sometimes it can be beneficial to see results with variations, but, as Kehrer said, “Sometimes … you know what you’re looking for, and you want to get rid of everything that isn’t exactly what you’re looking for. You need a tool to clear out the clutter and return just what you’re wanting to see.”

One powerful tool you can use is the Exact Search tool—the small box at the end of each search field. When you type in a name and click this box, the search will provide results that include only that spelling of the name.

In his presentation, Kehrer demonstrated the Exact Search tool and said: “All of the records are spelled exactly the same way that I typed it in. Now, that's a powerful tool if you're really trying to drill in and get to just what you want. But that comes with that warning again. It will reduce the variability in your search results.”

When you use the exact search tool with dates, make sure to include additional years both before and after the correct date to avoid limiting the results too much. The search engine will include only records that fall within that date range and records that do not include a date.

Method 7: Using Wildcards

In records, sometimes a name is creatively spelled or misspelled, so it does not show up on searches, even if the person you are searching for is in that record. This problem is particularly likely with uncommon or foreign names and with handwritten records that are difficult to decipher and may have been mistranscribed. When a name does not appear in a record where it seems it should be, use wildcards to dig deeper for variations.

The first wildcard you can try is the asterisk (also referred to as a star), which will replace from zero to an infinite number of characters. Kehrer explained:

“If I go into the given name field and I put Stan*, it might bring back records that have Stan as the given name. Where it matched—the system replaced the star with zero characters. Or it might bring back Stanislaw, where the system replaced the star with five ambiguous characters. …

“I can even put multiple [stars into a search term]. … I have a colleague whose family name is Czelusniak. And you can imagine there’s lots of name variants. It gets mangled. But he found that if he puts *lus*k into the search field, that pattern brings back most of the name variants of Czelusniak. It’s a powerful way of bringing back … a greater variability of records.”

The second wildcard you can use is the question mark. When a question mark is included in a search term, it will be replaced by one ambiguous character. For example, the name Elizabeth can be spelled Elisabeth. Using the search term Eli?abeth will return both spellings.

If needed, both wildcards can be used within the same search term. Consider the name, and use wildcards for characters that are most likely to be variations or mistranscribed. Vowels are often confused because they can run together or be used interchangeably. In old records, spellings were not standardized, so spelling may be phonetic. Handwriting can be difficult to decipher, so some names may be misspelled. Wilcards can help find names with these issues, and examining the other information attached to the names—such as parents’ names and birth dates—may help you match names with information you already know.

Try different wildcards and different characters in searches to find important but elusive records.

As information is clarified, always attach it to the person it applies to in FamilySearch. Adding sources helps reduce errors and proves records in the FamilySearch Family Tree. FamilySearch puts a banner at the top of the search page to assist in comparisons and in locating records in FamilySearch to attach to people in Family Tree.

Diane Sagers

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