Linda Clyde | Dec 19, 2018

How to Use the Internet for Your Genealogy Research

If you’re just getting started in genealogy research, you may have experimented by typing a surname or a location into a popular search engine like Google or Bing, but according to Curt Witcher—Genealogy Manager of the Allen County Library in Fort Wayne, Indiana—there are much better ways to use the internet to find information.

Witcher provided loads of useful information in his presentation, “Pain in the Access: More Web for Your Genealogy,” at RootsTech 2018. He also explained why you’re more likely to find consequential data by using search engines to look up institutions versus specific information. Institutions like public libraries can actually be huge repositories for historical information.

“It is quite true that what you have recovered, found, [and] discovered using a search engine probably is no more than 50 percent of what is out there under whatever surname or topic or subject or ethnic group you were looking for,” Witcher said.

Try searching the following places to discover both primary and secondary source material for your research:

  • Public Libraries
    • According to Witcher, you’d be surprised by how many photos, diaries, letters and daybooks from the community there really are. You’re also likely to find detailed information about people, businesses, and organizations that have existed in the community.
    • Seek out online catalogs, searchable databases, and “ask” services.
  • State Libraries
    • Look for city directories, published histories, newspapers, online catalogs and other available research guides.
    • Take the time to explore any featured links to other libraries and library-related sites.
  • State Archives
    • Here you may find unpublished manuscript materials, searchable online guides, calendars, digital collections, county archival materials, and more.
    • Witcher suggests using the growing number of searchable data and image databases, exploring for inventories and guides to minor jurisdictions’ collections, and mining the information regarding state agencies’ ties to other government entities.
    • Note that states without state libraries and archives usually have a state historical society.
  • State Historical Societies
    • State historical societies are the keepers of manuscript and photograph collections. You won’t likely find government records, but you may find online catalogs, censuses, calendars, indices to manuscripts, and special collections. You may even find detailed information about subjects like Centennial Farms, pioneer homesteads, veterans’ histories, and more. “Historical societies at the state level, they’re a treasure trove of context and data for us,” said Witcher.
  • State Genealogical Societies
    • State genealogical society websites are good for research guides, online helps, searchable indices, and digitized data. They also often link to important state sites, including links to county records and other repositories.
    • To use these sites successfully, Witcher recommends identifying the latest useful publications in print and online, identifying projects and learning opportunities, and identifying collaborators and evaluators for your research.
  • USGenWeb Websites
    • Check out USGenWeb to find additional historical information arranged by state and county. Here you’ll find an ever increasing number of indices, research aids, and digital data.

More Tips for Your Research

If you want use search engines for specific searches, try marrying any of the following 5 subjects to narrow your results:

  • Place
  • Ethnicity
  • Surname
  • Religion
  • Occupation

For example, Witcher posed the question, “How many times do we look for French in Michigan, Italians in Colorado, and see what kind of search results we get?” Give it a try, and see what you find.

Dig Deeper

Witcher also asked RootsTech attendees to think about how many pages of search results they typically look through after doing an internet search; most people never look past the first 2 or 3. He encouraged anyone ever needing an “insomnia buster” to look well beyond the first few pages of search results. “There’s some good stuff way down there,” he said.

Big Genealogy Sites

Most people also have a tendency to go straight to the big genealogy sites to do their research, such as Ancestry, MyHeritage, FamilySearch, and FindMyPast, but according to Witcher, they don’t have it all. “As much as they have, it’s the snowflake on the top of the iceberg.” Although he did suggest inspecting the snowflake. FamilySearch, for example, houses billions and billions of names, has the world’s largest genealogical catalog, and is home to FamilySearch Research Wiki, a free genealogy guide that provides resources of all kinds to help you find ancestors.

Vet Your Research

Witcher also encouraged using the internet to vet your research, saying, “When we have put together our best effort for a family line, why not look for a place to put that where other eyes and other brains and other research experience will say, ‘Well done, did you consult these other 2 sources?’ or ‘Wow, there’s this whole silo of data that it doesn’t appear that you used . . .’” Don’t be afraid to share your research. Others may be able to provide missing links, additional information, and resources you may not have considered.

4 More Places for Online Research

According to Witcher, “Doing the history eliminates the mystery. . . . When we have a dead end, there are a number of reasons why that might be. Almost always amongst those reasons why we’ve hit a brick wall, why we’ve hit a dead end, is we don’t know enough about the context of the ancestor that we’re searching for. . . . Usually, when we say we’ve looked at all the records, we really mean, we’ve looked at all the records that are easily available to us. And the ones that are not so easily available are likely the ones that have our answers.”

Linda Clyde

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