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  • The Computer Genealogist: Getting the Most out of NEHGS CD-ROMs

    Michael J. Leclerc

    Published Date : April 30, 2004

    Over the course of the last few years, NEHGS has made a serious commitment to providing easier access to many of its collections through electronic publication. and , were published in May 2001. Since that time the catalog has grown to fourteen titles, with more releases scheduled for the future. The most recent title, Vermont Historical Gazetteer by Abby Maria Hemenway, was released in January 2004. (The first CD-ROM published by NEHGS contained volumes 1–145 of the Register; it did not use the same software, and is now out of print.)

    Electronic publications have many advantages over their print counterparts. The ability to search every word instead of being limited to indexes can make it easier to locate previously hidden information. There is much flexibility in searches — for instance, combining words and using wildcards to limit large searches (such as John Smith) to the more appropriate possibilities. CD-ROMs require less space on the shelf than equivalent print volumes (for example, the CD-ROM takes up three-eighths of an inch, while the four-volume printed set consumes a whopping nine and three-quarter inches).

    As with any electronic publication, users will get the most out of CD-ROMs by exploring their features and discovering the wealth of data at their fingertips. Unfortunately many people have a tendency to load the CD-ROM and jump immediately into searches. While the software makes it easy to do so, users will benefit more from taking the time to read help files and search tips included on the CD-ROMs.

    All CD-ROMs produced by NEHGS use Folio infobase software. This software was selected because of both its variety of options and its versatility in dealing with files. It is also one of the few products available that works on both Windows and Macintosh operating systems. The Society has a large number of Mac users and is dedicated to supporting their needs as well as those of the Windows majority.

    Installation of the CD-ROMs is easy, and simple instructions are included on each one. Simply run the setup.exe file from the CD-ROM by selecting Run from the Start Menu and pressing Enter. Follow the directions and a moment later you will be ready to begin. Mac users either press the NEHGS install icon, or drop the folder onto the desktop or hard drive, depending on which title is being used. You have the option of installing all of the files or just the minimum number to run the program. Those selecting the minimum number of files will need to have the CD-ROM in the CD drive of their computer every time they wish to use the data. Installing all of the files allows users to access them at any time, without needing the actual CD-ROM.

    General tips

    When opening the infobase (“infobase” is the Folio term for the records, shortened from information database), the screen defaults to the Browse window. The pane on the left side is the Table of Contents for the infobase. In the right pane is the actual infobase. Think of this pane as a giant piece of paper. Imagine that an entire book was printed on a single sheet of paper, and you need to read down the paper to find the information you seek. It is possible to read straight through from the title to the last entry in the infobase. Doing so is not, however, the most efficient way to access the information. Using the Table of Contents pane and the search functionality, it is possible to move between entries within the infobase, looking for information on your family. Clicking on any entry in the Table of Contents pane will move the cursor to that exact point in the infobase pane. Click on the plus and minus signs to expand and contract the Table of Contents.

    Those using Folio for the first time (or those who haven’t taken the time previously) will find it very beneficial to read the information under the Help option in the menu bar. Select Contents from the Help menu to open the Help infobase. This file is generic to the Folio infobase software, and will allow you to use the features of the product better. You will likely discover new ways of finding and organizing the facts you unearth.

    In addition to the generic help file, many titles often have specific search tips included in the Table of Contents. For example, many infobases have names listed in one record as “last name, first name,” making it more difficult to find people. In this case you can search for text strings (a series of characters in a row) in that order for better results. The introductory matter for each title should also be read thoroughly for explanations of abbreviations and other conventions that may be specific to that infobase. The transcriber’s notes on many of the CD-ROMs help to explain the condition of the original material, its organization, and guidelines used when converting to electronic format. These details will assist you not only in using the CD-ROMs, but also in locating and using the original records.

    Search tips

    There are four types of searches available in the Folio software:

    •  Keyword and phrase searches

    •  Wildcard searches

    •  Proximity searches

    •  Boolean operator searches.

    Keyword and phrase are the most basic type of search. Clicking on the binoculars icon will open the Advanced Query dialog box. You can also open this box by selecting Advanced Query from the Search menu. This box allows for searching records within the infobase, using as many individual words as the user wishes. The area on the left side of the dialog box contains a list of each unique word in the infobase in alphabetical order. Just type in a series of words in the dialog box and click on OK. For example, a search for John Smith on the CD-ROM reveals 179 matches, but John Smith Hingham reduces the number to five. To clear the results of any query, simply click on the icon with the crossed-out binoculars or select Clear Query from the Search menu.

    Advanced searches allow you to choose specific parts of the infobase to search. In the lower left corner of the Query dialog box are two buttons: one with an open bracket ( [ ) and the other with a close bracket ( ] ). Clicking the Open Bracket inserts that character in the dialog box, and changes the word list on the left to a scope list. Here you can limit a search to a particular area: chapters, highlighters, sticky notes, etc. Just select a scope, click on the Close Bracket and type in your search information.

    Remember that performing a keyword and phrase search by typing in the words John and Smith does not guarantee that the John Smith in that record is from Hingham [Massachusetts], only that the words John, Smith, and Hingham all appear in the same record. It could turn out that one or more of the hits is not for anyone named John Smith at all. For example, in the above mentioned search, one of the results is a list of jurors for the court of Common Pleas session of November 1821 and reveals that Sylvanus Smith of Carver, John Beals of Hanson, and Benjamin Jones and Joseph Whiton of Hingham produce the search result. To search for an exact word group just enclose the words in quotation marks, such as “John Smith.” This will only return results where the words John and Smith are located next to one another, in that order.

    Records can be different lengths. In some infobases they are a single line, while in others they can be paragraph length or longer. Records are not of uniform length even within a single infobase. The length of a record is set after viewing the infobase and attempting to optimize the data within the infobase for the best search results, in addition to other considerations. The length of a record can affect search results.

    One of the major issues affecting an electronic product search is that computers are very literal. They will look for the string of characters that you enter, and only for that specific string of characters. For example, if you type in Smith you will not receive hits for Smyth, Smythe, or Smithe, but you may see results such as Smithfield, Smithson, and Smithers.

    To allow for these spelling variations, the Folio software allows the use of wildcard characters when searching. There are four types of wildcard searches available: single character, multiple character, word form, and synonym. These searches allow users to locate words using patterns for a set of words and to find synonyms or forms of a word.

    Single character wildcard searches replace any given character in a word. The single character wildcard is a question mark (?). The question mark replaces a character to allow variations of the word to appear in the results. For example, a search on Sm?th would return results for Smith and Smyth. More than one question mark can be used in a search, such as Sm?th?, which would return results for Smithe, Smiths, Smythe, and Smyths. However, the single character wildcard requires a character to be in the position of the question mark. Therefore, the search for Sm?th? would not return a result for Smith or Smyth.

    Multiple character wildcard searches allow for wildcard subsitution of several characters in a row. The multiple character wildcard is an asterisk (*). For example, a search on Smith* will return results for Smithson, Smithfield, and Smithers among others. It is not necessary for a character to appear in the location of the wildcard for a result to be returned. For instance, searching on the term ?smith will return blacksmith, silversmith, and tinsmith as well as the surname Smith.

    To help find additional relevant results, try proximity searches. Two are available: word proximity and record proximity. Word proximity specifies a certain range within which the words must appear in a single record. A specific range must be set for all proximity searches.

    Word proximity searches can be “ordered” or “unordered.” To perform an ordered word search, enclose the terms in quotation marks followed by a forward slash and the number of words within which they must be located from each other. For example, “John Smith Hingham”/10 indicates that the words John, Smith, and Hingham must appear in the same record, in that order (i.e. John first, then Smith, then Hingham), within a single record in the infobase within ten words of each other. Unordered searches look for all of the terms, regardless of their order. To perform an unordered search, use the @ symbol instead of a forward slash: “John Smith Hingham”@10.

    Record proximity searches look for the search terms within a specified number of records. Operators are the symbol that tells the computer to conduct a specific type of search. The operator for record proximity searches is the pound sign (#). These searches locate terms within a set number of records. Record proximity searches are unordered searches. For example “John Smith Hingham”#3 would return a result for all locations where the terms John, Smith, and Hingham were located within three records of each other.

    When conducting proximity searches, whether word or record, the computer starts counting the proximity when it finds the first word for which you are searching. In the last example, the computer would start with the first record that shows John, and continue looking for Smith and Hingham. If it does not find both of these words within the next two records, it will not return a result.

    Boolean operator searches allow you to refine your searches in ways that a simple word or phrase search cannot match. Folio offers four types of Boolean searches: And, Or, Not, and Exclusive Or. The And search is the default when typing in a phrase. It is indicated by a single space, an ampersand (&), or the word “and.” For example, the following entries will all return the same results: John Adams; John & Adams; John and Adams. This search will return results for all appearances of John and Adams in the same record. A simple And search is the equivalent of a keyword and phrase search.

    The Or operator looks for appearances of either of two words. The words may or may not appear in the same record. Typing the phrase Boston or Plymouth will return results for all records where either the word Boston or the word Plymouth appears. The Or operator may be indicated by the word “or” or using the pipe symbol ( | ).

    The Not operator looks for records that do not contain the specified information, and can be used alone or in word or phrase pairs. The search term not Braintree, for example, would return all records where the word Braintree does not appear. This search is most often used for word or phrase pairs, such as Chamberlain not Providence. This search would return all results where the name Chamberlain appears but the word Providence does not appear. The Not operator is signified by using the word not or a carat (^).

    The XOr (Exclusive Or) operator searches for records which contain one of two words, but not both. This operator is indicated by using the term xor or the tilde (~). For instance, you could type in David xor Samuel to find records that contain David but not Samuel, or Samuel but not David. This search functionality is probably of only limited use to genealogists.

    In order for the Boolean search to work properly, the words or phrases must appear on either side of the operator. The only operator where the order does not matter is the Not operator. Boolean searches can be combined for more effectiveness. For example, searches with the operators John and Adams not Abigail would return results for all records where John and Adams appear in the same record without the word Abigail.

    When Boolean searches are combined, they are executed in a specific order, regardless of the order in which they are entered. The order of precedence for executing a search is: Not, Or, XOr, And. Consider the following query: John or Samuel and Adams not Braintree. This search would execute in the following order:

    1.      not Braintree (records without the word Braintree)

    2.      John or Samuel (records from the above subset with the words John or Samuel)

    3.      and Adams (records from the last subset above with the word Adams)

    The precedence of search can be overridden by using parentheses around terms. Parentheses force terms to be grouped together. Parentheses within parentheses are searched first, moving outwards until the last search is ended. Let’s use the same words as above, but with parentheses, to illustrate. John or (Samuel and (Adams not Braintree)) will execute in the following manner:

    1.      Adams not Braintree (all records with the word Adams but not Braintree)

    2.      Samuel and (all records from the subset defined above that contain Samuel)

    3.      John or (all records from number 2 above as well as all records with John)

    Effective combination of Boolean searches will allow the greatest flexibility in using infobases, and give you the richest results. Such searches can be especially helpful in filtering out common names and a large number of results that are not yours (as when you are looking for a John Adams who was not the former president and married to Abigail). Another important factor to consider when searching is that infobases cannot tell the difference between types of words (e.g. surnames, given names, place names, etc.) or word classes (i.e. nouns, adjectives, verbs, etc.).

    Tools for managing information

    Folio infobase software provides many tools to assist you in finding, marking, and organizing information. Once information is located, using these tools will make it easier to locate the entry again in the future without having to go through a cumbersome process of reviewing search results.

    Any location in the infobase can be marked with a bookmark for easier access later. Simply place the cursor wherever you want a bookmark, but do not select any text. Choose Bookmark from the Tools menu. Type a descriptive name for the bookmark into the dialog box and press Set. Initial creation of a bookmark limits the characters to 39, but you can later rename the bookmark using up to 127 characters. Just select a bookmark in the dialog box and click Rename.

    To jump from anywhere in the infobase to a specific bookmark, open the dialog box, highlight the bookmark, and click Go To. The cursor will immediately relocate to the bookmark. To move a bookmark place the cursor where you would like to move the bookmark. Open the Bookmark dialog box, highlight the bookmark you wish to move, and click Move. To delete a bookmark, open the dialog box, select a bookmark, and click Delete. To open the Bookmark dialog box quickly, press Ctrl+M on your keyboard. In order to keep your bookmarks you must save your infobase before closing it. When you close the infobase, a dialog box will ask if you want to save your changes. Click Yes and all changes will be saved.

    Sticky notes are a way to make comments about information in the infobase. They can be placed anywhere in the infobase, and are fully searchable. Place the cursor next to the text you wish to annotate (do not select the text) and click on the yellow sticky note icon in the toolbar (or select Note from the Tools menu). Enter your notation in the dialog box that pops up. Close the box by clicking the x in the upper right corner. A message will appear asking if you wish to save the note. Click Yes, and the box will close and a small sticky note icon will appear in the left margin next to the text. Double-click on the icon and the note will open. If you wish to delete a note, simply place the cursor on the text where the note resides and select Remove Note from the Tools menu. The icon will disappear. The keyboard shortcut for creating a sticky note is Ctrl+N. The shortcut to remove a note is Ctrl+Shift+N. Sticky notes will only be retained if you save the infobase before closing it.

    Another useful tool for marking information is the highlighter. Text in the infobase can be highlighted much the same way as text in a book can be highlighted with a color marker. Select the text you wish to highlight and click on the Highlighter tool (or select Highlighter from the Tools menu). Select New from the dialog box and type in a name for the highlighter, such as “Smith Deaths after 1800.” You can then select from one of fifteen different colors for the highlighter. Once the color is selected, click OK and the highlighter will be ready to use.

    If you wish to change the appearance of the text in the infobase, as well as its color, click the Format button in the dialog box. This move will allow you to set the font, style, and size. Once you have done so, click Apply and close the window. Then click Apply in the highlighter dialog box. The dialog box will close and the text will be highlighted and change appearance according to the options you have selected. To remove the highlight from the text, simply select the same text and choose Remove Highlight under the Tools menu. The highlight will disappear and the text will return to normal appearance.

    There is a Highlighter Tool dropdown box next to the Highlighter icon in the toolbar. This feature gives you rapid access to any previously created Highlighter. Highlighted text can be searched separately. The keyboard shortcut for highlighting text is Ctrl+H. There is no keyboard shortcut for removing highlights. As with bookmarks and sticky notes, it is necessary to save the infobase before closing to retain all highlighters.

    Printing tips

    Tagging records is done primarily for printing purposes. Tagging allows you to print a single record as opposed to the entire infobase. To tag a record, simply click the Tag icon in the toolbar and click in the record you want to tag. To untag a record, simply click within the record again, and the tag will be removed. You can also tag records by selecting Tag from the Tools menu, or using the keyboard shortcut of Ctrl+T. Once you have tagged all records you want to print, click the Printer icon in the toolbar and select Tagged Records in the dialog box. You can also select Print from the File menu or use the keyboard shortcut Ctrl+P.

    You can limit printing to only a certain segment of text. To do so, simply highlight the portion of text you wish to print. Once it is highlighted, click the Printer icon and choose “Selection” from the dialog box. The dialog box also allows you to print by record number. When viewing the database the record number appears in a box in the lower left-hand corner of the window.

    Entire sections of the infobase can be printed as well. In the lower part of the dialog box is a reproduction of the table of contents. Choose the section or subsection you would like to print, and choose Section in the dialog box. The final option is to print the entire infobase by selecting All in the dialog box.

    Warning: The infobases are quite large, and even sections or subsections can sometimes run to hundreds of pages. It is highly recommended that you do not select either of these last two options. There may also be copyright restrictions on printing out sections or the entire infobase. Contact the electronic publications department at before attempting either of these last two options!

    Remember that some records are themselves quite long, and tagging them may still produce a long printout. Another option is to select the text you wish to print and choose Copy under the Edit menu. Then open your word processing program and paste the text into a new document by selecting Paste under the Edit menu. This feature allows you to format text any way you like before printing. This method can also be used to copy and paste text into a genealogy database program.

    NEHGS is dedicated to providing greater access to its collections by producing high-quality research materials in electronic format. These tips should allow you to research them most effectively, and extract the most pertinent information. If you have any problems or questions about using the CD-ROMs, please contact our technical support team at any time by email at or call toll-free 1-866-571-5351. Users can provide feedback about individual CD-ROMs by emailing

    Michael J. Leclerc is director of electronic publications at NEHGS.

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