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  • Genealogy and Technology: The Internet: Following the Rules Increases Success

    Rhonda R. McClure

    The Internet is a tool that present day genealogists turn to with frequency.  Of course the Internet is also a source of frustration when the desired information or individual is not found.  This is the scenario that gets discussed most often among genealogists.  So, if the Internet is such a great tool, why are there so many discouraging stories from genealogists trying to use it?

    Much of the frustration can be traced to the manner in which the Internet is being used by researchers.  So many of those new to genealogy are convinced that everything they need is found on the Internet.  In fact, many who have been researching for years before the birth of the Internet were enticed into this myth.  They stopped using traditional resources. Some even forsake the solid methodology that has gotten them as far as they are in their research.

    The Internet is nothing more than another resource, though granted this resource brings with it speed and convenience.  Of course it also brings with it inaccuracy and specialized research.

    My Father’s Not There

    Newcomers to the hobby of family history frequently bemoan the fact that they cannot find their father or grandfather on the Internet.  Most individuals would consider this a blessing, as privacy and identity theft are such important subjects these days, but many computer genealogists see this only as a hindrance.

    Beginning researchers who know little about their family history will naturally want to begin with parents or grandparents. However, the chances of finding information on them on the Internet is slim.  As with many other resources containing information researched by others and submitted (such as the International Genealogical Index) there seems to be a demarcation in the information available beyond a certain year.  With privacy laws often protecting the more recent records that researchers seek, the odds of finding an individual increase the further back you are in years.  Finding someone born in the 1960s is going to reveal much less, if anything at all, than searching for someone who was born in the 1860s.

    A Lack of Information

    So often a researcher only has a name.  Serious researchers would not even consider trying to find a person in traditional records with nothing more than a name. Yet many researchers, serious and otherwise, will get frustrated when they search on that name on the Internet and cannot find, or identify, their ancestor.

    The Internet is the last place a person should search when all that is known is the name of the individual.  The overwhelming number of individuals now found in databases and in compiled, web-published genealogies makes searching by name alone a recipe for disaster. Traditional identifying information is more important when searching online in order to reduce the number of hits and make identification possible.

    At the very least it is important to have the full name of the individual; at least one life event, birth being one of the best; a place where the person lived at some point in his or her life; and the name of at least one parent or the spouse.  The identification of common denominators and the process of elimination enables the researcher to determine if the person found online is indeed the person being sought, thus making the search profitable.

    I Can’t Find Anything on the Internet!

    Invariably such cries of dismay come from someone who is in a hurry and has not taken the time to learn what the Internet has to offer and how to get that information. Traditional researchers have honed their research craft.  They understand that it may be necessary to search page by page in an unindexed record.  They have done their share of line-by-line readings in the census in search of an elusive ancestor.  They are used to looking for variable spellings of a surname or altering the method of searching to approach the research problem from a different angle. Today’s computer genealogist often will plug a name into a database or search engine and then give up the search when the results are negative.

    These negative results are often directly related to how the researcher performed the search in the first place.  Computers are literal.  There is no way to tell a computer to “do what I mean” or to give information on individuals who are “close” to the information originally entered.  While some database search engines allow the researcher to give some variables, many researchers do not avail themselves of these added search techniques.  As a result, a search for John AYER will not show anything found on John AYRE or John EYRE.

    Before working with any general search engine or the various database search engines found at sites such as,,, and, it is important to spend a few moments learning the way the search engine works.  Are wildcards allowed to help in searching for variant spellings?  Can the researcher define limits based on year of birth?  Can additional keywords be used to narrow the search to just those in Haverhill, Massachusetts?  Without taking the time to read the online help at either the general search site or the database site in question, researchers can waste valuable time trying to learn how the search engine works by trial and error.

    Instead the researcher should spend a few minutes reading through the online help to know what features are available to aid with any search.  With a working knowledge of the search engine, the researcher can then spend time refining the parameters of their search to ensure that every possible search option has been explored.

    Don't Forsake Traditional Methodology

    While the Internet is certainly of a tool of the present and future, the methods used to search for individuals in a family tree have stood the test of time.  Just because there is a new resource available does not mean that traditional methods of researching should be abandoned. A researcher does not traditionally settle on a name that is the same as their third great-grandfather and assume that it is the same person.  Instead the researcher works from the known to the unknown, building a case that indeed proves that this person is the same ancestor in question. For some reason, many Internet genealogists seem to discard this major rule of genealogy and assume that the discovery of an identical name puts an end to their search.  It is because of such assumptions that researchers are now discovering that there is a rapidly growing collection of misinformation available on the Internet.

    The Internet offers the researcher the ability to search a variety of records when the search is convenient to the researcher.  With the modern digitization of such resources as census records, the published Massachusetts Vital Records to 1850 series, the New England Historical and Genealogical Register, and others, researchers can now accomplish online research previously reserved for those days when they could get to the library or archive.

    While there are still many records that must be used in original or microfilm format, the Internet has begun to open up the research of some of the more popular records and publications. These resources, along with the many library catalogs now available online, offer researchers the ability to do much of their planning or preparatory research from home.  Once at the library or archive, they need only concentrate on those records or resources unavailable to them through the Internet.


    Any seasoned genealogist will tell you that efficient organization techniques and the taking of source notes are absolutely critical to the research process. Computer genealogists must not ignore this important requirement or they run the risk of repeating certain searches over and over again, not remembering that they already did them. This is a monumental waste of time.

    Organization is more than just simply filing photocopies or documents.  Instead it is the act of knowing what research has been accomplished, what is yet to be done, and what research resulted in negative evidence.  The positive research is tangible.  The researcher has notes or photocopies or files on his or her hard drive.  Negative research leaves nothing for the researcher to refer back to unless he or she is keeping track of what they have done, through research logs.  Even those researchers who use such logs when working in the traditional environment of the library often forsake them when working on the Internet.

    In Conclusion

    Many of the frustrations that researchers experience on the Internet are the result of their own doing.  They do not study the features and limitations of the search engine or database they are working in or they accept search results using just a thread of identifying information. The same rules that apply to searching in census or probate records of a given county also apply to researching on the Internet.  The sheer magnitude of the information available online requires researchers to be even better prepared than when researching in a library or archive.

    Time can be saved and frustration averted when Internet researchers take a few extra minutes to review the life events of the individual being sought.  The list of hits found in a general search engine can be narrowed to those useful to the researcher when the capabilities of the search engine and required methods of entering search terms are understood.  In short, the Internet is yet another method of searching for clues, and as with traditional source materials, strict rules need to be followed to get the best results.

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