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
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 NewEnglandAncestors.org, Genealogy.com,
FamilySearch.org, and Ancestry.com, 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
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
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.