Ok, maybe this blog post title is a bit misleading. I did originally browse death certificates, 1-by-1 in the California, County Birth and Death Records, 1800-1994 FamilySearch collection because I was looking for a specific death certificate for a client's mysterious ancestor (I never found it). But I continued looking through the collection of death certificates to see what I could learn from them.
I’ve actually done this type of in-depth record study before. A few years ago, I made weekly visits to the National Archives at Riverside to study, file-by-file National Archives RG 21, specifically the women’s repatriation files. I looked through each file, studied, and made copies of documents I found unusual or that I wanted to study more. These NARA files are for those women who were requesting their US citizenship after losing it by marrying a non-US citizen. Unlike other NARA facilities, Riverside's collection includes the documents women used to prove their US citizenship which meant genealogically rich treasures such as affidavits and vital records.
So what’s the purpose of doing this? Why am I taking time to study records that have nothing to do with my own ancestors?
Continuing genealogy education.
A careful study of a set of records can help you learn more than if you are simply using a record or two for your own personal genealogical research. Take for instance the Long Beach, Los Angeles County California Death Certificates I read. I was able to learn more about the form used (including some of the instructions that were also part of the digitized images).
But in studying these records:
- I learned more about what people died from (whether naturally, by suicide, homicide or accident).
- I learned what cemeteries and funeral homes existed.
- I learned about occupations in the area and the deaths caused by various occupations (Long Beach was home to oil drilling and not surprisingly many occupational accidents resulting in death for those oil workers).
- I also learned that not all death certificates provide the information we expect. For example, this certificate for my great-grandmother's brother that is missing his cause of death .
I also learned more about that specific FamilySearch collection. For example, in the link for Death Certificates 1902-1963, the first few images are not of death certificates but instead they are for a Transportation of a Corpse
Finding these anomalies is one of the benefits of browsing rather than searching.
On the surface this may appear to be a meaningless exercise that serves no real purpose other than adding one more thing to your to-do list, taking away time from finding your ancestors. However, when I think about browsing and studying records rather than just searching I’m reminded of the ‘good old days’ of genealogy when we didn’t have access to digitized images which meant we had to go through microfilm image-by-image to find what we needed. That is real research. And what we miss in today’s world of search engines and automated hints is the opportunity to get to know the records we are searching and to find information we weren’t expecting. Remember that there can be all kinds of reasons you don’t find someone in a record including transcription and indexing errors but also items filmed out of order.
Will I continue to go through a record set document by document? Absolutely, and I frequently do it to learn more about a record that is unfamiliar to me or to see what may exist. Genealogy education is about watching, listening, and doing. Going through records one-by-one is one way to do that.