How do you research an ancestor using a genealogy website? The most popular way is to enter a name, birth year, and place, and then click the Search button, right? Well, that’s one way to search for your ancestors but it’s not the only or best way.
Becoming familiar with a database where you expect to find an ancestor is crucial. Genealogy websites provide valuable information about individual databases in their collections that can help you better understand what is available, where it is from, and how to search it.
Let’s use a database from MyHeritage to illustrate this. Instead of conducting a search, I went to Research and then in the drop-down menu chose the collection Birth, Marriage & Death.
As you can see, I can search from this collection page. A search here will find results in any number of databases from their Birth, Marriage & Death collection. But if I know I’m looking for an English record, why not search a specific database for England so I can learn more about that particular database and better understand what I can expect and not expect to find?
To find an English ancestor, I decided to take a look at one database within this collection. The database England & Wales, Marriage Index, 1837-2005 is free so you do not need a subscription to search it. The database’s homepage tells us quite a bit about these records. Before I even start searching I’m going to take a look and learn more about these records.
Let’s look at the five things you can learn from this page.
- This site map line shows you exactly where you are on the website. This can be helpful if you need to find your way to this database again or want to go to the collection page. Please note that if you scroll down at the bottom right there is a Categories collection that provides links to marriage & Divorce; United Kingdom; England; and Wales collections.
- Here’s the description for this collection. Notice it has the title, how many records are included, and information about the database. There is also a little free green button that lets you know that the database is available to anyone, even those without a subscription. At the bottom is a small arrow and when we click on that we will see the rest of this description. We’ll discuss this more later.
- This is the search engine. Notice that collection and database search engines may differ according to what information is searchable. In this case, the fields include name, date, marriage place, and keywords. Notice at the bottom you can check the box for an Exact Search which limited the search to exactly what you type. The other box allows for translations. At the top right is Advanced Search link which allows for search functions that include the spouse’s name and more options in name searching.
- Sample Record. In this case there is an image of a sample record so you can familiarize yourself with the database.
- Related collections. These are suggested collections that also might help your search.
Now let’s go back up to the description and see what that page says once we click on the arrow.
Notice that the information we are given includes a description of the records and search tips. This can be extremely important to our search and can mean the difference between finding and not finding an ancestor because it may list what the database contains versus what is missing, the source citation for the records how to best search, and any information needed to better understand these records. I often find that people become frustrated with searches or proclaim that there is nothing for their ancestor on a website because they haven’t taken the time to see what is in a particular database and what is simply not included.
Take some time with that search
Sure, you can enter a name, date, and place and see what results you receive but what about doing something different? Next time you go to that genealogy website, skip the search and instead choose a database and learn more about it. Knowing more about those individual databases can help you avoid frustration and might even provide you a new record set to search.
Gena Philibert-Ortega is an author, instructor, and researcher. She blogs at Gena's Genealogy and Food.Family.Ephemera. You can find her presentations on the Legacy Family Tree Webinars website.