I can’t find my ancestor – what am I doing wrong?

For most searches on GenealogyBank it is easy to find your ancestor. You type in their name and in an instant you spot them in the search results list.

So - what do you do when your ancestor’s name doesn’t come right up in the search hits?
Just like any other genealogical resource you need to step back and see what your options are and try various ways to search on the site.

Consider your search strategy.
1. Sometimes less is more.
Be careful how you type in your ancestor’s name.
His full name might have been: Willard Jacob Teskey …. but the newspaper article may have simply called him:

Willard Teskey
Willard J. Teskey
W.J. Teskey
Bill Teskey
or only: Teskey

Try typing in variations of the person’s name.
I have found that typing in only the surname can quickly get you the best results.

Tip: You almost never want to type in a person’s “middle” name. Newspapers rarely use a person’s full name.

Be Careful How You Limit Your Search
It is tempting to limit your search to only one state or even to one newspaper. That can often be the most appropriate search strategy. However, if your searches did not locate the obituary or article about your ancestor – try your search again and this time do not limit your search geographically.

If that produces too many hits – then repeat your search and limit it by the likely starting and ending years when your ancestor. Be sure add a few years in both directions so you will bring up the most possible hits.

Tip: Newspapers often published brief biographies and articles years after a person died. So be careful how you limit your search or you might miss the articles you are looking for.

GenealogyBank brings together newspapers, books, reports and documents from over 300 years. During that time printers had access to varying qualities of newsprint; pieces of type and printing presses.

1. Newspapers have been printed on newsprint paper of varying quality. Some are smooth and some pages are rough.

2. Printers had only so many pieces of type and the newspaper had a deadline. It would be easy when they set the type for the day’s newspaper to swap in an “m” for a “w” or switch a “d” and a “p” or a “1″ and a “l”. The reader in 1843 would hardly notice the difference. But a modern computer might struggle to interpret each word if the piece of type was a different letter or had been damaged.

Let me give you a similar example that has circulated on the Internet for years:

Cna yuo raed tihs?
i cdnuolt blveiee taht I cluod aulaclty uesdnatnrd waht I was rdanieg. The phaonmneal pweor of the hmuan mnid, aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it dseno’t mtaetr in waht oerdr the ltteres in a wrod are, the olny iproamtnt tihng is taht the frsit and lsat ltteer be in the rghit pclae. The rset can be a taotl mses and you can sitll raed it whotui t a pboerlm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe. Azanmig huh? yaeh and I awlyas tghuhot slpeling was ipmorantt!

This is an extreme example that shows the problems that computers have reading the old newspapers and documents. Individuals reading an old newspaper quickly adjust to the look, feel of the newspaper and learn how to read it. GenealogyBank has been working on these issues for years and improved and enhanced our OCR capability.

GenealogyBank uses state of the art OCR software and we have teams of indexers that review and tag each item – focusing on names, obituaries, births, marriages and other data of high importance to genealogists.

3. Still can’t find your ancestor? Then, its time to dig in and search the target newspapers, page by page. GenealogyBank makes it easy to bookmark a specific newspaper, combination of newspapers or locations. You could then go through the newspapers – month by month – clicking from page to page to quicly see if your ancestors were mentioned.

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Written by Thomas Jay Kemp

Thomas Jay Kemp

Thomas Jay Kemp is the Director of Genealogy Products at GenealogyBank. Tom Kemp is an internationally known librarian and archivist – he is the author of over 35 genealogy books and hundreds of articles about genealogy and family history.

He previously served as the Chair of the National Council of Library & Information Associations (Washington, DC) and as Library Director of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania and the New England Historic Genealogical Society.

An active genealogist, he has been working on his own family history for 47 years. With the rapidly growing online archives at GenealogyBank – it is a great day for genealogy!

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One thought on “I can’t find my ancestor – what am I doing wrong?

  1. If you are searching very early newspapers be aware of typeface differences. For instance a lowercase s looks like a lower case f. Though it sounds silly I substitute an "f" for the "s" in names that I search and find many items of interest. There may well be other examples of this.

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