The 5 Biggest Mistakes I Made with My Genealogy

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this blog post, Gena talks about the five worst mistakes she made when she first began researching her family tree—and offers advice to help other genealogists avoid those same errors.

How long have you been researching your family history? Do you look back at your genealogy research and wish you had done things differently? We all do. Just like parenting, genealogy research is a “learn as you go” proposition. Even when we receive unsolicited advice from more experienced family historians we may ignore that advice, not understanding the wisdom that comes from having researched over time.

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Mistakes? Yeah, I’ve made a few. Here are five that I’ve made researching my family tree—and how you can avoid them.

1) Sources? What’s a Source?

Most genealogists will name “not citing their sources” as a family history research beginner’s regret. Sure, maybe it doesn’t seem like a big deal now—after all, you aren’t publishing anything right? But a year from now when you want to look at a particular record again and you can’t remember where you saw it, believe me you’re going to wish you wrote down the source of that piece of genealogical information.

So how do you remedy that? Well if you want to do a thorough job, you can refer to the Elizabeth Shown Mills classic Evidence Explained. If you are using a genealogy software program, chances are that program includes citation templates that you can use to fill in the blanks. And for those who prefer to copy and paste, do so with the source citations many genealogy websites provide with each document view. Your end goal should be to have enough information about what the document is, and where to locate it, that you or others can find it when they need to.

2) I Don’t Need to Write That Down (Not Recording What You Find)

Really this genealogy research mistake is connected with the first. I remember when I started working on my personal family history research, most genealogists were buried under paper copies. We have come a long way since the days where you worried about how much room photocopies would take up in your suitcase after a trip to the Family History Library in Salt Lake City. And with the ability to subscribe to websites and print from home, that pile of papers just got bigger and bigger. Yes, it’s fun to find stuff and to have that physically on paper, but it’s equally important to record what you find. Whether you do that in a genealogy software program, spreadsheet or database you create, recording what you find will help you avoid repeating searches that you have already exhausted or, worse yet, “finding” information that you had already discovered six months ago.

Another benefit of recording the information—or even transcribing or abstracting that information—is that you get to know the document better. I find I learn so much more about a resource when I’m actively engaging with it by abstracting the information found in that document.

Sure, print or digitally save that census record, newspaper article, or vital record. But after you do that, then record the information so that you have it and can refer back to it when needed.

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3) Not Learning How to Search

Sometimes we think that searching our ancestors is easy. Anyone can do it, right? You just enter a name, date, and place and you find what you need. Well yes, almost anyone can do it but crafting a good search and finding those elusive ancestors involves more than filling in the boxes on a search engine.

So how do you conduct a really good ancestry search? For GenealogyBank, which uses OCR (Optical Character Recognition) to search its content, you get better results by using keywords or a keyword phrase. Don’t limit your ancestor searches to just a name.

First, develop lists of keywords to use in your search. One list of keywords should be name variations for your ancestor including nicknames, initials, and misspellings. For example, if my ancestor is John Jacob Smith, I would want to search for him as John Smith, John J. Smith, J.J. Smith, and Mr. Smith.

Because this ancestor search is for a common surname, simply doing a name search is not enough; I would also want to use GenealogyBank’s advanced search engine to add other keywords to narrow my search to my target ancestor. Create a second list of keywords that includes the places your ancestor was from, their occupation, the name of their spouse, and other details like religion or membership organization.

Also, remember this advice: keep searching over time! Conducting a single search on a website that is constantly adding content, like GenealogyBank, isn’t enough. The newspaper article you need may not have been available back when you did your original search months ago, but perhaps it was added yesterday. Make sure you utilize the “Added Since” button found on the Advanced Search engine to search the latest content, especially if you have conducted a search recently.

(We often discuss genealogy search tips here on the GenealogyBank blog; see the end of this article for a list of relevant examples.)

4) Not Evaluating Evidence

There’s a rush of excitement in finding something new about an ancestor—but in that excitement we don’t always take a moment to really analyze the information we found. What’s involved in analyzing the evidence? A good part of the analyzing involves immersing yourself in reading the document and asking yourself what the document tells you, what it doesn’t tell you, and where you should go next. Don’t take the document at face value; take the time to read slowly and deeply to understand everything that is written down in the article, and use that information to ask additional questions to guide your research further.

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5) Not Having a “Permanent” Email Address

Part of genealogy is networking: reaching out and connecting with other researchers and potential cousins. Making those connections can help you uncover details previously unknown to you. The problem is that in the rush to change an Internet provider we are unhappy with, we often forget all of the clues and questions we’ve left on various message boards and social media websites using that no-longer-current email address as our only contact information. There’s nothing worse than having the answer to someone’s genealogy problem—only to send them an email and having that email bounce because it’s no longer a valid address.

So before you make all those posts and ask all of those questions on genealogy subscription websites, message boards and social media sites, secure a permanent email address through a website like Gmail or Hotmail. This email address won’t change if you switch Internet providers, thus leaving you with a permanent online address for potential cousins to find you today and six years from now.

What genealogy mistakes have you made in your family history research? Fess up in the comments below and help other genealogy researchers not fall into the same traps.

Related Genealogy Search Articles:

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Genealogy Search Engine Types & Tips: OCR vs. Indexed Databases

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this guest blog post, Gena explains the difference between searching for genealogy content in indexed databases, as opposed to genealogy content (such as historical newspapers) that is searched using OCR (Optical Character Recognition).

What’s the biggest benefit of being a family history researcher in 2014? Well at the top of my list is the ability to access countless documents right from my home computer or mobile device. Modern-day genealogy researchers are lucky to have so many options at their fingertips—but just having access to information isn’t enough. One needs to be able to navigate various website search engines to find and sift through results.

The way you search for your ancestor online is going to differ depending on what type of information is hosted by the website. What’s one of the big differences between GenealogyBank’s content and some of the other websites you use to research your family history?

It’s all in the search.

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Photo: magnifying glass. Credit: Wikipedia.

Indexed Database vs. OCR

Both indexed databases and optical character recognition search engines are essential to your genealogy research, but you do need to know the difference in order to conduct a thorough search.

While the search engine on GenealogyBank looks similar to the search engine you’ll find on other familiar websites, there is one important difference. GenealogyBank’s newspapers, documents and books are searchable via Optical Character Recognition (OCR). In many cases, genealogists are accustomed to content that is indexed.

On websites that house such content as vital records or the census, volunteers or paid staff go through the documents and choose certain keywords and dates to index. Keywords could be words such as a first and last name, a location, an age or an occupation. Once these keywords are indexed and the data is made available online, those fields and keywords become “searchable” meaning that a person can insert those words into the search engine and get results based on those keywords. For example, if I enter the name “Oscar Philibert” in a census search on an indexed website, I would expect to see that name or perhaps versions of that name in my result’s list.

Caution: your ability to find results in indexed content can be hampered by such things as misspellings, name variations, the readability of the document, or an error on the part of the person indexing the document.

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OCR Makes Newspapers Searchable

Indexing newspapers is too time-consuming a process, so it’s not practical to make the content available to genealogy researchers that way. You’d have to hire a huge team to read every word of every article and index millions of keywords. So instead, GenealogyBank and other similar newspaper websites use Optical Character Recognition or OCR.

What is OCR? It’s an abbreviation for Optical Character Recognition. It’s a search technology that allows a scanned document to be “read” by the computer. Websites that provide digitized books or historical newspapers use this technology to make their content searchable. The computer is programmed to recognize shapes it “sees” as letters. So when you type in a name or a keyword, the system looks for articles that match those shapes you provided.

Caution: are there problems with OCR technology? Of course. The readability of a newspaper can cause the system to have difficulty matching characters. Original older newspapers and microfilmed copies can be prone to tears, ink blots and smudges. Newspapers contain various font types and sizes as well as pages that might be black type on white background or (in the case of an advertisement) white on black background. In some cases, letters can be mistaken for similar letters. These imperfections can cause you to receive false positive results in your search.

Knowing how a website’s content was made searchable can help you try different search strategies to get better results.

A Name Is a Name, or Is It?

When searching on websites that have indexed information, it’s important to mind how you enter a first and last name because you are telling the search a specific command, to find that exact name in the exact way you have entered it. With OCR technology, you are actually telling the search engine to find two keywords (in the case of a first name and surname) that occur within two words of each other. For the OCR technology, it doesn’t know it’s looking for a name; instead, it is looking for words that you have entered—more specifically, characters you have entered. (This is not true for all of the content on GenealogyBank: its SSDI collection and recent obituary archives are indexed collections not reliant on OCR technology.)

Your search strategy should take into consideration what type of data you are searching and what problems may exist. With a search on indexed data, you want to be concerned about data that was incorrectly transcribed. For example, the “Mc” in McDonald might have been indexed as a middle name leaving the “Donald” as the surname.

Making the Most of Your Search in GenealogyBank

Make sure to utilize all aspects of the GenealogyBank search tools. For your initial search, it’s usually best to start with a broad search using the basic search form.

screenshot of the Simple Search search box on GenealogyBank

If your initial search turned up too many results to make it practical to look through them all, then it’s a good strategy to limit your search by a place or time period; do that especially in cases where you know from other research the exact place or time you want. In the case of a letter that could be confused for another, like an “o” for an “e” or an “l” for an “I,” try varying your search terms to take that into consideration—or even use other search terms or additional words.

See the “Advanced Search” link on the basic search form? Clicking on that brings up a new search box with more options.

screenshot of the Advanced Search search box on GenealogyBank

Sometimes You Need to Set Search Limits

Consider limiting your search in some cases. For example: once you conduct a broad newspaper search and have your list of results, you can limit your research to a state or a city. You can even search just on a single newspaper title. If you are looking for a certain “type” of newspaper article like an obituary or advertisement, limit your search to that type of article.

screenshot of the Search Results page in GenealogyBank showing the different types of newspaper articles available

Utilize the advanced search’s features by adding keywords to include and/or exclude. For example: with a surname that is also a noun such as “Race,” you may want to type in keywords for the search engine to exclude such as “car” or “track.” In other cases you might want to include keywords. If your ancestor was a railroad worker and you’re hoping to find mentions of that, include the word “railroad” or their job title. Also consider limiting your search by a date or date range.

Need more hints about using GenealogyBank? Watch these helpful YouTube videos.

It’s all in the search. Knowing what type of data you are looking for and how a search engine works can mean the difference between family history research frustration and success.

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