Family History: Genealogy Made Easy
Welcome to this step-by-step series for beginning genealogists—and more experienced ones who want to brush up or learn something new. I first ran this series in 2008. So many people have asked about it, I’m bringing it back in weekly segments.
Episode 8: Best Genealogy Websites, Part 2
In a follow up to last week’s episode about subscription genealogy records website, in my first segment our guest is Yvette Arts, Director of Content Partnerships at World Vital Records. She tells us about exciting developments at the website that have helped make it a success.
In our second segment we look at five organizations that provide free online access to genealogy records for those with North American roots: FamilySearch, the National Archives of the United States, Ellis Island Foundation, the National Archives of the United Kingdom, and Library and Archives Canada.
Now for some updates on these sites and MORE since the show first aired:
FamilySearch.org is still free and growing exponentially. It captures records from all over the world, not just North America and the U.K. It is now home to over 3.5 billion names in searchable databases, with over 35 million new records added every month. In addition, they’ve added over 60,000 digital books to the site. The layout of the website has changed dramatically since I described it in the original show. Click on Search to get to their databases, then enter an ancestor’s name and, if you can, a life event (birth, marriage, residence or death). A significant portion of new online records are browsable but not yet indexed. So now, after you search for individuals in their databases, scroll down to the Browse section below the search fields. There you’ll be able to see what records you can browse for a locale (choose the international region, then you can choose more specific locations). You can still order microfilmed records at the Family History Library to a satellite FamilySearch library near you. From the Search screen, choose Catalog, and you can search for and order available records by location.
The National Archives (U.S.), also known as the National Archives and Record Administration (NARA) also offers more on its website now. The portal for genealogists looks a little different now but still helps you see how to search and use the site for genealogy. There’s a direct link to the 1940 census, with images, maps and descriptions. Remember that Footnote, the subscription site I mentioned that’s digitizing military records, is now Fold3, which we talked about in Episode 7.
EllisIsland.org still offers free access to the passenger records of those who landed at Ellis Island. In addition, you can still look at ship information (click on Ships from the home page). The Immigrant Experience and timeline I mention can be found by clicking on the Ellis Island tab.
The National Archives (U.K.) links from the home page to resources for ordering birth, marriage and death certificates for England and Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Read about updating order information, including costs, at these sites. There is still a portal for genealogists from which you can learn all about the various record groups I mention in the podcast and more.
Library and Archives Canada continues to add more valuable genealogical data to its site, including census data! Start from its Genealogy and Family History page. In addition to the features I mention in the show, they’ve improved their online indexes: scroll down on the above page and you’ll find the Ancestors Search (Databases) link to a main search engine and individual databases for vital records, censuses, immigration, land, military and several directories.
Browse-only collections at Ancestry and other genealogy websites are sometimes viewed as inaccessible, but they are actually a hidden treasure. Learn how to access these browse-only collections at Ancestry and expand your family history research.
The good news is that FamilySearch is not alone in offering browse-only content. Ancestry.com also has browse-only collections of digitized records. (Not an Ancestry.com subscriber yet? Click here to learn more. This is an affiliate link and we are compensated if you make a purchase, which supports this free blog. Thank you!)
Knowing how to search and browse records effectively is critical because you shouldn’t just rely on hints. Ancestry, for example, only provides hints from about the top 10% of their most popular databases. That means if you only spend time on reviewing hints, you’re missing a massive amount of genealogical information available in all of the other records.
Typically you’ll be using the search feature to find those other records. However not all records are searchable. That’s because after the long process of acquiring the rights to digitize and publish a genealogy record collection, it takes even longer to get them indexed for a variety of reasons. Thankfully, Ancestry doesn’t always make us wait to gain access to them until the indexing is complete.
The digital images are published without an index. This means they are not searchable by names and other keywords. Therefore, it can take some time to locate a record within one of these collections. But I think you’ll agree it’s more convenient to look through them from the comfort of your own home rather than renting microfilm or traveling to a far off location!
Here’s your checklist for better browsing.
HOW TO FIND BROWSE-ONLY RECORDS AT ANCESTRY
While Ancestry.com doesn’t make it quite as easy as FamilySearch to find browse-only or partially-indexed databases, it’s still very much worth the effort.
1. Head to the Card Catalog
From the main menu on the Ancestry website, select Search > Card Catalog.
2. Search and Filter
In the upper left corner you can search the catalog by title and / or keyword. However, if you know the type of record you are looking for, such as military records, the best place to start is filtering by that category. If the list is long, you can then search within that category by keywords.
3. Determining if the Records are Searchable
If you don’t see a search box on the left side, then you can assume that this collection has not yet been indexed and therefore isn’t searchable by keywords and other data. Instead you will see typically see the source information box at the top.
HOW TO FILTER BROWSE-ONLY GENEALOGY RECORDS
1. Browse This Collection Box
On the right side of the screen you will see a Browse this Collection box. The filtering options presented will depend on the way the collection is organized.
In the case of the Nevada County Marriage database, a drop down menu allows you to filter by county.
2. Make a Selection
As you can see in my example, once I selected a county I can also filter down by record books. So even though you can’t search names, you can often zero in on the portion of the collection most relevant to your search.
Browse this Collection box
HOW TO BROWSE RECORDS AT ANCESTRY.COM
Once you have selected the available filters, you’ll find yourself in the digitized records. They are displayed in a filmstrip layout which will come in quite handy for navigation through the pages.
Navigation is crucial since we can’s search by names and keywords. Let’s take a closer look at the ways you can navigate:
Browsing a digitized genealogy record collection at Ancestry.com
Finding the Filmstrip
if you don’t see the filmstrip view, click the filmstrip icon:
Finding and Using the Original Index
WATCH THE BONUS VIDEObelow to see the next section in action. Click on the sound button to the right of the play button to turn on the sound.
Many records that were originally bound in books like this collection include index pages. In this book the index appears at the beginning. If you look closely at the filmstrip images it’s easy to spot where the index lists are and where the records begin.
So even though Ancestry hasn’t had the chance to index the records yet, they are indexed in the book. This will make the job of browsing for the records you need even easier.
The “About” box on the card catalog entry often includes important information about whether or not the collection has an index. One example of this is the Canada, Photographic Albums of Settlement, 1892-1917 record collection. It is a browse-only series of digitized photo albums by Canada’s Department of the Interior between 1892 and 1917. The collection description includes very useful instructions such as: “At the beginning of each album, you will find a table of contents with a brief description of each photograph and the photograph number. Use these tables to help you browse to the photograph of interest.” As you can see, taking a few extra moments to read about the collection can make browsing it much easier.
Save Time When Browsing Between Volumes
Remember that Browse this Collection box on the right hand side of the card catalog entry page? (See the Browse this Collection box image 6 images above.) This handy menu is also embedded in the record viewer. If you need to switch to a different book, album or other portion of the collection, you don’t have to hit the back button and start over. Instead, at the top of the viewing page, click the volume or collection you are currently viewing (this appears as a sub-title under the main title of the collection.) A browse structure menu will appear showing you all the other options within the collection. Just click the one you want and you will be instantly switched over. Think of it as pulling a different volume of a series of books off the shelf!
Switching volumes within the collection within the viewer.
Browsing Indexed Records
There will be times when even though a record collection is indexed, you may still want to browse it. Browsing isn’t just for unindexed records. Many genealogy gems can be found by browsing a database that you’ve already searched. You may spot neighbors of interest, other surnames from your family tree, and more. So even when you are working with a record collection that has a search box, look for the browsing option in the right column.
HOW TO FIND THE NEWEST RECORDS AT ANCESTRY.COM
The records most likely to not yet be indexed, and therefore browse-only, are the newest records added to Ancestry. If you’re looking to bust through a brick wall, here’s a great way to find the newest records that just might do it.
1. Go to the Card Catalog
From the main menu on the Ancestry website, select Search > Card Catalog.
2. Sort the Records
In the right hand corner you’ll find a Sort By menu. Select Date Added.
Select Date Added from the Sort by menu.
3. Newest Record View
The Card Catalog will now be presented in the order in which the records were added. The newest records will appear at the top of the list.
4. Filter the List
Use the filters along the left side of the page to filter the collections by record type, location, and date. Then use the search boxes to target keywords. This will give you results that include your keyword starting with the newest collections.
BONUS PDF AND MORE RESOURCES
Making a small investment of time in getting to know the search and browsing functions of a website can pay off big.