Every genealogist has experienced the frustration of clicking on a link and discovering that the page is gone or the resource is now defunct. Things change rapidly as technology evolves, so it’s a problem that isn’t going away any time soon.
Genealogy Gems Podcast listeners often ask what to do when they run across a broken or defunct website in the show notes of older episodes of The Genealogy Gems Podcast. I’ve got answers for you today that can help you get back on track whenever this happens to you.
I received this email from a listener of the free Genealogy Gems Podcast, and it’s one I’ve received from lots of listeners and genealogists alike:
“As one of your podcast listeners who is working my way through past episodes, I am running into a bit of frustration that I am wondering if you, on someone else reading this, can help me on. I have tried to get to a couple of websites that guests of yours mentioned, with no success. (I’m listening to episodes from) 2010, where I am at now, (and that) may not be all that long ago for many, but it is an eon in internet terms.
Are you, or anybody else reading this, aware of any person or site tracking genealogy related websites that records/posts notations of name changes, buy-outs by other service providers, or just plain disappearances? You might have mentioned some in the interim, but I’m still a hundred episodes in arrears.”
That’s the wonderful thing about podcasts, you can listen when the episode is published or even a decade later. That’s because podcasts, unlike radio shows, are recordings that you can access whenever it’s convenient for you. But my listener is correct, things change quickly online, and that includes website links I refer to in the show notes web pages of older episodes.
How to Find Information When a Website has Disappeared
I love hearing that listeners are enjoying the free Genealogy Gems Podcast archive. We hear over and over that our listeners pick up something new each time they listen. However, I completely understand the frustration of encountering defunct websites and resources. What a bother they are!
Unfortunately with the speed at which online information changes, it’s just about as impossible to keep years of web content current (while still producing new content) as it is finding a genealogy record that burned in a courthouse fire!
The good news is that with a little persistence, you can probably locate where a source has moved to or find alternatives that may provide the same function. Paying attention to clues and details around the original source itself can lead you to alternatives that can accomplish the same goals or provide the same or similar information. And of course, tracking down information that’s gone missing is certainly a valuable skill in all areas of genealogy!
Here are a few great strategies to help you find information when a website has disappeared:
1. The Wayback Machine Can Find Defunct Sites
1) If you run across a link to a now defunct site, copy the website link. Next, go to the Internet Archive at https://web.archive.org and paste the web address that you copied into the Wayback Machine search field. Press enter on your keyboard to run the search on that address. You may very likely be able to retrieve a screenshot of the page.
If you’ve been researching your family history for several years, you’ll probably recognize the screenshot of World Vital Records (below) at the Wayback Machine.
You may not gain access to everything that was there originally, but you’ll very likely glean clues that you can use to find the information you seek on another website using a Google search.
One of the features most recently added to the Wayback Machine is the Save Page Now tool. This helps you capture web pages and add them to the Wayback Machine at the time that you find them. That way, even if the site goes away, you’ll have a copy of the web page for future reference.
This tool works on any web page that allows “crawlers”, which most sites do. Crawlers are used by sites like Google and the Wayback Machine to index information and capture the pages.
To save a web page using the Wayback Machine, copy the web page’s address and paste it into the Save Page Now field. It will bring up the page in your browser and show you that it’s being processed and will be added to the Wayback Machine.
The page will be conveniently stamped with the date that it was captured. This is helpful because even though websites may stay online for years to come, the content on their pages may be changed over time. By using the Save Page Now feature and adding the web page to the Wayback Machine, you will be able to revisit the information that was on that page on that specific date well into the future, regardless of changes that may be made to it over time.
2. Google Your Question
You’ve heard me say it many times: Just Google it!And that certainly applies here. Google is great at finding alternative sources for the same information. No question is a dumb question when it comes to Google.
If you are running into a challenge with a defunct site or have a question, chances are someone else has had the same question! It may have been posted on a message forum, a blog post or the help section of a website. Google can help you find the question and the answers that were provided.
Let’s say you come across a link to the World Vital Records website in the syllabus of a class you took several years ago. (If you’ve been researching your family history for a while, then you probably remember this genealogy records website.) And imagine that when you type the link into your web browser, you discover that the link is broken and the website no longer exists.
Here’s an example of what you could ask Google in order to find out what has happened to the World Vital Records website:
When did world vital records close?
Sunset notice for World Vital Records
Who acquired World Vital Records?
As you can see in the example search in the image above, the sunset notice for World Vital Records, which was acquired by MyHeritage, was issued in September of 2018. Click the link to the article to read up on all the details.
When faced with a broken link your first impulse may be to ask another person or someone you see as an expert on the subject. That can work too, but chances are they may just ask you “did you Google it?” That’s because, like it or not, Googling at the moment you have the question is much faster and provides you with the latest information.
Think of Google as asking your question to every single web page in the world – all at once. If the answer is out there, Google can probably find it.
3. Google the Content
As I said, the internet is growing and changing every day and it is very possible you may find the content is now available elsewhere.
Any good source that provides website URLs will usually include information about what you’ll find on that website. You can use that information to run a Google search. Your goal is to determine if the information you seek is available elsewhere from the same provider, or identify another website that references the same content.
Start by copying short phrases of key information and pasting it into the Google search box. Put quotation marks around the text. Quotation marks are a standard Google search operator and they will tell Google to search for web pages that include that exact phrase, sentence or paragraph. (Quotation marks also work on individual words such as surnames.) If you don’t get an exact search result, remove the quotation marks and place them just around the most important individual key words.
Here’s an example of how this works:
In Genealogy Gems Podcast episode 62 (published back in 2009) I talked with actor Darby Hinton about a new history-themed television series he was producing called Hintons Living History. The show notes include a link to the website devoted to the show. Clicking that link leads to an error page because the website has since been taken down. (For website publishers like myself, we are often faced with the decision between creating new content, or constantly combing through old published content to fix what is out of date. I think you will agree that continuing to create new content is preferable.)
Since the link no longer works, a Google search of the name of the television show in quotation marks (“Hintons Living History”) provides a plethora of information and videos to learn more about the show.
Obvious, But Not Always
While the solutions I’ve shared here may seem somewhat obvious, time and time again I’ve watched people get befuddled by running into broken genealogy website links. It’s totally understandable. In the excitement of the moment of finding something interesting, getting stopped in your tracks by a broken links creates frustration. Our brains tend to focus on that obstacle and frustration rather than the simple solutions that are available.
Now you have a game plan that you can use so that broken links will only be a blip on your genealogical research path.
This article was originally written in January 2019, and extensively updated August 6, 2019. Can you find the old version on the Wayback Machine?
Show Notes: A compiled history is kind of like standing on the shoulders of the giants of genealogy that came before you. OK, so maybe they weren’t giants, but they did document what they found and they published it so that you can benefit from it. This means that rather than having to start from scratch, you can look at the research that’s already been done. This provides you with clues and information that you can track down and verify for yourself to add to your family tree. In this week’s video, I’m going to show you one of my favorite collections of compiled family histories at Ancestry, and the search strategies you’ll need for success.
A compiled history is kind of like standing on the shoulders of the giants of genealogy that came before you. OK, so maybe they weren’t giants, but they did document what they found, and they published it so that you can benefit from it. This means that rather than having to start from scratch, you have the opportunity to take a look at the research and the work that’s already been done by somebody else before you. This provides you with clues and information that you can track down and verify for yourself to add to your family tree.
Just like online family trees, not every compiled family history is well documented or well sourced. However, they can still be a great help.
Compiled Family Histories at Ancestry
So, where do we find compiled histories? One of my favorite places to find them is at Ancestry.com. They have a particularly terrific record collection called North America Family Histories 1500 to 2000. It’s not going to pop up in your regular search results. You’ll find it through Ancestry’s Card Catalog. It contains nearly a thousand privately published family history books containing over 4 million records. They focus particularly on the 18th and 19th century families, especially with Revolutionary War and Colonial ties. But you’ll also find some European family histories included, and particularly those with some nobility connections, which can take families are way back in time.
Today I’d like to introduce you to this exciting collection. Whether you need a little rejuvenation of your own family history, or you’re just getting started, either way compiled histories are a tried-and-true record collection that all genealogists should use.
How to Find the Collection
On the Ancestry.com homepage on desktop, in the menu click SEARCH > Card Catalog. It’s important to understand that a small percentage of the total records at Ancestry are delivered to you through hints. Therefore, it’s important not to just rely on hints, and take advantage of the entire card catalog. It’s really the best place to go when you know the title of a collection, like this one. You can type in the entire title or just a few keywords, pull up the collection and then search only within that collection.
Record collections have different searchability. Some may have an index, some may not, and some are just browsable. When searching, keep in mind that any deviation from the actual words in the title can cause it not to appear in the results. If you don’t see what you expected to find, double check your keywords. Even something like whether a word is singular or plural and affect the results. If you don’t have a specific title in mind, but you just want to browse, try a variety of synonyms, or reduce the number of words.
On the results page, you can hover over the title to get a little overview description. Click the title and you’ll find two ways to search the collection: the Browse this Collection column and the Search form.
Browse this Collection Column
Have fun and explore the collection using the Browse this Collection column. Select the first letter of a family surname, and then under Subject you’ll see an alphabetical listing of books with surnames. Click the title of a book to view the entire digitized compiled family history.
This brings up an important point. the Browse feature is just for the titles themselves. So, when you look for a surname, don’t be discouraged. If you don’t see it listed. It’s very possible that a branch of your family by that surname could be included in a book that is focused on a different surname.
The Search Form
The search form allows you to get really specific in your search with a variety of search parameters. It can also find names within a book regardless of whether the name appears in the title or description. Try it out for yourself. Get a feel for home many people appear in the collection with a particular surname, or with a first and last name. From there you can narrow down further.
Each result includes a View Record and a View Image icon. View Record provides you with some details about that person to help you determine if it’s your relative. You’ll find a variety of details depending on the amount of information available in the book. Take a moment to learn a little more about the book by clicking the Source tab. Investing a few moments up front to get familiar with the source that you’re looking at can be extremely helpful. It’s going to give you some context about who wrote this book, what it covers and possibly where a physical copy can be found. Click Learn More and scroll down the page. There you’ll find more specific information about what you might be able to find within the pages of the compiled family history. In addition to names, compiled histories may include birth date and place, baptism date and place, marriage date and place, death date and place, burial date and place and name of parents and spouses.
It’s also very handy on the search form that Ancestry will auto-populate people from your family tree based on the surname you enter so that you can fill in their information and search with one click.
Navigating within a Compiled Family History at Ancestry.com
Click the View Image icon on any search result to gain access to the digitized book. The scanned page will be zoomed in to the place on the page where the person you searched for is located. Adjust your view with the Zoom in and out tool on the right side of the screen.
Example of a page from a compiled family history at Ancestry.
At the bottom of the screen, you’ll find the filmstrip. This displays all of the individual pages of the book in order. If you want to dedicate the entire screen to the book page, click the filmstrip X to close it. If you want to return to the filmstrip, click the filmstrip icon.
The current image number (not necessarily the same as the page number) will be displayed. Learn more about the book by going to the title page. The easiest way to do that is to type “1” in the image number box and click Go. The title page and the pages immediately following it can provide you with important source information. You may also find introductory pages including the background of the author, how the book is organized and instructions on how to interpret the content within the book.
Oftentimes, at the end of the book, you will find an index. Again, the easiest way to get there is to look at the total number of pages of the book listed in the film strip bar, and then enter that number into the image field and click Go. This will jump you to the end. Use the left and right arrow keys to navigate as needed.
Improving Ancestry Images
Depending on the condition of the book and the quality of the original scanning, some books may have pages that are a little unclear or muddy-looking. You can improve the look of these pages. Click the Tool Menu icon on the right side of the screen. Here you’ll find several options. For improving the way the image looks.
If a page has a horizontal image or photo turned vertically, use the Rotate Left and RotateRight tools.
To make the page easier to ready, try Invert Colors. Black type on a white page then becomes white type on a black page which often makes it much easier to read.
Tools Menu > Invert Colors
Downloading a Compiled Family History at Ancestry
You can print or download pages from the compiled family histories at Ancestry. Having a digital version means you can read it offline and even if you no longer have an Ancestry subscription. In the Tools menu, click Download to click the current page you are viewing as a JPEG.
To print the page on paper or save it as a PDF, select Print in the Tools menu. A big advantage of the Print option is that you can opt to Also print index and source data. This will give you the page, the information specific to the person you searched for that was indexed by Ancestry, and the source information.
Use the Print to PDF function so that you can include the indexed information and source details.
Explore More Compiled Family Histories
The North American Family Histories Collection 1500-2000 at Ancestry is such a wonderful goldmine of information. If you dig into this collection, it’s going to whet your appetite to track down more compiled family histories on other websites, in your library, and at the archives.
You will all feel a little lucky this week with new and updated genealogical records for Ireland and several states across the U.S. Records from Nevada, Nebraska, Georgia, Pennsylvania, and Minnesota are on the list. Updates to two of the Freedmen’s Bureau record collections will wrap up this week’s records you can dig into.
You will need to sign-up, but remember, it’s free. Once you have logged on, you will begin your search here.
Many Irish researchers have difficulty finding records because of the destruction of the Public Record Office in 1922. Not only can you browse the records available, but also the subject guides and books for Irish genealogy.
UNITED STATES – PENNSYLVANIA – NATURALIZATION RECORDS
The Chester County, Pennsylvania website has made their naturalization indexes available for the year span of 1798-1935. To search their indexes is free, but there is no name search field. You may have to scan several pages to find the record that may interest you. The database is also available to search from Ancestry.com and allows you to search by name, date of event, and place of origin.
The index of naturalizations include the name of the individual, name of native country, and a date. The original record could hold additional information. You can request a copy of the original record from their webpage. To learn more about that, click here.
UNITED STATES – NEVADA – MARRIAGE & DIVORCE
The most difficult records too find are often those that were created within the last 50 years. Due to the scarcity of recent records, we are pleased to see Ancestry has added a new database titled Nevada, Marriage Certificates, 2002-2015. You can search by name, date, location, and spouses name.
The digital image of the marriage records differs from year to year and location to location, but generally, you will find the couples’ names, ages, date and location of the marriage, and the person who officiated the wedding.
Nevada, Divorce Records, 1968-2015 has recently been updated on Ancestry as well. This index includes nearly half a million divorce records. You can use the index to locate the county the divorce took place, and then contact that county for the original records. You won’t find the reason for divorce in this index, but you can find the county of divorce and the divorce file number that will help locate the further records you want.
UNITED STATES – NEBRASKA – PASSENGER LISTS
A passenger list database for Omaha, Nebraska? Yep, but these are passenger and crew lists of air manifests between the years of 1958-1965. The collection is titled Omaha, Nebraska, Passenger and Crew Manifests of Airplanes, 1958-1965. If your Omaha relative did a lot of air travel, these records may be of interest to you. These records were were recorded on a variety of forms turned over to the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Some details included the name of the airline, type of aircraft, flight number, places of departure and arrival, dates of departure and arrival, full name, age, gender, physical description, military rank (if any), occupation, birthplace, citizen of what country, and residence. For military transports, you may even find the next of kin, relationships, and addresses. Later, manifests may include visa or passport numbers.
UNITED STATES – MINNESOTA – PASSENGER LISTS
The same is true in this database, Minnesota, Passenger and Crew Lists, 1957-1962 at Ancestry. This collection includes both air travel and ships coming into Minnesota ports. The original records were originally digitized by the National Archives and Records Administration. Information you may collect from these digital images include:
Ethnicity, nationality or last country of permanent residence
Port of arrival
Port of departure
UNITED STATES – GEORGIA – BONDS AND LICENSES
Ancestry has added the Savannah, Georgia, Licenses and Bonds, 1837-1909 database this week. You will find digital images of records from the City of Savannah’s Clerk of Council relating to people and businesses. These records usually include the name of person’s name, occupation, name of business, record date, record place, and subject.
This is the week to explore new European genealogy records online! This weekly record roundup covers four areas of England as well as France, Germany, Ireland, Luxembourg, Scotland, Spain and Sweden. Boost your family history research by keeping up with new records...
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 2008-09. So many people have asked about it, I’m bringing it back in weekly segments.
Episode 34: Do Your Genealogy at the Public Library, Part 1
Did you know there is a gem of a genealogical resource right in your own backyard? Well, at least in your own neighborhood—and also in just about every neighborhood where your ancestors lived. The public library is one of the most underestimated sources of genealogical information around! It’s free. It has better hours than most government-run agencies. There are staff with research skills, knowledge of their locale and knowledge about their collections. I have invited Patricia Van Skaik, Manager of the History and Genealogy Department of the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County to join us here on the podcast. In this episode she’s going to give us the inside scoop on the unique genealogical resources that are tucked away in public libraries just waiting to be discovered.
What’s at the library?
Each library has unique materials for its locale. Examples include:
Partnerships with local societies and clubs, and organizations (access to databases)
Unique library expertise
TIP: Check with the public libraries in each location where your ancestors lived TIP: Genealogy holdings vary, and often have to do with what local constituents want.
TIP: Get involved and make requests at your local library if you want more genealogy resources.
How to prepare for your visit
Determine your questions ahead of time and gather the appropriate ancestor information to take with you.
See if they have a genealogy area on the website. There are lots of things on the library website that are not in the catalogue (special exhibits, digitized images, and databases) Don’t just jump straight to the catalogue.
Search the online catalog and identify the books and resources you want
Look for the geographic area, not the person’s surname (town, county, geographical area)
Use the Advanced search – “you don’t have to be an advanced researcher to use the advanced search!”
Don’t use the word “genealogy” in your search. It’s pretty useless.
4 more tips from Lisa and Patricia
Email in advance – ask some questions ahead of time:
Is the website up to date?
Reconfirm hours of operation
What’s the best time to come for more service?
Is wi-fi available?
Do you need change for copy machines?
Are there any special collections you should know about?
Do they offer orientations?
Plan a group visit: Some libraries will make special accommodations for a group visit. Ask if they will provide a tour geared to genealogy. And they may have a meeting room where you can have lunch or meet. It’s a small investment in time and money to make sure that you’re going to get the most of the time you’re going to spend there.
Get their expertise! Librarians don’t just know the collection, but they also know research strategy, collection contents, all the questions that have come before, and local area resources.
Phrase your questions for success: Pose questions in terms of a query. For example: “I’m trying to find evidence of someone’s death during this time frame. What materials do you have that may help?” (Don’t just ask specifically for obituaries or government death records—they may not have one but they may have other resources you’re not thinking of.)
Tune in next week to Episode 35 to learn more about researching at the public library, like tips for advance searching those online card catalogs, thinking like a librarian, unique collections at librarians and the types of questions you can ask your public library staff.