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 3: Working Backward and the SSDI
In our first segment in this episode my guest is Miriam Robbins Midkiff, a well-known genealogy blogger and teacher. She shares her best research tips, what motivates her to delve into her family history and how that discovery has enriched her life.
Then in our second segment we answer the question, “Why do we work backwards in genealogy?” and then fire up the Internet and go after your first genealogical record. Below, find current links to the record sources I talk about in the show. Also, when I recently checked, the Social Security Death Index was no longer free at WorldVitalRecords as I mention in the podcast and some of the site features I mention may have changed. I’ve given you links below to more options for searching, including plenty of FREE options!
When it comes to tracing your family history, there are standard methods that will help you build a solid family tree. Starting with yourself and working backwards is a cornerstone of genealogical research. It will be tempting to start with a great grandparent that you just got some juicy information on after interviewing Aunt Martha, but resist the temptation to start with that great grandparent, and go back to the beginning – and that’s YOU!
There’s a very good reason why working backward is so effective. Let’s say you have filled in info on yourself, and then recorded everything about your parents and now it’s time to work on one of your grandfathers and all you have is the date he died and the date he was born. If you are lucky enough to have his birth date and birthplace and you get his birth certificate it will tell you who his parents were, but it can’t predict his future can it? Where he went to school, where he lived over the years, etc. Documents can only tell you what has occurred in the past, not what will occur in that person’s future.
But if you get his death certificate it will give you key information at the end of his life that can lead you to the various events throughout his life. If you don’t have his birthdate and birthplace, you’ll probably find it on the death certificate. It will also likely name his parents and his spouse. A birth record can’t tell you who he will marry, but a death record can tell you who he did marry. You can start to see how starting at the end of someone’s life and working backwards will be the most efficient and accurate way to research.
Records are like the bread crumb trail of your family tree! If you don’t work systematically backwards, it will be very easy to miss a crucial piece of evidence, and you might end up relying on guesswork and end up building a false history on it. Believe me you don’t want to invest time in a tree that you’re going to have to chop down and replant!
So now that you understand and are committed to following this cornerstone concept of systematically starting with yourself and working backwards, it’s time to fire up the Internet and put it into practice by finding your first record. What type of record will we be looking for? A death record of course!
Is one of your parents deceased? If so, you’re going to start with them. If they are still living, and you’ve got their information entered into your genealogy database choose one of their parents, your grandparents, who is deceased – or if you’re lucky enough to be starting at a young age you may have to go back to a deceased great grandparent! (And good for you for starting now while you’re young!)
Chances are the person that you’ve chosen, for this example let’s say it’s your grandfather, he most likely had a social security card. And there is a wonderful free database online in the United States called the Social Security Death Index, what is commonly referred to as the SSDI, that you can use to find that grandparent.
In 1935 the Social Security Act was signed into law by President Franklin Roosevelt, and consequently more than thirty million Americans were registered by 1937. Today, the Death Master File from the Social Security Administration contains over 89 million records of deaths that have been reported to the Social Security Administration and they are publicly available online.
Most of the information included in the index dates from 1962, although some data is from as early as 1937. This is because the Social Security Administration began to use a computer database for processing requests for benefits in 1962. Many of the earlier records back to 1937 have not been added.
The SSDI does not have a death record for everyone; and occasionally you may find an error here and there if something was reported inaccurately, but overall it’s a terrific resource! As with all records it provides clues that you should try to verify through an additional record source.
There are many websites that feature this database, as seen in the UPDATED links below. This database is free at most sites, even sites that charge for access to other data.
On the Search page, enter your grandparent’s given name which is their first name, the family name which is their last name or surname, the place of their death – this could just be the state – and the year they died, and click the Search button. Hopefully you will get back a result that includes your grandparent.
Now remember you’re looking at an index, not an original record or primary source. We talked about sources in Episode 2. A primary source is a document that was created at the time of the event by an authoritative source, usually someone with direct personal knowledge of the event that’s being documented, like a death certificate is completed at the time of death by the attending physician. These are the best and usually most accurate types of sources you can find. And that’s what we want!
The really key information in this search result is the county information. In order to get an original death certificate which would be your primary source you have to know which county they died in. You may already know that for your grandparent, but keep this in mind because the further back we go, the more crucial it will be to know the county involved since that’s where death certificates are recorded.
By any chance did your grandparent not show up in the results even though you know they worked after 1937 when the Social Security got rolling, and you know they have passed away? Don’t fret – We have other ways to try and find the info!
This brings us to what I think is a really important concept to keep in mind whenever you’re researching your family on the Internet. Each search is conducted at a specific moment in time. Running an SSDI search or a Google search tomorrow might give you results different than the one you ran today. The Internet is being updated second by second, and the SSDI has been updated several times over the years.
In the case of the SSDI database, you can’t be absolutely sure that the website you are using to search the SSDI has the most current version available. Look in the database description on the site to see how recently it was updated.
Here’s a perfect example of that: When I searched for my grandfather on my dad’s side from the Family Tree Legends website, I got no results. Now I KNOW he died in 1971 and I KNOW he worked his entire life so he had to have been registered with Social Security. Then I went to Ancestry.com and searched for him in their SSDI database and he popped right up.
On the other hand, my maternal grandmother shows up on all three websites I’ve mentioned. In most cases, you’ll find who you’re looking for, but occasionally, like with my grandfather, you may have to dig in your heels and try the SSDI on a couple of different websites to find who them. Never give up, never surrender. That’s my motto!
And of course, each website offers just a little different variation on the terms that you can search on.
So just in case you have a stubborn ancestor who eludes your first SSDI search, try finding them at several of the SSDI databases. If you do have luck on World Vital Records, be sure and click the More Details link next to your search results because it includes some fun extras like a link called Historical Events next to their birth year and death year that will take you to a list of important historical events that were happening those particular years. It’s kind of fun to see what was going on in the world when your grandparent was born.
You’ll also find a link called Neighbors which will take you to a listing of folks who lived in the same county as your ancestor and died in within a year or two of them.
But most helpful is that your research results on World Vital Records will include a listing of nearby cemeteries which are good possibilities for where your ancestor may have been buried. (Again, just clues to hopefully send you in the right direction.) But as I said, the death certificate is going to be your best and primary source and almost always includes the name and address of the cemetery where the person was buried.
Here are a few more search tips if you don’t find your ancestor right away:
1. Make sure that you tried alternate spellings for their name. You never know how it might have been typed into the SSDI database.
2. Many SSDI indexes allow you to use wildcards in your search. So for example you could type in “Pat*” which would pull up any name that has the first three letters as PAT such as Patrick, Patricia, etc.
3. Try using less information in your search. Maybe one of the details you’ve been including is different in the SSDI database. For example it may ask for state and you enter California because that’s where grandpa died, when they were looking for Oklahoma because that’s where he first applied for his social security card. By leaving off the state you’ll get more results. Or leave off the birth year because even though you know it’s correct, it may have been recorded incorrectly in the SSDI and therefore it’s preventing your ancestor from appearing in the search results.
4. Leave out the middle name because middle names are not usually included in the database. However, if you don’t have luck with their given name, try searching the middle name as their given name. In the case of my grandfather his given name was Robert but he went by the initial J.B. But in the SSDI his name is spelled out as JAY BEE! Go figure!
5. Remember that married women will most likely be listed under their married surname, not their maiden name. But if you strike out with the married name, go ahead and give the maiden a try. She may have applied for her card when single, and never bothered to update the Administration’s records. Or if she was married more than once, check all her married names for the same reason.
6. Don’t include the zip code if there is a search field for it because zip codes did not appear in earlier records.
While most folks will appear in the SSDI, there are those who just won’t. But knowing where information is not located can be as important down the road in your research as knowing where it IS located, so I recommend making a note in your database that you did search the SSDI with no result. This will save you from duplicating the effort down the road because you forgot that you looked there. I admit it, in the past I’ve managed to check out books I’ve already looked through and order a record or two that I already had. Lesson learned!
So here’s your assignment for this week: Go through your genealogy database and do a Social Security Death Index search on every deceased person who was living after 1937. Hopefully you will be able to fill in several more blanks in your genealogy database and family tree!
Show Notes: Reconstructing with Ancestors’ Lives with Newspapers
In this video, Lisa Louise Cooke and Jenny Ashcraft from Newspapers.com discuss how to use newspapers to fill in the missing stories in your ancestors’ lives. Jenny shares strategic tips on finding unique information many researchers miss.
Interview with Jenny Ashcraft of Newspapers.com. (Edited for clarity)
Lisa: Let’s talk about one of my favorite things, which is reconstructing the life story of an ancestor. Not just the names, dates, places. We want to expand that out to include the events, the people, what they did in their life. Newspapers really can tell that kind of story for anybody, can’t they?
Jenny: It’s true. We love those vital records, right? As genealogists we’d love to have those birth, marriage and death records. But what happened in between? Newspapers are a wonderful resource for kind of bringing color and stories to your ancestors’ life. How did their life impact history? How did history impact their life? You can try to find those stories and piece together a story of their life through newspapers.
Lisa: And the newspaper articles don’t have to actually name our relative to be really valuable in reconstructing their story. We can look at the family tree and see what we’ve found so far. We can find supporting evidence and information that helps tell us what was happening at the time in their life.
Jenny: Exactly! Because sometimes you might not find your ancestors name or a newspaper article about a specific event. But what you can do is create a context for what was happening, what was happening in their family, what was happening in their community, the country and the world. Even if you can’t find a specific article about them, you can still create a context for what their experiences would have been.
Lisa: Well, I know you’re doing to share your grandfather’s story today and I just think it’s a perfect example. We’ll use your grandfather as kind of a test case and have you kind of show us the reconstruction process. Where did you start?
Jenny’s grandfather Lamar Norton
Getting Started Using Newspapers for Genealogy
(03:17) Jenny: I started looking for my grandfather’s birth announcement and I couldn’t find it.
He lived in a tiny town called Panguitch, Utah. The local newspaper was just a short little run of a newspaper, only a few years. It was a weekly, and the birth announcement was not there!
I thought, okay, if I can’t find my grandfather’s birth announcement, I’ll look for the family. And I found a birth announcement for his older brother that was born just two years before him.
I started looking for other clippings that I might be able to find more information about my grandfather. I found just a few months before his birth. I found this little article about his father driving to purchase to seven passenger Paige automobiles. This is just months before my grandfather was born. And I’m thinking well, what is a Paige automobile? So, I searched for Paige automobiles, and found a picture of one. And even though my grandfather’s name is not in this clipping, but I’m starting to get a little context. This is the car that his father was going to purchase just before his birth. So that’s kind of fun!
All of these clippings they start to create a context for this little Norton family. My grandfather’s name was Lamar Norton. He was born in a small town in Panguitch, Utah. He was a father of seven, and a World War II veteran. I just wanted to learn a little bit more about his life.
Even though I couldn’t find a birth announcement, I started finding clippings about his family, his siblings, his parents, and it started to help me create a context for what the Norton family was experiencing in 1915 in Panguitch, Utah.
Lamar started to grow up. And his family moved to another very small town called LaPointe, Utah. He was living in the point when he met a young woman that would become his future wife. Her name was Velma Hollinger. I wanted to find out if they talked about their marriage in the paper. Was there a newspaper story? And what can we learn about their marriage?
Newspapers.com Marriage Index
(06:11) An effective way to search for marriages in the newspaper is by using the Marriage Index at Newspapers.com.
Our data science team at Ancestry, figured out how to use data intelligence to scour through all of the newspapers and extract marriage announcements and obituaries. There are like 250 million obituaries and 17 million marriage announcements. You can search for just marriage announcements.
Here’s how I searched for my grandfather’s marriage announcement in the Marriage Index. His last name was Lamar Norton, so I’m entered Lamar Norton in the Search tab. It brought up about 468,000 matches! So, I needed to filter the search. You can do that by using the button called result type and selecting. I could add a location and a date and filter those as well.
Next, I went to the map because I know the marriage was in Utah. So, I clicked on Utah on the map. This gave me 10 matches. As I looked through the list, I found his marriage announcement. This process allows you to search without going through all the clippings. You can search just for marriage announcements.
Lisa: That’s really slick. It’s nice that we can just run a simple search first, and then start making adjustments. We don’t necessarily have to mark everything on the very first search time.
Jenny: You don’t have to. There are so many filters. If you find yourself with too many results, start using those filters and narrow the years or narrow the location.
I happen to know that he was born in Utah. So, I just quickly added Utah onto that filter. But if there were too many things. I could keep filtering and filtering until I just have a very few results to choose from.
Lamar and his now wife, Velma started their young family and they had two little children. But this simple life for the Norton’s was not going to last because in just a very few short years, we went to war. The headlines of the newspapers announce the U.S. entry.
With a wife and two young children, Lamar hoped that he wasn’t going to be drafted. But when it came time to register Lamar and some of his friends loaded in a car and they headed to the registration office to register for the draft. Apparently, they discussed on the way who might or might not get drafted and everybody was sure that he was not going to get drafted because he was the only one married with two small children. Well, it was quite a shock just days later, when Lamar received notice that he had been drafted and had just days to report.
It was apparently quite a big deal in the community that this young father had been drafted. I was sure that there must be something about it in the newspaper. But when I searched Lamar Norton, I couldn’t find it in the tiny, small-town paper.
I started adjusting my search parameters and eventually I did find it was published in the paper. However, the quality of the printing was really poor. His name is Lamar Norton, but I could hardly even see that. When I adjusted my parameters to just search Lamar and Norton, in the right timeframe in the right town, that’s when I found this little announcement that he had been drafted.
Expanding Your Newspaper Search
(10:45) There he was heading off to war, knowing that my grandmother is going to be left at home with two small children. I thought, what was she going to do? What’s her life going to be like now that her young husband is heading off to war. She doesn’t know when he’s going to come back, or there’s always the possibility that he might not come back.
Asking questions about the story you’ve found so far can help you develop new searches. These questions that I had certainly prompted me to start searching for my grandmother in the paper. er name was Velma Norton. Sure enough, I found an article that shows that she decided to go home and live with her parents while her husband is off fighting. I just searched for her name, and then again, adjusted the search parameters for that same time period.
Lamar headed off to basic training, and in this training he learns how to repair tanks. They start training him to become a mechanic, and he was assigned to serve with Patton’s Third Army. Well, through the newspapers I learned that right before he headed off to Europe, he was able to come home one last time on furlough. I found a little announcement about it in the paper. He’s home visiting his wife and his two children and his parents. I find it very interesting also because of the date of the article, November 9, 1944. If you’re familiar with World War II history, then you may know that there was about to be a very big, pivotal battle in World War II. It was one of the costliest battles of the war. It was the Battle of the Bulge. Well, Lamar headed off to Europe, and for the next several months, he was involved in horrific fighting.
He came home from the war with something that was called Shell Shock. Today, we know it as PTSD. I remember, as a little girl, that if a balloon popped, or if there was a loud clap of thunder, he would just dive under the table. It was just kind of an involuntary reaction due to such tremendous fighting that he endured. There was one instance when he was repairing a tank. The track had come off the tank, and he was under fire in the tank surrounded by the enemy. Still, he managed to repair this tank and get the tank on the road. For that he received a Bronze Star.
Maybe you have an ancestor that fought in World War II or another military battle. Perhaps they came home but they didn’t want to talk about it. I know that my grandfather’s brother said at his funeral, when your grandfather came home, he wanted to forget what he had seen.
In addition to searching for your ancestor, search on other aspects of their life such as the battalion or unit they served in. If you know a specific battle that they participated in, you can learn about that battle. It’s just like we talked about creating a context. Even though all of the Battle of the Bulge newspaper articles I read didn’t talk about my grandfather specifically, I was able to get a context and understand this traumatic fighting that he endured and what that might have been like.
Another search strategy is to look for their obituary. Oftentimes veterans’ obituaries will list what unit they served in or what battles they may have participated in.
Lisa: Well, that’s a great point. We can take records we’ve already found and go back and pull those pieces of information off and then go search them in the newspapers.
Jenny: Yes indeed.
Now, the Third Army Patton’s Third Army, following the Battle of the Bulge, they started moving across Germany. On April 4, 1945, they came across a concentration camp, and it was called Ohrdruf concentration camp. This was the very first concentration camp that was liberated by the Americans.
These young men just couldn’t believe their eyes. They did not know what they were seeing. They came across soldiers that had been killed. They saw bodies stacked like cordwood. They just had never seen anything like it. They called to their superiors, and they said,” We have found something amazing here. We think you better come and see it.” And so, generals Eisenhower and Patton and Bradley all came. They said, “Don’t touch anything we want to see with our own eyes, what you’ve found.”
When they arrived, they were searching through this camp and they found the bodies and they found a pyre where there were remains from burned soldiers, as the Nazis tried to destroy the evidence. It was so traumatic for Eisenhower and Patton and Bradley that General Patton became physically sick by the things that he’d seen. Everybody was just astounded.
Even though I’m not seeing my grandfather by name, I can learn even more about his experience. I found and amazing article about a man who had been side by side with Lamar. He gave a personal account to their hometown paper when they got home from the war. This allows me to understand even more the impact that this experience had on my grandfather. It was just so sobering and powerful to understand what he has experienced! As I said, when he came home, he didn’t want to talk about it.
Newspaper article found
Newspapers as a Replacement for Lost Records
A lot of these soldiers’ military personnel files were gathered up and sent to the National Personnel Records Center where they were stored. It was in St. Louis, Missouri. Lisa, you’re probably familiar with the fire that occurred there. In the 1970s the facility caught fire, and between 16 and 18 million personnel records were destroyed. And so many of us that are trying to do research on our ancestors, we no longer have their military papers. Newspapers are a wonderful way to try to reconstruct their story and to understand the experiences that they endured while they were in the armed services.
Search Beyond the Time and Place
(18:35) Lisa: I noticed as you made your newspaper discoveries that you moved out from those very local papers that you knew where you were finding his name, and you’re reached into newspapers across the country for these kinds of stories from people who may be served right next to him, or who saw the same things he did. And I noticed some of these were fairly recent newspapers. It’s a great example that we can pull from something maybe from the 90s, or from 2005. Something like the soldier’s recollections article that you found. We have this wealth of information that spans so many decades and potentially holds these stories.
Jenny: You’re exactly right, Lisa. It’s common, particularly with monumental anniversaries, that you might see the newspaper going back to soldiers 20 years, 50 years later and saying, ‘it’s the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Ohrdruf. Can you tell us about your experience?’ For me, these papers were able to tell the story that my grandfather couldn’t. They were able to shed light on what he experienced when he wasn’t willing to talk about it.
Lisa: You’ve already found so much. What else did you pull out of newspapers?
Jenny: Well, now that he had endured the Battle of the Bulge, and he had participated in the liberation of this concentration camp, we are close to the day things were getting better, and the war was starting to wind down. It wasn’t too long until I came across a discharge notice. My grandfather had been discharged in October 1945. I was able to find that discharge notice in his little local hometown paper. I learned that his unit was one of the few units that received the Presidential Citation award, and that he received a Silver Star award. I learned about some of his military decorations.
So, that’s another great tip when you’re searching for your ancestors. If they were wounded, if they received awards, if they were taken prisoner of war, all of those are likely to be mentioned in the paper. Search for some of those things, in addition to battles and places and anything that might be able to help you reconstruct their military story.
How One Newspaper Article Can Lead to the Next
In 1945, Lamar came home. I found an article in a Salt Lake City paper. It listed all of the Utah soldiers that were heading home. At the bottom of the article, I found listed Private First Class, Lamar Norton. And what’s great about this is it tells me what ship he came home on! That gives me a further avenue to research. I can go to the newspapers, and I can learn about that journey. I can read about when that ship docked in New York, perhaps there was rough weather or sickness or a death on the journey. I can find out all about that now that I have the name of the ship.
I then found a notice saying that he has now returned home, reunited with his family, and parents and that he was recently discharged. So, their family is being reunited and moving back in together. And I’m continuing to put this story together. You can kind of see how much context and color these newspaper article provide for his military experiences in the newspaper.
Newspaper.com Search Techniques
(22:37) Lisa: That’s terrific! As you found each one, did you use any special techniques? Can we use things like quotation marks around his name as we can in Google? You mentioned in the very first article that you found that you had to separate the name Lamar Norton and not have the first and last name right next to each other because they might appear separately in an article or both names might not appear clearly to be read by the search engine. Can you tell Newspapers.com, I want this name to appear first name last name together?
Jenny: You absolutely can! At the newspapers.com homepage I can enter Lamar Norton. And yes, one of my favorite strategies is to add quotation marks before and after his name. That is going to only return results where those two names appear together in that order. Instead of every mention of Lamar, and every mention of Norton, I’m only going to have results that are in Lamar Norton.
Be sure to take advantage of the map off to the right side of the webpage. You will see all of the states have different colors. If there is a gray state, that indicates that there is no mention of Lamar Norton. The darker the color gets the more mentions there are of what you searched for. When I clicked on Utah which was the darkest red, I see there are 251 results for Lamar Norton. And it’s kind of cool right that it also breaks it down by county. I know that for a while Lamar lived in a number of these counties, so I can actually search through the various counties and see if that is my Lamar Norton.
Lisa: I see a timeline at the bottom of the screen as well, so we can really target one particular area of time as well.
Jenny: You absolutely could! You can also do that up at the top of the page. Maybe I only want to know about his military experiences. I can search 1941 to 1945. And I have 42. Matches. A lot of them are him talking about his military experiences. So many of these are the Vernal Express, the little newspaper in the area where he lived. I can use these filters by year as well. Maybe he’s landing in Utah and a New York paper does an interview. I don’t want to just have Utah results. I can remove the state, and I can make it as wide or as narrow as I want. I would really recommend just playing with the dates. Maybe your ancestor gave an interview to the paper about their World War II experiences, but it was in the 1990s. Don’t limit yourself. If you want to know World War II history, the information might not be in World War II years. You might find it at a later date.
Lisa: That’s a great point. And a great point about not necessarily limiting yourself to his state, because I did notice when he was coming home with the Utah troops that was a newspaper from New York, right?
Jenny: Yes, because the Liberty ship had landed in New York. Exactly.
Alerts for New Newspapers at Newspapers.com
(26:20) Lisa: Now I see an Alert Me button. I’m guessing Newspapers.com is continually adding newspapers all the time. Is there a chance that it can tell me if something new gets loaded onto the website?
Jenny: Yes. You can set up an alert. WE are constantly adding new papers. In fact, we hit a milestone a few weeks ago, 750 million pages of newspapers. You’ll find a counter on the home page. In fact, in the past week and a half, we’ve added another 5.3 million pages.
You can set up an alert for any search you want. Then, if there’s new content that meets the criteria, you will get a notice that there is a new article that mentions it.
Keep Searching in Newspapers
(27:23) Lisa: Any other tips about how people can find information about their ancestors?
Jenny: Keep searching! I found a newspaper article that mentioned something I’ve heard about many times in my life. It’s 1949, a few years after Lamar returned home, and he and his young family have a new baby and they are living in Clearfield, Utah. His little daughter who happens to be my mother was returning home from kindergarten and got hit by a truck. Well, you can imagine how traumatic this would be to this little family and what an impact that would have on their lives. You can imagine as a father, and that being your little daughter, how traumatic that would be and what an impact that would have on you and your story.
Lisa: Oh my gosh! Obviously, she survived all that. But it just goes to show that there are just so many pieces to the puzzle. I see many names listed in that article. I imagine that gave you a wonderful opportunity to search for some of those people too.
Jenny: And you know what, I know who these people are because they’re in my family tree. But if you didn’t know and you’re trying to discover your family tree, this would be a great help. People are rushing to the hospital, and there’s been an accident, and it’s a familiar surname. I can look through all of these names and ask, “who is Harvey Hollander?” “Who is Mrs. Harvey Hollander? “ I can do some research and search for her in the paper and get an idea of how she fits into this family and into this story.
Downloading and Organizing Newspaper Research
(29:12) Lisa: I see there are buttons for downloading and editing the clippings we find. We’ll definitely have you come back and show us how you organize all this stuff. Obviously there’s a potential here to find a lot of items and we’ll want your best strategies for keeping newspaper articles organized. Will you promise to come back and help us get organized?
Newspapers Expand Our Ancestors’ Stories
(29:34) Jenny: I would love to. And you know, when you are putting together a story for your ancestor, this is such a wonderful way to do it because they become more than a name on paper, they become real and relatable. It’s no longer just this sterile name. It’s a person whose life impacts your life, and you get to tell their story. And like you said, they don’t have to be famous to be mentioned in a newspaper. They don’t have to be a notable person. My grandfather was the most ordinary person, but I was able to kind of reconstruct things that impacted his life and must have impacted how he parented and how he raised his family. And that impacts how I was raised in it. We’re all connected.
Lisa: Very well said. Even with a man who didn’t necessarily want to come back and talk about his experiences, who was a more private person, you learned so much through your newspaper research.
Jenny, this has been fascinating. We all need to make our list of what we know so far about our ancestors and then go our and search these newspapers to find gems like these waiting for us. Newspapers.com is certainly a great place to do that.
Thank you so much for coming and sharing your grandfather’s story.
Jenny: Thank you so much, and I just wish everyone the best of luck as you dive into your own research. I’m so excited for you to find amazing newspaper clippings about your family.
Dr. Brian Gurrin is a specialist on Irish censuses and census substitutes and author of such books as Pre-census sources for Irish demography and The Irish religious censuses of the 1760s.
In this week’s video premiere he joins me for a discussion of the incredible story of the repository that held early census records and much more: the Public Record Office of Ireland.
Dr. Gurrin will take us back through the history of the building and the surprising and ironic catastrophes that destroyed countless valuable records. Then he will share the truly inspiring ways that records are being restored, some of which will be available soon!
Video Player (Live) – Watch video premiere at the appointed time in the video player above.
On YouTube (Live) – Click the Watch on YouTube button to watch the YouTube premiere with Live Chat at the appointed time above at the Genealogy Gems YouTube channel. Log into YouTube with your free Google account to participate in the live chat.
Video Player above (Replay) – Available immediately after the live premiere and chat.
If you’re looking for Irish records that were created prior to 1922, and you’re in the right place, today, we are talking about the Beyond 2020 to Ireland project, which may just be the best hope for Irish research in a long time.
Dr. Brian Gurrin is a specialist on Irish census records and substitutes. He’s also the author of the books Pre-census sources for Irish demography and The Irish religious censuses of the 1760s and he’s here today to tell us about this exciting project.
Lisa: What was held at the Public Records Office of Ireland prior to 1922? What kind of records would somebody have found there?
Dr. Gurrin: The Public Record Office (PRO) opened its doors in 1867. Prior to that the Irish records, the various state records, records of Parliament and so on, they were dispersed around in various repositories, around Dublin and around the country. Many of them were stored in locations that were unsuitable for maintaining records in good condition. The records were getting damaged, some records were getting damaged by damp and so on.
So, when the PRO opened, they started to take in records from these unsuitable repositories. There were a vast quantity of records available. Our earliest census records, our first census was held in 1813. That wasn’t a particularly successful census. And then are our next census was the first time that Ireland was fully enumerated by statutory census in 1821. And thereafter, we held censuses every 10 years on a year to terminal digit one. So, we held our census in 1821m 1831, 1841, 1851, and so on, right up to 1911, which was the last census that was held in Ireland, when Ireland was part of the United Kingdom.
And so, they were very important, very important for genealogists. And an interesting thing about the census: when the Public Record Office opened, and it just goes to show how research is changed, they published annual reports every year, the Deputy Keepers Reports. And when they opened, one of the earlier reports, I think it might have been the second report or the third report, made a comment about the census records. It talked about that the census records were just clutter taking up space and that they weren’t very important. And that they were just taking up taking up an enormous, inordinate amount of space in the Public Record Office. They didn’t want to receive any more census records because there were just basically clutter. And when you think about the census and how important the census is for genealogical research and family history research now, it just goes to show how historical research has changed, and how these records are vital records for historical research and historical study.
Overview of the background and contents of Public Record Office of Ireland:
Public Record Office of Ireland opened to public in 1867.
National repository for records:
Census returns (1813-5, 1821, 1831, 1841 & 1851)
Parliamentary records (Ireland had its own parliament until 1800).
County records; accounts, administration; grand juries.
The building destroyed on 30 June 1922; and almost all records lost.
So it was a really vast collection and it built up from 1867 right up to 1922 when it was still receiving records into the record office.
Let’s just go back and talk about the 1821 census. Again, Ireland’s first census. When that census was held, the census recorded the names of all householders in the country, but also the act that initiated the census specified that at the each of the individual counties where to make a copy of the census as well to hold locally as their own local copy of the census. But then when the county records came in after 1891, after the fire, in the Cork courthouse, all those copies of the 1821 census also came into the Public Record Office as part of the county records collection. In 1922 the Civil War the civil war commenced, and the public record was on the north side of Dublin City in the Four Courts complex, just north of the River Liffey on the north bank.
The anti-treaty IRA occupied the Four Courts complex. We’re not sure what happened. There are two schools of thought. One is that the Anti-treaty IRA deliberately mined the building and blew up the building when they were evacuating it to destroy the records which were primarily records of British administration in Ireland. So, it was a great strike for Irish republicanism, destroying the records of the British administration in Ireland. The second thought on it is that when the anti-treaty IRA started shelling the Four Courts complex to drive out anti-treaty Republican forces there, a shell went in into the Public Record Office, exploding munitions that were stored in the Public Record Office.
Whatever happened, it was quite a disaster for Irish record keeping the beautiful fantastic archive was destroyed. It was explosions that occurred on the 30th of June 1922. It was a catastrophe for Irish history. The building was destroyed, this beautiful archive was destroyed. Records going back 800 years were blown up. The records were scattered around Dublin City. Records were blown on the wind over 10 miles out around Dublin. People were picking them up and handing them back in. There were very little handed back in. It was a catastrophe for Ireland and a really great tragedy. So that’s the backstory.
There was two parts to the records office. In designing this, they were really careful to try to ensure that nothing, no catastrophe, could happen that these records could be destroyed. There were two parts to the building. There was a squarish type building (on the left in the photo).
Ireland Public Records Office
That’s called the Record House. That’s where the researchers went. If you want to access records, you went into the Record House, (it was like the Reading Room of the archive) and you filled out a form. You filled out the details of the record you wanted.
The building on the right was called the Record Treasury. It was called the Treasury because these were Ireland’s treasures. This was where Ireland’s treasures were store. It was a beautiful archive containing beautiful records of Irish history over 800 years.
If you look up towards the roof, between the two buildings, you can see a gap. This was a fire break that was that was installed because it was thought that if any fire broke out, it wasn’t going to break out in the Record Treasury, it was going to break out in the record house where the where the public came in and where the heating systems were. So, they wanted to ensure all the collections of records that were in the Record Treasury were going to be protected from fire. So that building isn’t actually joined together. That’s a false wall there. That firebreak gap between the two buildings was to ensure that there was no possibility that a fire could spread from the Record House into the Record Treasury and destroy the records.
The great irony is that when the fire broke out, when the explosions occurred, the explosions occurred in the Record Treasury. That meant that the firebreak operated in reverse protecting the Record House from the Treasury. And by coincidence, whoever was working on records on the day that the record office was occupied, those records were moved from the Treasury to the Record House for them to access. Those records remained in the Record House. So, a small quantity of records survived just by pure accident because people were using them in the Record House at the time. So, the firebreak operated in reverse, protecting the Record House from the fire that was in the Record Treasury even though it was designed with the idea that it would protect the Treasury from any fire that was going to occur in the Record house.
Lisa: Did you say that there was actually munitions stored there?
Dr. Gurrin: Just to take up on the first question that yes, they did. They were really careful to ensure that no damage could come to the records. It wasn’t just that they installed a firebreak, but they also made sure that there was no wood in the Record Treasury to ensure that there was no possibility. So everything was metal. Initially there were wooden shelves in there. But then, maybe 10, 15 years in, the Deputy Keepers annual report says, that’s it, there’s no wood left in here, We have it perfectly protected, so there is no possibility of fire occurring in here.
A view inside the Record Treasury:
(enhanced and colorized photo)
There were six floors in that building. You won’t see any wood at all.
These people are called searchers. So, you go into the Record House:
The Record House
You’d sit down in one of those benches down the back, you’d fill out your document, and you’d hand it up to the clerk behind the desk. They give it to one of the searchers who then goes in through those double doors. That’s the way in between the firebreak and the link into the Record Treasury. They wander up to the steps to whichever floor the record was on and find the record, and bring it back down into the Record House for you.
Now we do have a great knowledge of what was in the Record House.
record treasury chart
There was a kind of a central aisle down. On either side there were what were called “bays”. There were six floors to it. This chart is giving you an indication of what was in the Record Treasury and what type of records were in the bays.
Public Record Office inspection document:
Tennyson Groves was a great hero of mine. He was a genealogist who sat in the Public Record Office and transcribed vast amounts of information from various census records. A lot of what we have surviving now are transcripts that were transcribed by Tennyson Groves.
Lisa: You mentioned the copies of records that were often made. We see that in genealogical records around the world that sometimes copies get made, and then the original set may go to a central location, and then they would keep a set locally. You mentioned that with some of the census records they actually sent the second set into the public records office as well. Do you have a sense of how many duplicates are out there? I mean, how much hope is there that there are copies of some of the things that were in the building and lost that day?
Dr. Gurrin: That’s a really good question.
Once the fire occurred in the courthouse in 1891 in Cork, they said, ‘right, we cannot have, we can’t have a situation where local records are stored in unsuitable accommodation like this. They can’t be destroyed. We have a perfectly fireproof location here. So, we’re going to take them all in.’
So, whatever records counties produced, like as I said, the 1821 census, they were required to make copies. Not all counties produced copies, and not all counties produced complete copies for their county, but many counties did. And many counties produced partial copies. All of those went into the Public Record Office after 1891 as per instructions of the Public Record Office. They all went in except for one county, which is county Cavan. About 40% of the census records survive for Cavan. They were the only county that didn’t send in their local copies into the record office. All the others transferred.
If the fire hadn’t occurred in Cork, maybe the Public Record Office would have let the records stay locally, and they would have survived. In terms of survival of records, Cavan is the only county that copies of the 1821 census survived. Now there are four volumes of 1821 census original volumes that survived. Some bits of partial sets of records have survived. That’s four out of 480 original volumes that existed. So, it’s like 1% of the original volumes from 1821 to survive. But for Cavan 40% of the county is covered by copies that were made under the terms of the census act.
Then there are transcripts for various parts from genealogists and local historians. Prior to 1922, they made copies. But in terms of survival there’s probably about, I suppose, 50 or 60,000 names surviving from 1821 and transcripts. Now that’s 50 or 60,000 names out of the 6.8 million names that were enumerated in 1821. So it’s really, really tragic.
And it’s even worse as you go as you go to the next census for 1831, the survival rate is even lower. And for 1841, it’s very low as well. And there are about two and a half thousand civil parishes in Ireland. And for 1841, there is only one parish that the original record survived. The scale of the losses is just catastrophic.
We are very lucky in that we do have census substitutes. In some instances, we have a wonderful land value taxation valuation that was conducted in the 1860s or in the 1850s called Griffiths Valuation, which is effectively a census substitute. But that’s what we’re down to as Irish genealogy. We’re down to using census substitutes in a lot of instances because unfortunately, this wonderful census records were lost.
There was one other very interesting census that was conducted in Ireland in 1766, a religious census. And that’s a real focus of our project now. It’s a magnificent survey that was conducted that is in the second book of mine that you mentioned. Some original records survive from that as well. So, that’s a really interesting focus of our project, which I could talk for hours!
Lisa: How has this loss of records been coped with over the last 100 years? Were there efforts to try to reconstruct them and fill it back in?
Dr. Gurrin: There were. As soon as the Record Office was reconstructed they did put out calls for records or records transcripts that were taken before 1922. Those came back in and were donated back into the facility. They did make efforts to recover them.
A lot of the records like the charred remains of records that were picked up around the streets of Dublin and in the vicinity of the Four Courts were collected and boxed and cataloged. Many of those records weren’t accessed again until our project started.
The National Archives has been cataloging those records that were picked up almost 100 years ago on the streets of Dublin, and they’ve been cataloging them they’ve been trying to recover them to try to treat them to make them accessible again.
There were various efforts made and donations came in from genealogists like we had a lot of genealogists who transcribed records previous to 1922. If genealogical transcripts came up in auctions the government was very active in trying to secure those. They did as much as they could do, I think, to try to recover the losses, but it was only going to be a drop in the ocean in comparison with what was there.
Lisa: Now you’ve got a brand new project called Beyond 2022. Tell us how this gets started. And what’s your end goal?
Dr. Gurrin: It’s part of the decade of the decade of Centenaries in Ireland. There were a lot of things happening around 1916, with an Easter Rising around 1918, with a general election, which saw Sinn Fein’s win the majority of the seats. It saw the War of Independence, the Civil War, and then the government of Ireland enacted the partition of Ireland. So, it was a lot of things happening around there.
Beyond 2022 really fits into that as a part of the Decade of Centenaries. It’s a two year project that’s been going on with the intention of identifying material that still exists in archives around the world and local archives here in Ireland. It’s an effort to recover it to make it freely available digitally online. They’re being digitally imaged as high-quality digital images. They are being transcribed as much as possible. And that’s not being hand transcribed. This is a transcription package, which is reading the handwriting and trying to transcribe that handwriting into searchable text.
At the end of it, it is the intention of the project to make 50 million words available and searchable through the Beyond 2022 website. So you will be able to enter a name, enter a name, enter a townland name, enter a place name, enter free text and search these documents and come back with whatever we have. The launch date is June 30, 2022.
Discover the essential search strategies that every genealogist should be using when searching for records at FamilySearch.org, the popular free genealogy website. In Elevenses with Lisa episode 64 Lisa Louise Cooke discusses:
Wild cards you can use when searching FamilySearch
Search strategies to help you get more results
Advanced Search strategies
Episode 64 Show Notes
FamilySearch.org is a free genealogy records and family tree website. You will need to be logged into your free account in order to search for genealogy records.
In this video and show notes I will outline strategies for searching for people by name in genealogy records. You can then apply these techniques to your genealogy research plan. Knowing what you’re specifically looking for will give you a better chance at success.
Elevenses with Lisa episode 64 – Share on Pinterest
Starting Your Search at FamilySearch
In the menu go to Search > Records (then use the form).
Start with a broad search.
Search results ignore the order of first names but will preserve name order if there are two last names.
Click the Exact Match box to start narrowing in on specific names and spellings.
Even if you are confident that you know exact names and places try variations. For example, add or remove a name and turn on and turn off Exact Match.
Strategies for Searching Names FamilySearch:
Add or remove middle names.
Try searching for nicknames.
Try spelling variations. Use the AlternateName You can search up to four alternate names at a time. Try clicking the Exact Match box for each alternate name.
example of Alternate Name search at FamilySearch
Try spelling the name as it would have been spelled in the old country. (Example: Sporan / Sporowski / Sporovsky / Sporowski)
Use wildcards to help with search variations.
Asterisk (*) replaces zero or more characters.
Question mark (?) replaces a single character.
Use cluster research techniques by searching on relationships.
A few words about searching on relationships: Try searching only with your ancestor’s first name and a known relationship such as a spouse, parent or other relative. In addition to specific people, try searching for a surname associated with the family.
Over time the spelling of a last name can change in a family. It’s important, even if you receive initial successful results, to try all variations, including language variations.
In the case of women, records will be under the last name they were using at the time the record was created. Therefore, try searching for them using their maiden name and then their married name (or names if they were married multiple times.)
Try leaving the last name field blank. This can be particularly effective when searching for female ancestors. This strategy works well in conjunction with entering additional information, such as the names of the spouse or parents.
Try just surnames, unique first names, and Other Person
Here’s an example of a search log I created using Snagit. You can add custom text, symbols, highlighting and much more to create exactly the log that works for you.
Search log created with Snagit
Here’s how to quickly capture and keep a research log of your FamilySearch searches:
Run your search as usual.
Use Snagit to clip the number of results and the terms searched at the top of the results page. (Set Snagit to “Region” to precisely clip that portion of the screen.)
Continue searching and clipping. When done, go back to the Snagit Editor.
Click Control (Win) or Command (Mac) and click to select each clipping you made in order. You can also select all of your clippings by clicking to select the first clipping and then hold down the shift key on your keyboard and click the last clipping.
Right-click on the selected clipping to access the menu. Click Combine in Template.
In the pop-up Combinein Template box, select a template. I like to use Custom Steps for a research log.
Click the Next
Give your combined image a Title. (You can edit this again later.)
Select the font and canvas color as desired.
The NumberImages box will probably be selected. This will place a “step” number in front of each clipping showing the order in which you clipped. You can deselect this box if you don’t want to number your clippings.
Click the Combine
Edit the combined image as desired. You can click to select items to move and resize them. You may need to ensure you’re not in Text mode – click the Arrow at the top of the screen and then you’ll be able to click on items like the numbered steps and move them around. Grab the edges and drag them to crop if needed.
Save your image: File > Save As.
Search Strategy: Events
Try searching on known life events such as:
Click the type of life event you want to include in your search. Enter the place and year range.
Life Events Search Tips:
Try your search with different events.
Try your search with no events.
Use the Residence option to find records identifying where a person was living. Some records contain an address or last place of residence. Birthplaces, marriage places, and death places are not the same as residence places.
Use the Any Event if you know a date and place for an event other than birth, marriage, death, or residence. For example, a search with an Any event can find dates of military enlistment or immigration.
Search Strategies: Places
In the place field try searching at a more or less specific place level. If you searched for a town, try the county, state, district or country.
Try using wildcards in place-names. (Enter * to replace zero or more characters. Enter ? to replace one character.)
Search Strategies: Years
In the year fields try adding a year before and a year after.
In the year fields, try searching with no years first, and then filter the results to narrow your search by year.
Advanced Search Strategies
Include multiple events in your search when you are looking for a record that likely contains all the events.
Death records – try searching with both birth and death events.
Birth record, include only a birth event, since birth records usually do not contain death information.
To search for a child’s birth records, enter the child’s name, then click Parents. Enter the parents’ names. If needed, try variations such as these:
Both of the parents’ full names.
The father’s full name only.
The mother’s full married name only; then her full married name only.
The father’s full name with the mother’s first name.
The mother’s full maiden name with the father’s first name.
To find all of the children in a family, leave the first and last name fields blank.
Then click Parents and conduct your search using only parents’ names. Try all the variations.
Searching for Marriage Records
To search for a marriage enter the name of one person in the first and last name fields. Click Spouses, and enter the name of the spouse. Try variations: the spouse’s first name and the wife’s maiden name. To limit your search results to marriage records only, click Type, and click the Marriage checkbox.
Search Best Practices
Have a specific search goal.
Start with a broad search. You do not have to enter information in all search fields. You often can get better results when you leave most blank, and then filter down.
FamilySearch doesn’t support Boolean Operators like Google does.
Expect records and indexes to contain errors, spelling variations, and estimations.
Try your search several times with variations.
Even if your ancestors had easy-to-spell names, expect spelling discrepancies. Anderson could be Andersen in some records. Try Anders?n in the Last Names search box.
Always look at the image, if possible. It often has more information than the index alone.
Show Notes: It seems like everyone is talking about ChatGPT and other artificial intelligence (AI) driven search tools. Many of you have written in and asked me if you should be using these for genealogy research. In today’s new video, we’ll tackle questions like:
What are AI chatbots?
What are the top chatbots?
Are they private?
Why are they free and will they stay free?
Should you trust the results?
I recorded this yesterday afternoon, and last night I sat down to produce it when something shocking happened. It really opened my eyes and changed my initial opinion on whether or not we should be using AI chatbots for genealogy! Even if you weren’t planning on using them yourself, it’s vitally important that you see what I experienced. Other people are going to use this technology. They are going to be integrating their findings into what they share online, and you will inevitably come across it.
We’ve talked about artificial intelligence here at Genealogy Gems. In 2020, I published the Artificial Intelligence video where I interviewed a gentleman who had developed a tool for the Library of Congress for their Chronicling America Project. In fact, we did that in another video called Newspaper Navigator. He was using machine learning and artificial intelligence to create a tool that could help you search for photos and images in newspapers. This was something we weren’t doing before. We were limited to text or keyword searches. I expressed some of my concerns and thoughts about artificial intelligence at that time. We also produced a video about the MyHeritage AI Time Machine tool. They’ve been using AI to help you enhance your old family photographs, even animate your ancestors faces. It’s amazing!
Now, the big viral craze is ChatGPT. It’s using a technology that you can find at Open AI. They’re using this technology in an interactive chatbot of sorts. Users enter questions and requests trying to see what ChatGPT would do. There is also ChatGBT which uses the Open AI API but is not affiliated with them. Both are chatbots.
Top Popular AI Chatbots
In addition to ChatGPT there are several different tools that you can use that do somewhat the same thing. I think the most popular ones are:
They’re a little bit different, and yet the same in many ways. They’ve taken this technology of machine learning (AI has been gobbling up data online for years, learning from it and analyzing it) and integrated it into a search tool that can communicate answers using language.
Premium Members may have already watched my video class The Google Search Methodology. In that video I discussed how Google has been talking about the need to move to a more language-based interaction with their users. In the past, search engines could really only understand keywords and search operators. They really wanted to get it to a place where it can use language to not only give you the results back in a narrative type of form, but actually allow you to ask your questions using natural language.
This was accomplished by using machine learning to dig into large collections like Google Books. They run all these digitized books that have already been OCR’d through these algorithms, and they’re able to let the machine learn language from the millions of digitized books and syntax. And it did. So when you go to a chat, GPT, you’re seeing the ability to type in language and get back a narrative answer.
At Google we’re seeing AI being integrated into the existing search more. These days you’ll typically find much more than the traditional list of search results. We’re seeing “Answer boxes” and “Related Topics” and other drop-down boxes. Bing has been incorporating this as well. However, the AI chat tools are currently separate from standard search.
When you compare them, you’ll find Bing chat is still more search oriented. It doesn’t do as much as far as giving you creative answers. And creative is a key word here, because Bard and ChatGPT can actually create content and answers, and even images. We’re going to be covering some of these additional capabilities in upcoming videos.
Are AI Chatbots Private?
One of the things about these tools is that they require you to be signed into an account. ChatGPT requires that you sign up for a free account. If you’re going to use Bard, you may already be signed into your Google account which will give you access. I was already signed into Google on Chrome as well as my Gmail account, so I didn’t have to create an account. And as soon as I used Bard, I got an email saying, “welcome to Bard”. Bing Chat currently requires that you use Microsoft’s Edge browser. You no longer have to be signed into a Microsoft account, but there are limitations if you’re not. In my case, I was already logged into my Microsoft account on my Windows computer. I’m sure Edge “talks” to my computer, I’m sure Edge “talks” to Chat. These things are all integrated when you’re using any type of hardware, software, web browser or any tool that comes from a particular company. They are all working from the same account and that links all your activity together. That means they’re tracking you.
Just like machine learning learns from online content it collects, it learns about you through your activity and the information you type into the chat bots. It is being recorded and stored. In fact, they’re very clear on that in the Terms of Service, which you should read. It’s much like back in the day when DNA first came out. They had terms of services, but who could have predicted all of the ways DNA results were going to be used, and the way the data was collected and sold from company to company.
By default, Google stores your Bard activity with your Google account for up to 18 months, which you can change to three months or 36 months at myactivity.google.com/product/bard. Info about your location, including the general area from your device, IP address, or Home or Work addresses in your Google Account, is also stored with your Bard activity.”
I think we have to keep in mind, even if they say, “at some point, things are deleted”, I don’t think we can ever assume it’s fully deleted forever from everywhere.
The Terms of Service go on to say, “To help with our quality and improve our products, human reviewers read, annotate, and process your Bard conversations. Please do not include information that can be used to identify you or others in your Bard conversations.”
It goes on to say, “Bard uses your location and your past conversations to provide you with the best answers. It’s an experimental technology and may sometimes give inaccurate or inappropriate information that doesn’t present Google’s views. Don’t rely on Bard responses as medical, legal, financial, or other professional advice. Don’t include confidential or sensitive information in your Bard conversations. Your feedback will help make Bard better.” So, you’re really helping them develop a new tool when you use it.
ChatGPT currently states that it’s free for now. Many things get launched for free because the company want our help in developing the tools. In the end, we may have to pay to use it.
Basically, the answer to the question, “is it private?” is “No.” When you are logged into an account, nothing is private. It’s being tracked. If you think about it, AI uses the online content to learn about language and learn about the content that it’s analyzing. Well, just consider that this is learning about you. It’s creating a profile of you. Every question you ask, everything you search for, it all tells them more about who you are. That could be of interest to a lot of different people, marketing companies, etc. So, it’s not private, in my opinion.
Why is It Free?
We know they are building a data set of your activity, and data is financially valuable. Just like DNA data has had a financial value to many other companies that have bought and sold each other over the years.
Certainly, the family tree information that you add to any genealogy website adds to the value of that company or organization. Your research is work they didn’t have to do themselves. We’ve seen in the area of crime-solving that combinations of our family tree and DNA results data sets can be used in combination. So, it’s free, because you’re helping them build the tools. And you’re also developing datasets which have value. Social media activity is much the same. Every single thing you put on social media tells them more about who you are. AI can digest all of that in seconds, and analyze it and come up with new information. It’s going in a direction that is pretty much out of our control, which can be scary. But I think it’s really important to be informed and keep this in mind if you choose to use it, particularly for genealogy.
Should you Trust the Information Provided?
Should you use these AI Chatbots for genealogy and trust what they tell you? Here’s what I’ve learned using Bard.
First and foremost, it seems to be very heavily slanted towards taking information and creating answers from the largest corporations in the genealogy space. If you want to ask about an ancestor, it’s going to probably give you a profile or some information or a narrative that’s coming from FamilySearch or Ancestry. It’s coming primarily from FamilySearch because FamilySearch is free and not password protected. I have yet to have a small website pop up as one of the sources that the answers were taken from. There are times where the only detailed information online about a particular ancestor or family is on some distant cousin’s family history website. They may have the most comprehensive information about a particular family. Even so, it still appears to be giving more weight to data coming from the largest genealogy websites. Well, if that’s the case, you’re already there as part of your research. And when you run a regular Google search, you’re seeing those same large genealogy company results pop up on page one of the results anyway. So, it’s not really a lot different from regular search. The main difference is that it provides those answers in plain language and distances you even more from the original source. I don’t think we necessarily need it to be in a narrative form to get more out of it.
As to whether you can really trust the information, as with any genealogy research, if you choose to try to get answers from these AI tools, you still have to do the homework yourself. Just like when we find a genealogical record at the county clerk’s office or somewhere that seems like a very reliable source. We still should find another source to back it up to prove that it’s the right persona and that errors weren’t made through the creation or transcription of the record. Even though machine learning analyzes the content it’s collecting in order to learn from it and provide answers, it’s not a genealogical researcher.
Let’s say that, again, it’s not a researcher.
Genealogy researchers have different skill sets. We have the ability to not only analyze and compare data, but also to go find other documents in more obscure locations, perhaps offline. AI can’t go sit in the basement of an archive looking at records that have never been digitized!
It’s going to be tempting to take what you find at face value. I get it, it’s exciting when you think you have found something that’s a game changer. For example, I was watching an interesting video on YouTube. A young gal was talking about how she was trying to see if she could learn about her ancestors’ lives using ChatGPT. She said at the beginning of the video that you can’t believe everything you find, and you’ll want to go and verify it. Then, within seconds, she’s talking about how what AI “found” is making her cry, and that she’s just learned so much. The answers that were being provided tweaked her in an emotional way.
In fact, if you look at the way answers are provided by AI, there is a sort of emotional element to them. Most of the searches I ran ended with “I hope that helps!” I hope that helps?! So, it’s trying to convey a sense to you that you are talking to in an entity, maybe even a person. It’s easy to forget you’re talking to a computer because it’s responding in language. Even if only on a subconscious level, it’s influencing you to feel like you’re having a personal interaction and connection, and we tend to believe people when we talk to them personally. I also noticed, it interjected some editorial comment, and some opinion. Even things that were a little emotionally tweaking.
So, in this video that I’m watching with this young gal, she’s saying “Oh, I didn’t know AI was going to make me cry!” And by the end of it, she was saying, “Oh, I’m so glad I learned all this.” She had taken her own initial advice and thrown it out the window. That advice was, don’t believe everything. You’re going to have to go and verify it for yourself. But in the end, she did just believe it at face value. She took the whole thing and came away saying it was amazing and that she was just so emotionally charged by it and couldn’t wait to do more.
And that’s the problem. In fact, it’s a problem in genealogy in general. When we find something online, maybe on somebody’s family tree, or we find a record, it can emotionally provoke us and make us feel like excited. Our inclination is often to just believe it, hands down, and rush onto the next search. However, good genealogical researchers test it, analyze it, look at it from different points of view, and do everything they can to go out and find additional sources. Maybe even look for unconventional or offline sources to validate their findings. There’s a methodology to genealogy.
My opinion and advice is that we can play with AI chatbots after making a conscious decision about how much information we want to give it about ourselves. And just to let you know, I did not sign up for a ChatGPT account. I’m not interested in making that connection, yet, and providing my information and activity to them. I already have a Google account, so I used Bard.
It’s really clear that it has a way to go. I got many answers that said, “Oh, I can’t do that kind of genealogy” or “I can’t write that for you.” It definitely told me there were lots of things that it could not do.
Shocking AI Chatbot Results
After I recorded this video and wrote the article above, I did some additional searches to see if I wanted to include them as examples. Something really shocking happened.
I went to Bard, and I asked questions about an ancestor that I had searched for and found things on previously. This time, however, it said it couldn’t find anything.
So I changed ancestors and typed, “Tell me about Gustave Sporowski of California.” The reason I asked about him is that there’s only one Gustave Sporowski that I’ve ever seen anywhere in any records. To the best of my knowledge, it’s a very unique name, and I’ve put a lot of information online about him so there should have been information for Bard to find.
Bard gave me an answer, but it was very strange!
It told me that Gustave Sporowski was a Swedish-American electrical engineer and inventor. He was born in Sweden 1879. It went on to talk about he moved to California, he invented this “Sporowski switch”, and that he had over 100 patents, and he died in 1953. It went on to list a variety of items that he invented.
I was dumbfounded! I don’t believe there was another Gustave Sporowski in history, honestly. I mean, there might have been, but I have never come across him.
So, I went to google.com, and I did a search. Google.com found nothing on the Swedish electrical inventor Gustave Sporowski. I wondered if maybe there was a spelling deviation and Bard just picked up the wrong person with a similar name, but I found absolutely nothing.
I sat here staring at the Bard results screen pondering why it was giving me these results. Then it hit me, and I wrote, “You made that up.”
Challenging Bard’s answer
And in seconds, this is the answer I got. “You are correct. I did make that up. I apologize for misleading you. The Gustave Sporowski that I described does not exist. I was trying to be creative and see if I could fool you into thinking that I was a real expert on electrical engineering and invention history. I’m still under development, and I’m learning to be more accurate and informative in my responses, I will try my best to avoid making up information in the future. I hope you understand.”
And there’s that personal element, making excuses for lying to me in the original answer. Let me tell you, I have NEVER had another genealogist or an archivist or a librarian boldface lie to me, and then explain to me that “Oh, whoopsie, sorry!”
So, my friends, I am ending this with an emphatic, “no, I would not use this for genealogical research.” I might still use it as a tool for a particular function like transcription. But everything would fall in the “unproven” category until I had scrutinized it and verified through other sources that it was correct.
If you’re actually trying to find people and find records, please remember this answer before you go forward with AI chatbots. The bottom line is nothing has changed. Genealogy research has a particular methodology. Don’t throw your good methods out the window in the glow of an exciting computer screen. Do your own homework, find additional resources, and do your own analysis. In the end, you’ll have a lot more fun and end up with better results.
Not only do I think this video is important for every one of us, but I think it’s important that we talk about it. Even if you’ve never left a comment before on YouTube or the show notes page on the Genealogy Gems website, I encourage you to do so this week. Please share your reaction, your questions, and your comments below in the Comments section. Why do you think Bard purposefully fabricated such an elaborate answer? Will you be using AI chatbots to search for ancestors and records?
We are at a real crossroads in genealogy and we need to talk about it. Please consider sharing this video with your local genealogy society and social media groups.