Monday, July 18, 2016

Family History Tips - Part 4

Part 4 - Index Searching within Various Database Collections: Broad Searches VS Narrow Searches
by Brenna Corbit, Technical Services Librarian
I have often seen would-be family historians search for an ancestor using the first search field option that appears on the homepage of a genealogy website. These are usually a three or four field search: first name, last name, age, and place. Ancestry’s looks like this:
 Screenshot from 

A newbie will usually do a search such as Michael Thompson in Delaware and get more than 32 million hits. As a seasoned genealogist and librarian teaching various database searches, I always stress to others to avoid limited/easy looking search functions. If sifting through millions of hits is your choice, then be my guest. But if you want to find your ancestors, then listen up.

Genealogy websites like Ancestry are a vast collection of databases that are able to be searched as groups, such as the Civil War collection, or individually searched such as the 1910 U. S. Census.  I have found time and time again that broad searches, also known as federated searching, too often fail to find what can be found when searching a single collection. The “Pennsylvania Death Certificates, 1906-1963” collection is a perfect example of this.  Even Ancestry’s shaky leaf usually fails to search this collection. More on that popular leaf later.

Screenshot from
To search particular collections, look at the options on the homepage such as “Search Census,” “Search Immigration,” “Quick Links,” etc. Even better, click on “Search” in the top task bar and search in the “Card Catalog.” You can start broad such as “Pennsylvania” and then use the side bar to narrow down the collections, such as “Census & Voter Lists,” or “Birth, Marriage & Death.”

The next installment of this series will address the various search fields within database collections. 


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