Skip main navigation

New offer! Get 30% off your first 2 months of Unlimited Monthly. Start your subscription for just £35.99 £24.99. New subscribers only T&Cs apply

Find out more

Searching genealogy databases

If I enter a name will I get my family tree? Or the Who Do You Think You Are? effect
In this session, we’re going to look at genealogy databases. What they are, how they can help you, and some searching strategies. There are a number of these databases online, and they’re increasing all the time and available all across the world. In essence they all contain a variety of data sets, and when you search on their site you’re actually searching through the records that are contained in each site and see if there are any records matching the information you have input. A future session of the course will explore these in more detail, but this session will give you background on what they are and issues to consider when using them. How can they help you?
Well, when you type in your ancestor’s name in a search tool, you’re looking for any matching records that are contained in the database. For this reason, you should be careful about how much data you enter. If you enter data that does not much exactly what’s contained in the database, you might find that you don’t have any matching records returned at all, so be careful about that. Less is definitely more when entering data. You’ve probably seen TV programmes where the researcher sits at a computer, types in their ancestor’s name, and hey presto, up comes their birth certificate, marriage certificate, census record, or perhaps even a complete family tree. If only it were as simple as that.
There’s a lot more to do, and a lot of it will depend on your own step-by-step research. Let’s have a think about, then, the databases themselves, and what they actually contain. Some have collections of official data, perhaps from government sources or archives. Some have data specific to a geographical area, perhaps a country, a province, a state, or a county. Some have data which is– has been produced or made available in collaboration with data owners, such as archives, family history societies, other various research centres. And others have data which has been collaborated with a series of volunteer efforts in order to collate a whole set of records.
Some have data submitted by individual users of the site, and, of course, many of the sites themselves have a collaboration or a combination of all of these. Be aware that some that have the user data may not have official verification, so you do have to be careful about some of the data you find on these sites. How did all the records get here? Well, many of them do come from official sources, but those records themselves also have to be indexed and transcribed before they are digitised, and so you’re aware that there could be many errors which have crept in during one or other of these processes. So how can you best use them, and what should you watch out for?
On the whole, they will have a variety of searchable fields where you can enter things like surname, forename, year of birth, county of birth, et cetera. You might be looking, for example, for a census record for your ancestor. Some of them are available free, but for others you do have to pay a subscription. And further details of all of these options will be available in a later session. Let’s have a look at one of these sites. And the site we’re going to have a look at is Findmypast. This contains records from a number of countries.
Like a number of sites, it also contains data which have been digitised in– according with licencing agreements with various archives and other record holders. We’re going to have a look for Patrick Conway, who was born in Ireland around about 1860. Now, we’re going to put his name in the search box, but we’re going to put his date of birth within a range. It’s possible that you’ve already discovered that having a specific year of birth in your own information may not be quite the actual date of birth of your ancestor, so it’s a good idea to leave a couple of years either side. Let’s, then, look for Patrick’s birth between 1855 and 1865.
And we’re going to look for the record sets pertaining to Ireland, which is where Patrick was born. You’ll see that we’ve returned over 3,000 records here– very many of them, an overwhelming amount to choose from. And this is almost always the case if you just type in a name, unless, of course, your ancestor has an unusual name. We do know that Patrick actually moved to the UK as a young boy, and he lived in England and Scotland. So if I refine the search now to look for records held in Britain by choosing Britain on the Country box. You can now you see that I’ve been given a list of various records, including census information from across England and Scotland.
And if I click on the Census box, you can see I can now reduce that number even further by going down and checking just for Census or land records, or refining that even further just to look for census records. This restricts the search for an exact spelling of his name. We haven’t used the facilities of this site to look for spelling. We will have a go at doing that in another search later on. Let’s, then, look again at user-contributed data, and you can see there that we can have quite a lot of user contributed data, from online family trees, family stories, photographs, and even a whole series of links to, perhaps, some documents or records.
This provides you with a huge opportunity to, perhaps, find out other researchers who are researching members of your family, and maybe gives you an opportunity to explore lives and records pertaining to extended members of your own family. Some very large sites have as many as a million family trees. Be aware, however, again as we mentioned, that this is often data submitted by users and doesn’t necessarily have any official verification. So let’s look at a summary of issues to consider.
The coverage of data sets varies on each site. Some do have unique data, but some data sets do appear on more than one site. Often, licencing arrangements with organisations such as archives provide unique access to data sets for a period of time and then are made available after a couple of years, perhaps, to other organisations also. We mentioned earlier, we might look at some strategies to help you with looking for spelling variations of your ancestors’ surnames, and one place we’re going to have a look at that is within the ScotlandsPeople site. This is an official source of birth, marriage, death, census, and other records pertaining to Scotland.
And again, you’ll have an opportunity to explore this site in more detail at a later session. Let’s have a look, then, for a birth of a person with the surname Tomeny in the period 1855 to 1860. Now, simply pressing Search you can see there we’ve got three results. Now, I do know that this particular surname has been transcribed in a variety of different spellings and recorded as different spellings over quite a considerable time period. So we’re going to use a facility known as a wildcard search to help us to take that research a little bit further, and perhaps uncover some other Tomeny surnames.
In this particular case, the use of a wildcard involves the use of the asterisk symbol, and the asterisk symbol stands for one or more letters. So if we choose the option beside the surnames to Wildcards Allowed, and then, instead of typing the surname Tomeny, we’re going to type t, asterisk, m, asterisk, ny, and that allows a different– for maybe different vowels between the t and the m– perhaps more than one letter m– and a whole series of variations. And you can see the results when we click on Search. You’ll see we’ve now uncovered 35 possible spellings here, and you can look at the range we’ve down– we’ve found just by looking down this search page.
So this is a particularly powerful strategy to use and I can recommend the use of the wildcard facility, which is available in most of the genealogy databases. This has been a very quick introduction to genealogy databases, and further details will be explored in future sessions. Some of the main ones are listed on the slide here, but of course there are many others, and perhaps there are others which you’ve already had some success in using yourself. So I hope you’ve enjoyed this session and go on further to explore genealogy databases in more detail to support your own research.

Marie Dougan, a professional genealogist based in Scotland, discusses what genealogy databases actually are and how they work.

Examples are given and we are walked through several aspects of searching and the use of wildcards.

Marie’s back ground is in education and in particular the applications of technology to learning. She is currently a tutor on a range of genealogy and family history courses at the University of Strathclyde. Her company Ancestral Consultants provides a range of high quality professional genealogy services, including research, presentations, talks workshops and training courses.

The resources in the ‘See Also’ section below can be consulted for more information on the topic.

This article is from the free online

Genealogy: Researching Your Family Tree

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Reach your personal and professional goals

Unlock access to hundreds of expert online courses and degrees from top universities and educators to gain accredited qualifications and professional CV-building certificates.

Join over 18 million learners to launch, switch or build upon your career, all at your own pace, across a wide range of topic areas.

Start Learning now