Skip main navigation

New offer! Get 30% off one whole year of Unlimited learning. Subscribe for just £249.99 £174.99. New subscribers only T&Cs apply

Find out more

Finding sources for context

Finding sources for context
Once you’ve realised the importance of locating secondary sources to provide some context for the bare bones of your genealogy, you’ll be asking– how do I go about accessing relevant material? There are four major steps which you will go through. Firstly, you need to think about what you’re actually looking for. Secondly, you need to be aware of what catalogues and databases you can use to locate this material. The third step involves turning what you’re looking for into suitable words and phrases to carry out effective searches. And finally, having identified suitable material, how can you obtain the full texts, either online or as printed copies.
This lecture will concentrate mainly on the third and fourth steps, since the others are dealt with elsewhere in the course. We will have a look at some searches to get an idea of the possibilities for finding suitable background information on some quite specific topics. The first example relates to an individual who worked in a brewery in Chicago. Are there printed sources available which might throw some light on what this type of work would involve and what the conditions of the workers were like? The Library of Congress is a good starting point, with its enormous collection of printed material. It is important to identify the significant keywords to use in carrying out a search of the online catalogue.
We’re looking for information on breweries in Chicago, so the words breweries and Chicago seem suitable keywords. Remember that we only want historical information, not details of breweries of the present day, so we should add in the keyword history. It is advisable to use the Advanced Search option to achieve a well-focused set of results, since this allows us to select the type of search. In this case, it is the subject which is important, so we will use the Subject ALL search. If we had made use of the Quick Search, this would produce more results, but some would not be on the specific topic we’re interested in.
After typing in each of the three keywords in the first search box in the Advanced Search, checking that the “all of these” option is selected, and then choosing Subject ALL as the search type, we are ready to click the Search button. No results are found. This is a good example of how slight differences in the keywords used can make a great difference to the results. We will try using the word brewing instead of breweries and see what happens.
This time, we get three results, which all look useful. It is often worth supplementing an initial Subject search with a Keyword Anywhere search.
Out of 12 results, we can see that Result 4 has picked up the word Chicago in the contents list, so this might be worth following up. For our next example, we are seeking background on the Dornoch Railway in Scotland, on which a relative worked in the early 20th century. Choosing the National Library of Scotland for our search, we bring up the Advanced Search screen and we’ll use the keywords Dornoch, railway and, again, history to carry out a Subject search.
Two results are returned, which are actually two editions of the same book. As we did with the previous example, let’s supplement this search with a Keyword Anywhere search. This produces seven results. Several of these may prove of interest. And one, Argyll and the Highlands’ Last Days of Steam, is a book of old photographs which includes Dornoch. Now let’s be really adventurous and add an ‘s’ to the word railway and do a Keyword Anywhere search on Dornoch, railways, and history. The one result which is returned might just provide an interesting sidelight on our topic, since it considers the impact of steam railways on golf, with the Royal Dornoch golf course being mentioned in the contents list.
Library catalogues tend to cover books and journal titles and not give access to individual journal articles. But many articles are now available online in full text. One of the largest collections of these is held by JSTOR. There are various ways in which material held by JSTOR can be accessed. Universities and colleges often subscribe to specific parts of these collections, and there are free and subscription-based options available for the general public. By registering for a free My JSTOR account, you can access content through the Register and Read service, which includes more than 5 million free journal articles. From these, you can read three articles every two weeks.
Even wider access can be gained with a monthly or annual subscription to the JPASS collection. To give you an idea of how JSTOR works, we will try searching for information on the Irish in Liverpool. This would help to give an understanding of Irish immigration to the city and the Irish community there, important for those with ancestors from that community.
Opening up the Advanced Search screen, we can look at the search types available. You can see that there is no Subject search available on JSTOR. And since only about 10% of the articles have abstracts, this option is very limited. It is possible to search on the full text of the articles, but this can produce overwhelming numbers of results. We will use the Item Title search, with the keywords Irish and Liverpool.
This produces 24 results, five of which are articles, the rest being book reviews. You can see that this is a useful resource, but remember to construct your searches carefully to avoid being inundated with results. This same search on the full text produces 15,089 hits. Access issues– It is all very well identifying references to useful books and articles, but how can you access the content of these? A vast amount of material is now available online, some free and some requiring payment. Websites such as the Internet Archive, the Hathi Trust, and Google Books provide free access to digitised books, while JSTOR includes the full text of both journals and books in its collections.
Libraries of universities and colleges subscribe to e-journals and e-books, which can be accessed by members of these institutions. But many public library services also provide a similar service for members of the general public. Make a point of finding out what online sources you can gain access to through any library services available to you. Of course, there are still numerous books and journals which are not available online. Rather than having to search numerous library catalogues to find the location of a library which holds a title you are looking for, it is a good idea to try searching WorldCat, which lists libraries located around the world holding particular titles.
Although the coverage of libraries is not complete, this may act as a shortcut. If you’re unable to visit a library which holds the material, it is well worth enquiring at your local library as to the possibility of obtaining this through an inter-library loans service.

In this video Graham explains how you can to locate and access secondary sources for context using library catalogues and databases containing full text journal articles.

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