Genealogical databases | IJN | Intermountain Jewish News
First some general principles about databases.
Our ancestors left many records during their lifetime, whether they realize it or intend to. But here’s the critical caveat – while most of these documents have survived (yes, even most of the Holocaust documents), and several billions of documents have been digitized and are online, it is estimated that they represent only 10 to 15% of all genealogical records.
This means that the vast majority of existing documents are not digitized and/or are not online. Even if they’re online, that doesn’t mean they’ve been indexed — only indexed documents appear in search results. I hope to do a future column on accessing records that are not online, in county clerk’s offices, archives, libraries and other repositories.
Many beginner begins his ancestral research by directly accessing the main databases and inserting the names into the search engines. I get it – I did my early years of research too. And if they can’t find what they’re looking for, they give up in frustration, assuming the documents don’t exist.
Or, the reverse can happen, where we retrieve thousands of results. But not wanting to wade through dozens of pages of Isadore Cohens ads without knowing how to find their great-grandfather Izzy, I’ve seen many people reach the same level of frustration and give up.
I don’t mention this to discourage you, but rather to give you a better understanding of the nature of databases. The more you understand about collections and databases, the more effective your research will be.
For example, on the largest free database of records, FamilySearch, the majority of records have not been indexed, primarily because they rely on volunteers to index key information (i.e. (say the name, date, place, etc.).
Ancestry also has many unindexed records, although they pay their indexers. Both organizations are increasingly using artificial intelligence (AI) and optical character recognition (OCR) to enable computers to index records. More records can be indexed faster, but there are often more errors – and you should be aware of this when using a database search engine.
There are still ways to find these unindexed records (another future topic), but they won’t show up in your search engine results, and a lot of people would assume they’re not online. Nevertheless, billions of documents have been digitized and indexed and must be searched.
So what is in the databases? Collections on major databases include – depending on the company or organization – vital records (birth, marriage and death records), censuses (federal, state, territorial), military records (draft records, roll call, pension records, hospital and medical records, service records, journals and company records) church records (rarely synagogue records), immigration records, city directories, newspapers , land records – and much more.
A reminder that even though Ancestry is a paid membership site, most public libraries have an institutional membership, which means it’s free for cardholders. Usually, a library’s website will indicate if it has a subscription, as well as other genealogy resources.
The catch is that you can only access the free membership on library computers. During the worst part of the pandemic, Ancestry relaxed its restrictions and allowed library cardholders to access the institutional subscription from home. Many of these measures are waived, but call your library to verify.
Millions of records are added every week, so you should search regularly.
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