In a previous post we looked at the usefulness of hints as a way of finding records, as well as at the difference between Ancestry and Find My Past, in terms of the quality and focus of hints.
What I want to move on to now is searches instigated by you, the researcher. We’ll look at this over two posts, this week focusing on Ancestry, and next week on Find My Past. In each post we’ll consider searches in the following order:
- A general search from an ancestor’s profile page
- A general search from the top menu bar
- Narrower searches, focusing on a particular category of record
- Focusing right down on one particular record set.
What I’d like to draw to your attention is that, by increasingly taking control of what your search focuses on, you’re increasing the level of your own research. You’re saying ‘I already know all about X, Y and Z, but I have a gap around A and B, and this is what I want to try to find out.’ This moves you on to intermediate level genealogy.
By the way, you can follow a lot of what is written here by working through it on Ancestry even if you’re not a subscriber. Obviously, you won’t be able to see the actual records.
And finally – just to say – if you already know all about general searches and homing in on categories, skip to point 4. There might still be something new for you there. 🙂
In Ancestry then, let’s start with the kind of search most of us do when we’re just starting out as genealogists, or indeed when we’re just starting out with a new ancestor:
1. A general search of all records from an ancestor’s profile page
To do this, simply click ‘Search’ from an ancestor’s profile. The search engine draws upon all the information you already have about your ancestor, using this as filters. However, Ancestry treats all that information as ‘approximates’, resulting in years, places and even names on suggested records that are often way off beam. It might also default to ‘Search all collections’ – including all overseas records as well as the UK ones. And if you try to tighten up the search by moving the sliding scale to the right (see image below) to confirm you really do mean this exact surname, this exact place and year, more often than not it will tell you no matching records can be found.
So, from the profile page of my GG grandfather John Groves, a standard ‘Search’ automatically incorporating the search filters shown in the box to the left, returns 93,311 possible records. Even if I change the filter from ‘All collections’ to ‘UK and Ireland’ only, I still get 34,360 possible records. And whizzing down the first page of these 34,360 records, only two of them are correct.
2. A general search from the top menu bar
Go to the top menu bar on the screen, click on Search, and select Search All Records from the drop-down menu. Sticking with John Groves, but this time typing in his name, birth year, birth place and place of residence, instead of allowing the search engine to copy over the info from his profile page, this time I’m offered a whopping 352,536 records from ‘All Collections’, or 127,706 if I amend the collections to ‘UK and Ireland’.
3. A narrower search, focusing on a particular category of record
Those first two searches have their uses, but I think we’ll all agree that a way of narrowing down would be useful. We can start to do this by focusing on a particular category of record. Again, we can do this from two places on the website:
If we’ve already started the general search by clicking through from our ancestor’s profile page, immediately below the search filters box to the left of the Ancestry screen we’ll see a list of categories. Click on any one of these categories and you’ll see further options. e.g. Click on Census and Voter Lists, and you’ll be offered a selection of decades to home in further; click on Birth, Marriage and Death, and you can select which of these three you’d like to focus on, and after that even specific record sets, and so on.
If, instead of starting with your ancestor’s profile page, you start your search with the drop-down menu at the top left of the screen (the place where we did that second type of general search, above), it works a little differently. Now, depending on which of the categories you choose from the drop-down menu, you’ll be asked to input slightly different information. For census searches you’ll be asked for name, birth, where they lived and details of family members; whereas for a military search the information required is just name, birth, death and likely years spent in military service. Even though the number of records returned is still excessive, I find these more targeted searches a useful way of getting to the right record.
4. Focusing right down on one particular record set.
But there’s an even more focused way to search, and even if you already knew all of the above, this is something you may not know about. You can actually search individual record sets. The way to access these is from the drop-down search menu on the top menu bar. Click on Search, and then from the drop-down menu select the second option up from the bottom: Card Catalogue. This is where you can really get to know Ancestry’s record collections, find the ones more likely to help you and even develop your own favourites! (Yes, I know that sounds very nerdy.)
So, you’ve clicked on Card Catalogue, and you have this screen (above) in front of you. As you see, you can still use filters (down the left) to help you home in on the record sets most likely to be of use to you. And if you know the full name of the record set you want, simply type that into the ‘Title’ box. You can then search just that record set.
But you can also use the keyword search, and this is really useful. Try typing the name of a town or city of interest to you in that box. If the town name doesn’t return any records, try the county. Or you could also try specific words, such as ‘apprentices’ or ‘railway’ or ‘prison’. Spend some time playing around and see what you can find that might be useful to you
This is one of my favourite functions on the entire Ancestry website, and some of the greatest breakthroughs in my family research have come from homing in on specific record sets and searching them to death! My two very favourite record sets are Leeds, England, Beckett Street Cemetery, 1845-1987 – which includes so much information about the deceased that I never have to buy death certificates for ancestors buried there; and West Yorkshire, England, Select Apprenticeship Records, 1627-1894 – which includes many of my ancestors from the period and gave me a lot of insights into how apprenticeships worked in Leeds at the time, as well as helping to work out extended family relationships in one of my lines. These are unlikely to become your favourite sets, of course, but wherever your ancestors were based, I hope you find something that will help you.
You can explore the Card Catalogue even if you’re not an Ancestry subscriber. Something to bear in mind if you’re thinking of taking out a subscription and can’t decide which provider to go with.