Are You Missing Most of the Available Genealogy Information?

I received a message a while ago from a newsletter reader that disturbed me a bit. He wrote, “I have been doing genealogy research for 10-15 years but only through the Internet.” He then went on to describe some of the frustrations he has encountered trying to find information. In short, he was disappointed at how little information he has found online.

I read the entire message, but my eyes kept jumping back to the words in his first sentence: “… but only through the Internet.”

Doesn’t he realize that perhaps 90% of the information of interest to genealogists is not yet available on the Internet?

To be sure, many of the biggest and most valuable resources are now available online, including national census records, the Social Security Death Index, military pension applications, draft cards, many passenger lists, land patent databases, and more.

The national databases were the “low hanging fruit” a few years ago as the providers of online information rushed to place large genealogy databases online. These huge collections benefited a lot of genealogists; these databases were the first to become indexed, digitized, and placed online. We all should be thankful that these databases are available today and are in common use.

As the national databases became available to all, the online providers moved on to digitize regional and statewide information. State censuses, birth records, marriage records, death records, naturalization records (which originally were recorded in many local and state courts), county histories, and much, much more are still being placed online.

Of course, this is great news for genealogists who cannot easily travel to the locations where the original records are kept. For many of us, this is even better than having information on microfilm. Most of us don’t have microfilm readers at home, but we do have computers.

Yet, I am guessing that perhaps 90% of the information of interest to genealogists has not yet been digitized. Why would anyone want to look for genealogy information “… only through the Internet?”

State censuses, birth records, marriage records, death records, naturalization records, county histories, and more are all “work in progress” projects. That is, they are not yet complete. In fact, I doubt if all of them will be available online for at least another decade or two! If you only look online, you are missing a lot.

In many cases, church parish records, local tax lists, school records, land records (other than Federal land grants), state census records, and many more records are not yet available online and probably won’t be available for years. If you are limiting yourself to “… only through the Internet,” you are missing 90% of the available information.

If you have the luxury of living near the places where your ancestors lived, I’d suggest you jump in an automobile and drive to the repositories where those records are kept. There is nothing that matches the feeling of holding original records in your hand. Scan them or make photocopies or take pictures of them or do whatever is possible to collect images of the original records.

If you do not enjoy the luxury of short distances, use microfilm. Luckily, that is easy to do although you will have to leave your home. Many (but not all) of these records have been microfilmed, and those films may be viewed at various libraries, archives, or at a local Family History Center near you. There are more than 4,600 of those local centers, so you probably can find one within a short distance of your home. The Family History Centers are free to use although you do have to pay a modest fee for postage when you rent a microfilm by mail. See https://goo.gl/7Jzbzh for details. You can also find your nearest Family History Center by starting at: https://familysearch.org/locations/.

If you do not know where to start, I would suggest reading “Begin your genealogy quest” at https://familysearch.org/learn/wiki/en/Begin_your_genealogy_quest for some great “getting started” information.

Which option would you prefer: accessing 10% of the available records or 100% of the available records?

12 Comments

One of the biggest thrills I have had is finding an obscure estate document located in a county record file that opened up my knowledge of one of my ancestral grandfathers that died young and seemed to be without much evidence. The record department had student volunteers scanning images…no indexing…just scanning for browsing ‘someday’ on the internet. With no money to put into this public service (even with a fee possible), it could be decades before it is available online. When I visited the courthouse, I sat down to go over what was there and was overwhelmed at what I found. I had only planned a day there and when I return, I have a punch list of their records so I can better target where I go and what I am looking for. That said, going in ‘blind’, I wasn’t so focused that I missed some very strategic sources and information including this special record that unexpectedly spelled out his children and his financial holdings which were substantial. It explained why his children had wealth even though their father died young. Just diving in can be a good thing, too.

Of course, we can’t go to every source site…time and money are everyone’s challenge, but I know I have ‘nexus points’ where ancestors lived, married and migrated to and left behind records. I travel and research strategically and I contact local historians to help when I cannot get there myself. Help comes in many ways and often times, I can do a quid pro quo…providing research that I have for their files to help others in exchange for information.

Just food for thought anyway…

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The internet is a real godsend to me. After 44 years of research, mainly in record offices, I am now physically unable to travel so any records that come on-line are really useful. Many records I have already searched, but I always do a check on the online ones, to ensure that I didn’t miss anything, or perhaps in the very early days I ignored some of the spelling variations that are now more apparent.
However, nothing can replace the wonderful feeling of touching documents that one’s ancestors actually handled. I almost burst into tears when I discovered that an ancestor was the parish clerk and had written all his children’s baptisms inside the front cover of the parish register nearly 400 years ago.
Unfortunately even in record offices, originals are rarely produced these days if they have a microfilm of them. But I always recommend to new searchers to plan a visit to the locality and the local record office to see what “goodies” are there. They will never be disappointed.

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For many years our family vacations were limited to where I wanted to go and do research — courthouses, libraries, archives, cemeteries. Our daughter though it was normal to go to cemeteries on summer vacation. When I entered the county clerk office or whatever it was called, I picked out a corner and started working my way around the room, looking at the various books and hoping for indexes. Always making copies unless they wanted a king’s ransom for them! So many treasures there, and like others said above, nothing like touching a real document that your ancestor touched.

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The firm where I was working sent me to the courthouse with some probate papers to file, and as part of the process, I had to certify that I had checked the card file and found no prior filings for this estate. As I was thumbing through the drawer full of index cards I saw a familiar name — my grandmother’s brother — so, I decided to order up his file to examine while the clerks processed the papers I had come to submit. Lo and behold, there in the folder was a family tree with birth, marriage and death information for my great-grandparents and all of their children and grandchildren, living and dead. As far as I know, the estate files in this particular jurisdiction have not yet been digitized, and are not available on line.

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My family patiently endured all of my research efforts taking my son with to cemeteries & libraries near and far. An avid reader at a young age , he once read a novel (the same novel) in several libraries in the same week.
There is nothing as was previously stated, as standing in the family plot or touching documents executed by your 7th great grandfather.
Thanks for encouraging folks to use all documents.

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Given the unprecedented volume of genealogy information available on the Internet–much of it free and readily searchable–searching for ancestors online is the natural starting point for beginning genealogists today. That said, our company was built, in part, by identifying what original records exist, where they can be found, and how people can gain access to them. Once the online genealogist reaches a dead end, possessing such information is crucial for engaging in the serious work of family history.

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I agree with all – except your “..only 10% online..” . What remains offline are minor, and doesn’t merit “90%”

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    The percentage may be slightly off (depending on the family) but the point is very well expressed! You are not going to find out your ancestor owned property and gave land for the first cemetery and church unless you check actual property records and that’s not including wills, school records where you can locate siblings, military records etc. In addition to Family History Centers don’t overlook an actual Genealogy library for the specific area/city/county//state as they have volunteers that know everything about the area and can direct you where to look for information. Most all of them will send someone to the courthouse for you (at a cost of course), but if you can’t make a trip to the location due to constraints or money (the trip probably costs more than paying someone to look it up for you) that is a good way to go! AND once they start looking for your relative they get hooked and dig into places you never knew about – it’s like your family is their family! And another side note – they actually may be related to you or know someone who is!

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    Perhaps some areas and the people that lived in them are well-documented online, but people are not from cookie-cutters and not every one has records in the large datasets that are the low-hanging fruit for the online services. Most of the states and counties I’ve looked at have only indices online, and are quite content to cash the checks I’ll send them to get a copy of the certificate.

    The Social Security Administration doesn’t seem to plan on posting applications for SSNs anytime soon. Scuttlebutt has it that digitization of Widows’ and Dependents’ Certificate pensions from the latter half of the 19th Century may take about 45-50 years, and there are many other pensions outside that collection.

    When city directories showed that showed that between one year and the next, a listing went from my mother’s great-uncle to his widow at the same residence, I looked for a death certificate and found none. The experts suggested that she was actually a ‘grass widow’, deserted by her husband, but newspapers on microfilm (not available online, even at the subscription services) showed that he was a cop who died in the line of duty.

    I’d be happy if as much as10% was available to me.

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Oh right! Well that gives me a good excuse to bring it even if I did before.

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So, what to do for those who 1) Can’t travel the long distances to a courthouse, whether due to cost, physical condition, or some other reason; 2) Can’t afford the services of a professional researcher, and 3) are trying to access counties that are NOT filmed by the FHL or anybody else.

This is pretty much the position I’m in with some rural Nebraskan counties. Sherman County in particular is a tough nut–Only 3 records at the FHL, and only a bit more at the NSHS. Can’t get down there or higher somebody because I don’t currently have the income for that. I’m reluctant to contact the courthouse directly because it’s a small, rural county, and almost certainly doesn’t have the staff to respond to requests. I have a few lines that lived there over a span of about 140 years. And it’s just the worst of about 10 counties in that state that are similarly inaccessible. The whole state seems to be low on everyone’s priority list, including Nebraskans.

My own state isn’t really a whole lot better, but the driving time is somewhat shorter (still over 100 miles to the nearest location of interest, however.)

Seriously, I’m open to suggestions. But when the courthouse is stuck in the 19th century, your options are pretty limited.

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    Look for a local genealogical society/group in or near the area of your research, JOIN, and through them perhaps find someone to do some look-ups etc. for just the cost of expenses – i.e. copying, parking fees all which you would have to pay for if you were able to be there yourself. Groups often have a few hours of free searches for members or queries for their newsletters. In these groups, those who are interested in the same area as you, might even have someone interested in the same families as you.
    If you can’t find a group yourself, contact the local library for suggestions – they might even know of a group in their area.
    Also, join the group in your own area so that you can “pay back” by helping others who can’t make it to your area for research. We hobby genealogists just love to network!

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