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dave obee Database search strategies

By Dave Obee

All of the online databases that have been made available in the past decade or so have opened many new doors for family historians, often leading us in directions we would not have tried otherwise.

Success often comes quickly, but what if it does not?

There are times when we will need to use creative thinking to find our person. There are dozens of reasons why a search might fail.

My grandmother, Maud Obee, would be difficult to find in the index to the 1916 census of the Canadian prairies. That is because she appears as Montgomery Ahee. Montgomery was her maiden name; why she gave that instead of her given name is anyone's guess. Don't blame the indexer for that one. But Obee was misread as Ahee -- effectively hiding my grandmother.

Why might a database fail you? Here are some of the key reasons:

Original records were poorly written. If the indexer cannot read the original document, there is a risk the resulting database will be incorrect.

Original records were wrong. Again, the indexer can only work with what is there.

Original records are incomplete. If a family was missed by the census enumerator 100 years ago, the family will not appear in the database.

Transcription errors. Nobody is perfect. Mistakes happen.

Names were changed. The indexer would not know the possible variations.

Middle names were used as surnames. Or, in my grandmother's case, a maiden name was used as a given name.

Documents were damaged. If part of the original page is missing, the indexer would have nothign to work with.

Microfilming was bad. Many of the databases are based on microfilmed material, and microfilming today is much better than what we saw a generation ago.

Places were confused. Simple errors or assumptions can cause much grief later.

People lied. Some people do not want to be found.

So, how do we increase our chances of success? Change your thinking about searches. Rather than simply entering a name and hoping for the best, try different approaches. Bear in mind that every database is different, and search queries can vary. Some databases offer more fields than others, and more possible ways to get at the data.

Here are some ideas:

Enter a lot of information and then pull back. Enter as much specific information as you have for the query fields. If you don't find your person, remove one fact, then another, which should increase the number of potential hits you get.

Enter little and then focus. The opposite of the first method. Start with as little information as you can, just to see what happens. Then enter a bit more, and a bit more, to narrow your results. This system might reveal people who would have been missed otherwise, but be warned: If you are dealing with a Smith or a Jones, don't bother with it.

Either way, be flexible. The idea is to try as many methods as you can until you find your person.

Try to guess how a name might be spelled. Or, how it might have been misspelled.

Don't get hung up on personal names. If all else fails, build a search using a birth place, or an address, or some other relevant detail.

Use exact matches. If you are absolutely sure about your information -- and reasonably confident that there would not have been an indexing error -- this could cut through the fluff quite quickly.

Use wildcards. Different databases allow for different wildcards -- characters that you can use in place of letters. For example, some let you use a ? in place of a single letter. If there is a help section, look to see what it says about wildcards.

Read the notes. The supporting information is absolutely key to your success. Check to see if there are gaps in coverage, which would explain why you are not finding your person. Check also for any additional tips that would help you to work through the database.

Sometimes, of course, all of the tricks will not help. I found my grandmother in the 1916 census the old-fashioned way, by going through the microfilm covering Langham, Saskatchewan, and looking at every family. Only then could I figure out how to beat the database!

Updated May 3, 2009


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