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I'm Jennifer, and I'm an Occasional Genealogist... sort of. For over ten years I've been a professional genealogist. I started researching my own family nearly 30 years ago. Like many of you, I started as an Occasional Genealogist. I had to squeeze research in while in school and while working full-time. Then I got my first genealogy job and for awhile, it was genealogy all the time. Now I have two kids. I do other people's genealogy constantly but my own? Coming up with ways to do great genealogy, despite all the interruptions, is now mandatory.

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#1 Tip for Finding That Elusive Ancestor

You can't find your ancestor in online records?

There are several reasons but this post is about a reason many newbie genealogists don't consider.

It can be so frustrating when you're hunting for that elusive ancestor and just can't seem to find them. You keep searching online but... Why can't you find them!!!!!! Don't give up – this post might just change how you look at online research, and maybe even help you find that elusive ancestor.

So what's worthy of being a "#1 tip?" Well, it's actually a realization even more than a tip. Not all online records are the same. When you get started you used "indexed records." These are records that can be found by searching an index or database. You know, and index like you'd find in a book. But this is searched by the computer when you use a search form. You might have also found records the computer "read" through OCR. We'll talk about these and the overlooked "unindexed records" that might just be the secret sauce you've been looking for.

Can't find them because the records aren't indexed?

If you know much about online records (genealogical or not) you may easily understand the difference indicated by the terms "online records" and "online databases."

If you don't perceive any difference in those terms, learning the difference may help you perform better online research.

Most genealogical records were created offline (obviously). When they are put online there are two main formats, images or databases.

The exceptions are usually transcribed or abstracted records posted by individuals on their own websites (including blogs) or on websites like US GenWeb Archives. In some cases, these are still databases but the important thing for this discussion is understanding an image versus information typed online.

Databases vs. Images

Databases and other typed information (not images) are searchable. Most of the ideas genealogists come up with (or proposed solutions suggested in posts similar to this) are issues you may have with searchable records.

I have only seen two ways to search online images of genealogical records. One is OCR (Optical Character Recognition). This method (currently) mainly works on typed records like books or newspaper records (efforts are being made for OCR on handwriting but you've seen some of that handwriting! It exists but it's often not going to work).

With OCR, the computer, in essence, reads the document looking for the search terms you have entered. This technology keeps improving but still has issues with poor quality images. You're probably familiar with OCR if you have searched a large online newspaper database or searched books through websites like Google Books or Archives.org.

Poor quality is more likely an issue for newspapers as they are more fragile than most books chosen for digitization including being digitized from poorer quality microfilm.

The second way to search online images is via a database. The database is the index for the image collection. If a database hasn't been created then the images are often referred to as "unindexed." If this is news to you, you may have been missing out on many useful online records.

Unindexed Records

The largest collection of unindexed "genealogical" records is probably found through FamilySearch. Most other large genealogical websites (mainly) only post records once they are indexed.

However, you may also find large collections from public repositories like archives and universities or even large private collections so search out digital collections for the locations or topics you are interested in.

If you have only used FamilySearch by using the search form, you are missing out on most of the records.

There are millions of images in even one unindexed collection (note, there is a difference in a "collection" which used to be the only way to find the unindexed images vs. the newer option of digitized rolls of microfilm available through the catalog. It's just an organizational difference but a roll of microfilm is usually hundreds of images---the physical roll having limitations. A collection was made up of many rolls, possibly hundreds of rolls).

There are probably hundreds of unindexed collections or partially indexed collections. And, yes, there are partially indexed collections.

This is where this post has to come into the roaring '20s. Below I'm going to give you information about learning more about "collections" which may be fully or partially indexed.

The gold mine of records is in using the Catalog which I'll describe next (I personally skip the collections and the "Records" tab altogether and hit the catalog unless I'm just starting a project. The catalog indicates when there's a searchable collection).

Don't Overlook the Description!

On any site you need to use individual collections or databases. Not all are searched properly using the main search form and there's a lot more to learn when you look into an individual collection.

Click on the collection you are interested in and read the description.

This will give you invaluable information about what should be included in the collection, whether it is indexed, partially indexed, or browse-only and whether it is complete (i.e. will they add records later requiring you to come back and check the collection again).

Once you get used to doing this you will get a lot more from FamilySearch than you ever did using just the search form.

But what about the catalog?

Digitized Microfilm

Unindexed records are now an even bigger player because that is how you access the records you used to order on microfilm from the Family History Library.

Now you can get them online (some from home but others only at a FamilySearch affiliate library). Access the MOST records by using the FamilySearch CATALOG.

I love the catalog for the "Place" search but there are more options. The books from the Family History Library may or may not be digitized (that's a different tab) and they are the shining star of the "Surnames" search but give it a whirl even for microfilm. As with any catalog, there's search by title or author and the pesky "Subject" search.

A tip a friend gave me years ago was to use the "Keyword" search and use it for locations (or surnames or subjects). It'll catch items that have been categorized differently than you (the user) expect. The locations can actually get a little tricky, especially for more urban locations, and a keyword search can capture some valuable records you might miss, otherwise.

I wouldn't even do a subject search unless I was positive I new the exact subject. I'd use a keyword search.

So what are you going to find in the digitzed microfilm?

You don't really know until you look.

I've used it extensively for church records, probate records, court minutes, deeds. And then I've also failed to find all of the above. Keep in mind this is a multi-tiered thing. The records had to be created in the first place. They had to survive until someone asked to microfilm them. Permission had to be granted for microfilming. Then the records have to be digitized and permission has to be granted for that AND for where you can access the digitized records.

(Note there are new straight to digital projects but still, records had to survive and permission is needed for digitizing, neither of which is a sure thing).

So you have to go look at the catalog to see what can help you.

Just because a record isn't currently digitized, doesn't mean it won't be next week (seriously, I've been amazed how fast I've seen a record be digitized).

If this post has opened your eyes to a whole new world of genealogy records, you should go check out other repositories for locations you're interested in! Some state archives have extensive online (unindexed) images. Some universities, museums, historical societies, etc. have online image collections (almost always unindexed).

There are some unindexed collections on Ancestry.com and Fold3 (and probably MyHeritage) but FamilySearch is probably the largest global collection of unindexed digital records. These other sites specialize in indexed records and then there's that thing of a subscription.

There are lots of other free sites with unindexed images but most are more focused (often geographically but maybe by another genealogical topic).

Another advantage of using the FamilySearch catalog is getting an overview of what might be available. When you've done that for a variety of locations, you'll probalby start to ask yourself, "I wonder about ___________?" and go look for that record.

It might not be online but it'll still improve your genealogy and help you find new records and new branches of your family tree. When you do find something that has been digitized, it'll help you learn about the types of places you can look and even more records.

Leave a comment with your favorite online unindexed records. Have you stumbled upon something great? Let us know!