Part I. A Look Under the Search Engine Hood
There are two types of search engines we use frequently in online genealogical research: Internet and database. Most of us probably use one or more of Google, Bing, or Yahoo! on a regular basis and we’re pretty familiar with how to use them. As family history researchers we often come across searchable genealogical databases, too. In order to maximize our family history search results it’s important to understand that these two types of search engines work somewhat differently.
Search engines are like cars. You don’t need to know what’s going on under the hood to use them. Still, there are times in the life of every driver when something goes wrong. The engine stops working for some reason and they suddenly find themselves sitting on the side of the road wishing they knew more about how their vehicle worked.
Just like cars, search engines can leave us stranded sometimes, too. We can find ourselves stuck, unable to move our searches forward. But there are ways to roll the search engine down the hill and kick it into gear, or wrap some pantyhose on the pulleys as a quick-solve. In order to understand how to do that, we have to take a look under the hood.
First, let’s compare some of the functions of Internet and database search engines:
The Same, But Different
So, as you can see, a major difference between the two types of search engines is in the amount of information they’re searching through. This requires different means of returning results to the user. It also raises questions about the relevance and authenticity of the data we’re searching through. Each type of search engine is useful in its own right, and one is not necessarily better than the other. We use them for different reasons. We just need to know how to get the most out of each.
An Internet search engine is trying to return as many possible items that match any or all of the search terms, even if this is the same information duplicated on numerous websites. It prioritizes the search returns first by the number of pages containing all of your requested terms, followed by pages that contain at least some or one of the terms. This can result in millions and even billions of returns.
A database search engine, however, is looking for your specific search terms within a limited dataset. Further, many of these search terms are pre-defined by the database itself because that’s how the information is catalogued within the database, much like a spreadsheet. In other words, each dataset contains elements of all of the pre-defined search terms; they are interrelated in one dataset.
Database Terms and Conditions Apply
For example, in a database a person with surname A, living in location B, age X, with occupation Y, is catalogued by terms A, B, X and Y. Each of these terms has a specific value, such as A=Smith, B=Toronto, X=38, Y=lawyer. So when you input Smith as the value for A, the database searches for all entries where the value for A is Smith without regard to what the values for B, X, or Y are. When you specify another term, such as B=Toronto, the database looks for entries where A is Smith and B is Toronto, ignoring the values of any other search terms. If there are no entries where A=Smith and B=Toronto, you don’t get any returns. The database needs to have entries where both these conditions apply in order to match what you’re searching for.
You can search on any or all of the allowed database terms. If you searched only B=Toronto, you would get back all As, Xs and Ys where term B=Toronto. A person A, living in location D, would not show up if you search on terms A and B but would show up if you search only term A. All of the terms you search for must be satisfied in order for the search to successfully return a result. The more specific your choice of search terms the more (or less) likely your success, depending on what information is available in the database. You will have more results the fewer search terms you employ since all the search terms you choose need to be satisfied in order to get a result.
As you can see, Internet and database search engines are doing almost exactly the opposite in the way they search. The more terms you enter into an Internet search engine, the more results you’ll get back (usually). The more terms you enter into a database search engine, the more likely you won’t get any returns at all because the database wants to solve every term and if one doesn’t fit, your search is essentially discarded.
This is a very limited look at how search engines work. If you would like to learn more about search engines, a good starting point is Wikipedia. They have a list of search engines for a wide variety of purposes. You’ll also find web directories, lists of academic databases, and more on this page.
Next: Closing the Google Gap
Would you like more articles about how to use search engines? Comment below or contact me at pearceheritageresearch.ca/contact-us.php and let me know!
I have done more than a bit of research to try to find meaningful (freely available) statistics about who is into genealogy. Sadly, I’ve found very little information on this subject. What I’m curious about is how much people know about their own families before they get into the hobby, how old they are, and whether they are male or female. I think this would help a lot of researchers out there, as well as providers of online genealogical resources. So, I’m asking everyone to support the hobby (and the business) of genealogy by completing a 10-question survey on SurveyMonkey created by Pearce Heritage Research. Please share this survey with as many people as possible so that we can get the greatest number of responses possible.
The survey is available here: http://www.surveymonkey.com/s/C3YMXCL. You can also access the survey from our website at: www.pearceheritageresearch.ca/about-us.php.
Thanks to everyone for taking the time to complete this survey! I will share the results in a few weeks.
Miss Anne Powell Travels to Detroit, the final installment
Miss Anne Powell and her party did eventually make it to Detroit on June 9, 39 days after leaving Montreal. Along the way, she met Chief Joseph Brant, and visited Niagara Falls. Her letters describe in some detail her impressions of the Niagara Gorge and the Falls, a council that she witnessed of 200 First Nations chiefs near Fort Erie and some of the event’s participants. From Fort Erie it was a five-day journey from Fort Erie to the Detroit River at the head of Lake Erie, some thirty kilometres below Detroit. Interestingly, Miss Anne notes that since the British had ceded Fort Detroit to the Americans, a new town must be built across the river from it. This town, named Sandwich, was not actually established until 1796, around the time that the Americans took up residence at Fort Detroit. Later, the town of Sandwich was renamed Windsor. Fort Detroit eventually disappeared beneath the streets of the expanding city of Detroit and has been lost to history.
And so we leave Miss Anne Powell enjoying the social life and the parties and the scenery on the Detroit River, because that’s where her letters leave off. Later, she returned to Montreal and married Isaac Winslow Clarke. Clarke was a Loyalist who had before the American Revolution lived in Boston. In fact, he was one of the consignees for the British East India Company’s shipment of tea that was thrown overboard during the famous 1773 “Boston Tea Party” event, as noted by Old Province Tales author William Renwick Riddell, where we find Miss Anne Powell’s story. Clarke later served in the British army during the War of 1812. He died at sea on his way to England in 1824, in his late 70s. Sadly, Miss Anne Powell died in 1792, barely 30 years old.
One caution here: remember that a resource like Old Province Tales is a secondary source. While it may be a good place to start (not to mention a lot of fun to read), if you’re planning to apply this type of source to your research be sure to cite is as such and don’t take anything the author says for granted. Even though an author may state that someone was born or died at a certain date, for example, this may be incorrect. Always verify these types of claims through primary resources if possible.
As I’ve noted previously, sources other than the traditional genealogical sources like censuses, cemetery records, land petitions and deeds, and so on can often reveal interesting tidbits of information that we might otherwise never discover. However, we sometimes have to go to more offbeat sources online to find records like these. One source I highly recommend you make use of is Archive.org.
Archive.org is a non-profit Internet library founded in 1996 for the purposes of, as the site’s “About” section notes, “offering permanent access for researchers, historians, scholars, people with disabilities, and the general public to historical collections that exist in digital format”. They hold a vast amount of digital resources, including old manuscripts. I have found and used city directories (another useful resource for locating family members), commercial directories, digitized Canada and U.S. census documents, books, pictures, even old movies. It is an incredible resource that you should check out. You can download many of these materials in PDF, epub, and Kindle formats. Some are only available through Archive.org’s collaborator, Google Books (another repository of old manuscripts).
Tips for Using Archive.org
Although they have a lot of Canadian documents, these are not always found where you might expect them. For example, under the drop-down menu “Texts” you will see headings like “American Libraries”, “Canadian Libraries”, “University Libraries”, “Project Gutenberg”, etc. Even though you might be looking for Canadian documents, many of these have been contributed by U.S. universities and libraries from their own holdings and will be found under the heading of U.S. contributors. I recommend that when searching for Canadian textual materials you search using the “Texts” heading, which will return results for texts from all sources.
Another useful tip is to use the Subject and Author links that you will find in the landing page of the text you’re looking at. So, once you’ve searched on your terms and received links, after you choose a link you will see the landing page. Here you will see “Author”, “Subject”, and “Publisher” headings, which are also linked. Often these links can lead to additional discoveries. An historical author may have written more than one work, a publisher may have related works that have been uploaded, and you may find additional works on the same subject.
Another link to pay attention to on the landing page is the “Book contributor” link. These are the folks who provided the digitized materials to Archive.org. Often they have whole catalogues on the site that you can browse through to find additional materials.
The Wayback Machine
(picture source: Wikipedia)
Finally, the site has a feature called “The Wayback Machine”. If you’re not old enough to remember it, the “Wayback Machine” is a reference to the cartoon “Peabody’s Improbable History” from the Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons of the 1960s. Archive’s WM, though, is a function that allows you to search for websites from the past. that no longer exist If you find yourself clicking on a dead link on a website, and you really want the information that just might be on that dead website, try copying and pasting the link into the Wayback Machine and click the “Take Me Back” button. Chances are good that the site is archived and you might still find the information you were looking for.
All in all Archive.org is a fantastic website. I have spent hours browsing through the resources there. And I always find something new and unexpected.
I have listed below some of the resources I used in researching and writing this little series. As always, please feel free to comment or ask a question. You can also contact me via my website at www.pearceheritageresearch.ca. I am always happy to answer questions about Canadian heritage.
Biographi.ca, Entries for William Dummer Powell and Richard Duncan, www.biographi.ca
Brymner, Douglas, archivist, Report on Canadian Archives, 1889, Brown Chamberlain, Ottawa, Collections Canada
Carp, Benjamin L., Terms of Estrangement: Who Were the Sons of Liberty?, Colonial Williamsburg Journal, Winter, 2012, http://www.history.org/foundation/journal/winter12/liberty.cfm
Riddell, William Renwick, Old Province Tales, 1920, Glasgow Brooke and Company, Toronto