Showing posts with label Ancestry. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Ancestry. Show all posts

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Search Engine Woes and Wishes

Does anyone really like Ancestry's "New Search"? When I was in D.C. a few weeks ago, I was off the internet grid for about eight days. I was happily playing bridge, researching at the Archives, and visiting with friends. Near the end of the trip, I checked into a hotel with free internet access and decided to check on a few censuses for background on one of my new discoveries. Alas! When I signed on to Ancestry, my home page no longer came up with Ancestry's "Old Search". I couldn't find the records I needed with the "New Search," and I completely panicked. Eventually, I did get to a screen that showed those wonderful tiny letters, Old Search, clicked on the link, and found my people in about five minutes. As many problems as the Old Search might have, the New Search has been dumbed down to such a degree that I find it almost impossible to use. What will I do if Ancestry ever does away with the Old Search?

This experience got me thinking about what I'd like to see when it comes to searching Ancestry or any other web site.

1. Soundex surname searches are nice. Let's keep them.
2. Wildcards are a necessity in a good search engine, but why does Ancestry require three letters preceding the first wildcard? Why can't we start a field with a wildcard?
3. I had trouble finding a death record when I was at the Minnesota Historical Society Library. One of the reference specialists asked, "What year are we talking about? Oh. That was one of the poorly indexed years. You'll get better results if you search using the "Ends with . . ." option. I'd forgotten that the MHS birth and death certificate indexes offer the options, "Contains", "Starts with . . .", and "Ends with . . .". If I can't put my wildcard any where I choose, I'd like all of these added to the search possibilities.
4. The 1880 census search form allows us to search by occupation. Why don't all the 1850 and later templates allow the same option? It would be so useful!
5. Wouldn't it be great if the 1850 and later census search forms allowed us to search for households containing a combination of names? The 1880 plus censuses do allow the possibility of searching for households with father's, mother's, and/or spouse's given names, so why not a series of "Household contains given name ____" possibilities? And why don't all the 1880 plus censuses allow a search by parents' birthplaces?

The search options at the FamilySearch Record Pilot are interesting. The "Exact and Close Match" works reasonably well, but Footnote goes one step better, now that it allows wildcards in its initial search. With both sites, like Ancestry's New Search, you can narrow your results. The fact that Footnote's narrowing options are actually listed makes it more productive than the other two. You don't have to guess at what the indexer might have seen. FamilySearch, however, has the ability to narrow your results by Role. I think that option is fairly unique - and frequently very useful.

Although the Heritage Quest search options are rather primitive, they have one feature I love: the ability to sort the search results. Wouldn't it be great to be able to sort Ancestry's search results in any way you wished? By county, surname or given name, or birthplace? It would make search results so much easier to analyze. I must admit that I find Footnote's almost random listing of results frustrating.

I'm not sure letting a computer algorithm dictate our search results is the best way to go. People are so much more creative and imaginative - and sometimes our subconscious has streaks of brilliance that a computer may never achieve. What features would you like to see in a site's search engine?

Saturday, August 15, 2009

My First Day at the National Archives

I remember my first day at the National Archives. I went armed with my rudimentary research plan and a lot of trepidation. The DC metro didn't exist, so I took the train from Baltimore to Washington's Union Station and walked to the Archives. There was no metal detector, you didn't need an ID card, and the beautiful new reading room wasn't even a dream. I found my way to the fourth floor microfilm reading room, got a researcher's card, and signed in to a microfilm reader with my first roll of census microfilm. After a few hours of census scanning, I took a break and switched to the microfilm pension indexes. I ordered the Civil War pensions of two of my 2xgreat-grandfathers, the Civil War pension of one 3xgreat-grandfather, and the War of 1812 pension of a 4xgreat-grandfather. I was then told that these pensions would be available in about one hour in the second-floor research room - so I took a real break and went to lunch.

After lunch, I signed in to the second-floor research room, after depositing everything I carried in a locker, and asked to see my first pension. "Name?" the man behind the desk asked. "Benjamin Rollins," I replied. He actually looked at me then, and said, "Your name, not the pensioner's name." "Oh," an embarrassed me replied. After getting my name, he went to a box, pulled out a pile of manila envelopes, and handed me an envelope and a pink sheet. "What's this?" I asked. "Your pension," he replied. "Name and date here," he pointed to the pink sheet. I signed the sheet, then stood there, holding this big manila envelope. I had been expecting microfilm, and my mind had simply frozen. He looked at me for a moment, sighed, then said, "Take the pension, find a seat at one of the tables, and open it." I did, and I've been hooked ever since. He had given me the War of 1812 pension, and among the real, live, original papers was the last letter ever written by Benjamin Rollins, my 4xgreat-grandfather.

The three Civil War pensions were equally wonderful. I couldn't believe the stories I found in those pages. Each pension was similar, and each pension was unique. I finished the last pension, looked at my watch, and realized that I might not be able to make my train back to Baltimore! I grabbed my photocopies, signed out of the research room, grabbed my things from my locker, signed out of the Archives, and ran all the way to Union Station. As I ran through the station, I caught a glimpse of the Baltimore train's track number and ran to the track. A train was pulling out, and, just like in the movies, the conductor leaned out of the last car's door, grabbed my hand, and pulled me on. Out of breath, I grabbed an empty seat, and said to the woman across from me, "This train is going to Baltimore, isn't it?" "Not as far as I know," she replied. "Oh, no! Where am I going?" I cried. "I get off at the airport," she said, and I breathed a sigh of relief. I was on the right train, on my way home, with wonderful treasures.

"What have you been doing?" this poor woman now asked me. "Oh, you don't really want to know," I warned her. "No. Tell me," the unsuspecting thing said, and I didn't need any more persuading. I started telling her the story of my 2xgreat-grandmother, her four children, and her Civil War soldier husband. I talked about how her husband was wounded in the war, and recovered from his wound, but never quite recovered from the lung infection he suffered. I told her about his work as a traveling tinker and his death in 1879, leaving his widow with no money and four children, the youngest, my great-grandfather, only one year old. I talked about her sorrow as she apprenticed out her two oldest children and took in boarders and laundry to make ends meet. I told her about the scandal when a neighbor accused her of sleeping with a boarder. This neighbor wrote the War Department, saying that a widow who slept with a man should lose her pension. My 2xgreat-grandmother was poorly educated and didn't know what to do, but her second son had been apprenticed to an influential man in the neighborhood who helped her retain her pension. I then continued the story, and told the woman that my 2xgreat-grandmother eventually married this boarder, so the scandalous accusation might have had some truth to it. I grabbed papers and read her excerpts, showing her the difficult-to-read handwriting. I simply couldn't stop talking, even as I watched her eyes glaze over and her face begin to take on a shocked look. She was only released when her stop came and she could stumble off the train. I know she didn't take a seat on that train for at least a week before making sure I was nowhere near her.

Ironically, when I decided to make my own test of Ancestry's pension indexes, I discovered that, if limited to Ancestry's indexes only, I might not have found three of these four pensions.

First, you should all realize that Ancestry's War of 1812 pension index database contains the index images, but these images have not been indexed. When Ancestry announced their big military collection a few years ago, I plugged in Benjamin Rollins' name, but no 1812 pension results appeared. If you're searching for a War of 1812 pensioner on Ancestry, you must browse these images to find him.

I could find no pension entry for Guy Beckley Staples, the Civil War pensioner featured in the above story, in Ancestry's database, regardless of the many possible search configurations I used. I did find an entry for him in Footnote's database.

I could find no pension entry for William Henry Peck, my 3xgreat-grandfather, whose pension I also devoured on this memorable first day. I couldn't find him in Footnote's database, either. Only one of the four pensioners, Benjamin S. Gifford, was readily available on both Ancestry and Footnote. If I had access only to Ancestry, my first day at the Archives might not have been so memorable. Of course, that poor woman on the train back to Baltimore would have had a much more peaceful ride.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Apples and Fraktur

One of my college classmates loved to pontificate on any subject. He fascinated me, because I hadn't met too many people like him before those days. Of course, he irritated me a great deal, too. Over the years, though, one of his rambling commentaries has returned to mind many times - his "Apple Argument." He contended that most Americans had no idea what a wonderful thing an apple could be. The only apple we'd ever eaten was a Red Delicious, with an occasional adventure with a Jonathan or a Granny Smith. (This was in the days before most grocery stores added Gala and Fuji to their limited collection.) There were hundreds, if not thousands, of tastier apples in the country, but we never saw them because they didn't ship or store as well. Big business was destroying quality and variety in apples simply to make money. On the other hand, I replied, big business was providing people with inexpensive apples year round. That couldn't be all bad, could it? I'm not sure I agree with my early self now. How many of these apple varieties have you tasted? How many have you even heard of? Isn't there some way to have both quality and availability? And what does this have to do with genealogy?

Late last year, a controversial post by Peggy Reeves on the APG mailing list started a discussion that carried over to several other lists and blogs. Like Peggy, I have found missing records in many Ancestry databases, and we all have stories of horrendous indexing errors in all the major subscription databases. Many of the responses to Peggy's posts boiled down to this: "Okay, there may be problems, but we should be grateful for what we have. Look at how much better access is now to these records." True, but will we have access to these records if they're not digitized in the first place? Do we have access if there's no index or finding aid? How do you look at a record, if you can't find proof it exists?

I took comfort from the fact that the Archives would be there for us, but in gossiping with some of the reference people on my recent trip, I discovered that the Archives really is planning to retire digitized records from "active reference," and there are rumors of plans to replace the microfilm reading room at Archives I with a museum store. Microfilm, like text records, could be requested, but self-service rolls would be limited. Records no longer considered active reference could be requested, but usually only when your need to see the original is demonstrated. Consider also Peggy's comment that the companies digitizing NARA's records weren't even taking advantage of modern technology. That brings me to the fraktur in my title. If you can't look at the original, which image would you rather see? This fraktur image found on Footnote, or this image found on NARA's Flickr site?

Isn't there some way to have both quality and availability? Whose responsibility is it to see that we do?