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Twigs & Trees with Rhonda: Why Can't I Find It?
by Rhonda R. McClure

August 19, 1999
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

There is nothing genealogists like more than databases. We practically twitch when we begin to hear rumors that a new database is about to be released. Recently the databases have been literally flying out the door as more and more genealogical publishers get involved in the distribution of their information via CD.

Unfortunately there are many times when we are disappointed in the results of a search of one of these CDs. We have spent our hard-earned money and appear to have nothing to show for it. While sometimes we may be mislead based on the write-up on the jewel case of the CD we have purchased, generally there are other factors that directly affect our inability to locate the individuals we are so desperately in need of.

If you are unsure of exactly what a CD may contain, it is a good idea to get additional information. You can often times ask the vendor selling the CD. They sometimes have sales information that may clue you in to whether or not the CD will be of use to you.

Make sure the CD contains the records you think it does.

Missing People

There are times that your ancestors just didn't make the database. This could be the result of the years of inclusion for the records. If the marriages included go from 1820-1900 and your ancestor was married in 1819, it is likely they will not make it. Also, if you haven't been able to find a particular record in the locality you expected, don't be surprised when you get a disk of those same records to find your ancestor is not among those in the database. While we always hope that the computerized database will contain some new and previously undiscovered records.

Generally if you have already searched the marriage records on microfilm for a given county and not found your ancestor, it is unlikely that a database will contain an entry. Usually databases contain the abstracted or extracted work of certain records. I don't want to say definitely that your ancestor wouldn't appear. It is possible that the database used a collection of sources, one of which did have your ancestor. I just want you to be prepared for the negative results as it may come.

Source of the Material

I have touched on this just a little bit. It is important to learn the source of the material for the CD you are interested in. If you are interested in Canadian research and are thinking of purchasing a CD with an index to Canadians, educate yourself as to the source of those names. When Broderbund released its Canadian Genealogy Index, 1600s-1900s, I was excited. The dates and the mentioning of The Genealogical Research Library let me know what the source was. The Genealogical Research Library is located in Toronto. They are a professional research firm. They published some twelve volumes with over two million names of Canadians indexed from over one thousand different sources and then broke those down into regions. I'd had the good fortune to use the books at the Genealogical Research Library while in Toronto in 1995. So I knew what to expect from the CD. And I was not disappointed.

You cannot rely solely on the title of a given CD. It is important to also read the jewel case liner. This very often will include the compiler of the data or the original source. In the case of Broderbund's CD #155 Military Records: Civil War Confederate Pension Applications Index you may be expecting to find information on anyone from the Confederate States who filed for a pension. Actually, this CD is for those pensions in Tennessee. If your ancestor lived in Tennessee after the Civil War then you will be most interested in this CD. However, if your ancestor lived in North Carolina, it is not likely he would appear in this particular CD.

At the Mercy of the Indexer

Whether we want to admit it or not, in most instances we are at the mercy of the indexer. And generally this can be a bad thing. When you and I are searching the census or some other handwritten document, we are concentrating on specific names. Therefore we can easily dismiss others, even if we aren't 100% sure of all the letters. An indexer does not have that luxury. He or she must decipher even the hardest to read of names to include it in the index. Sometimes this doesn't work. Either the indexer misreads a letter or two, or in their entry phase they hit a wrong key.

Even data on CDs can have this problem. There are now many books on CD, the New England History Genealogical Register, for instance. The index that accompanies this massive work of scanned pages was created by humans and is subject to the biggest frailty of humans, imperfection. When working with any indexes, be sure to consider any and all possible convolutions of a surname. Not only do you need to keep in mind known spelling variants, but you must also consider typos and misread letters. You must consider the omission or addition of silent letters, as this will affect your ancestors placement in an index. And when searching a CD can cause the computer to overlook the name entirely.

In Conclusion

CD databases and online databases are a gift that we should always acknowledge. Even if we have to pay a subscription fee to access it or purchase a CD, the number of hours saved by someone else's labor would far outweigh the cost of the record. However, don't set yourself up for a disappointment. Know all there is to know about the database in question and remember to search as many different spellings as you can determine for the specific name.

See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Rhonda R. McClure is a professional genealogist specializing in celebrity trees and computerized genealogy. She has been involved in online genealogy for fifteen years. She is the author of the award-winning The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Genealogy, now in its second edition. She is the author of four how-to guides on Family Tree Maker. In late 2001, she wrote The Genealogist's Computer Companion. She is a contributing editor to Biography Magazine with her "Celebrity Roots" column and a contributing writer to The History Channel Magazine. Her latest book is Finding Your Famous and Infamous Ancestors. She may be contacted at

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