PROVO — Barry J. Ewell has experienced many “Aha!” moments in his family history research.
As the founder of mygenshare.com, a website for individuals interested in learning, sharing and discovering family history, he knows a thing or two about the trade. In fact, he shared more than 40 tips with audiences at Brigham Young Univeristy’s Campus Education Week from Aug. 14 through 17.
"Every individual leaves a trail, sometimes in the papers you find and often in the groups they associated with," said Ewell. Whether it's a baby book, birth certificate or a photograph, the trails are out there, it just takes some digging to find them.
Ewell’s basic steps before beginning a search are to, first, write down a question, and second, identify broad and narrow search terms and synonyms. He then enters a few precise words into the search engine and looks for secondary search terms in the returns of the first search. While looking through results, Ewell cautioned that if you’re only looking for a name, you’ll miss 70 percent of the clues given, and that for every hour he spends in preparation, he saves himself 20 hours and finds his ancestors three times faster.
Following his first steps with the use of Boolean operators (words like "and," "or" and "not" that are used in a search box to define the relationships between words) on google.com, Ewell’s goal was to show that if you’re taking more than 10 minutes to find what you’re looking for on an Internet browser, you’re taking too long.
Ewell used the following Boolean operators to demonstrate his typical family history searches. Note that the uses of quotations in the query examples are merely to separate the query for understanding and do not serve as an actual function, unless they are contained within the first set of quotations.
- AND: AND Narrows your search and retrieves records containing both terms. It can be substituted with a plus sign. For example, the query “Louis I + France” would retrieve information about Louis the First, weeding out other kings of France. Adding a plus sign before a word, with no space between, will also prevent searches of variations, such as favorite and favourite.
- OR: OR expands search results. For example, the query “Virginia census OR tax” would retrieve information about both Virginia census and Virginia tax. Make sure to write OR with uppercase letters.
- NOT: NOT causes search engines to pull up results excluding particular terms. For example, the query “Apple –developer –Washington” would retrieve information about apples, but not about apple developers or apples related to Washington. Adding a minus sign before a word, with no space between, will also prevent searches from turning up specific terms.
- Quotations: Using quotations around a set of words will cause the search engine to retrieve information containing both terms. Essentially, it causes the search engine to treat the terms inside the quotes as one word. For example, the name “Ora Jones” in quotations would turn up results containing the entire name. Quotations around a phrase can also be used to find specific quotes. According to Ewell, he sometimes enters in phrases from genealogical journals to see if any results come up. If so, he would contact the individual associated with them and ask to share information.
- Asterisk: Using an asterisk with a partial keyword causes the search engine to retrieve results of words containing your specific letters. For example, the query “Joh*” would return results such as John, Johnson, Johnsen, Johnathon, and Johns. To use the asterisk operator you must use three letters minimum. This is a useful tool if you’re unsure how someone is going to spell last names. Using an asterisk between words will cause the search engine to return pages containing your words separated by one or more words. For example, the query “Ora *Jones” would return results such as Ora W. Jones, Ora William Jones and Ora Murphy Jones.
- Question mark: Replacing letters within words with a question mark will cause the search engine to return results with your word containing various replacements for the letter represented by the question mark. For example, the query “Sm?th” would return results such as Smith, Smyth, Smoth and Smath.
- Number range: Using a number range operate returns matches for results between your specified years. In your query you can use either an ellipsis or a hyphen. For example, the query “Sarah Mullins Obituary: 1920 1925” or “Sarah Mullins Obituary: 1920-1925” would return results encompassing the years 1920 to 1925.
- Tilde: Using a tilde in front of a word, without a space, will cause the search engine to return results containing both the specific word as well as synonyms and terms with alternative endings. For example, the query “Jones ~tombstone” would retrieve results containing Jones and terms such as grave, marker and monument in addition to tombstone.
- LINK: Using the term “LINK:” in front of a URL address will return results containing all the pages that are linking to a specific website URL. For example, the query “LINK:www.mygenshare.com” would return results of all other websites linking to www.mygenshare.com.
- allinanchor: Using the term “allinanchor:” in front of words will return results containing sites that have the specific keywords in anchor tags pointing toward those pages. In other words, it finds all the websites that define themselves as your specific keywords. For example, the query “allinanchor: "German immigration"” would return results containing all the websites that define themselves as German immigration.
- SITE: Using the term "SITE:" in front of a URL restricts the search results to the site or domain you specified. For example, the query "'Sarah Jones' SITE:familysearch.org" will return results containing information about Sarah Jones, but only from the familysearch.org website. (There shouldn't be a space between "SITE:" and the website.
- allintext: Using the term "allintext:" in front of your keywords will restrict your search results to pages in which the words appear only in the website description. For example, the query "allintext: "packing list"" would return results containing the keywords "packing list" in the website's description.
- allintitle: Using the term "allintitle" in front of your keywords will restrict your search results to pages in which the words appear only in the title of the website. For example, the query "allintitle: "packing list"" would return results containing the keywords "packing list" in the websites title. It is the reverse of using the allintext operator.
- SAFESEARCH: Using the term "SAFESEARCH:" in front of your keywords allows you to research a topic while excluding pornographic websites. For example, the query "SAFESEARCH: "breast cancer"" would allow you to search for information about breast cancer without the worry of stumbling on inappropriate content.
Ewell pointed out that when using Boolean operators you can combine the use of multiple operators in a single query. For example, the query "Jones +genealogy -"Epson and Ewell" -Richard -observatory" would return results about Jones and genealogy and exclude information about the phrase "Epson and Ewell" and Jones, Richard and Jones, and observatory and Jones.
A good rule of thumb is to utilize another search engine if it’s taking you more than 15 minutes to find what you’re looking for, according to Ewell. He also advised to never look at more than three pages of results.
“If you’re not finding what you’re looking for in the first three pages, think first about your question,” he said.
Ewell went on to share an acronym that he utilizes in his family history search. The acronym is "QUEST."
The "Q" stands for "Questions lead to answers." According to Ewell, genealogy is about questions, it's not about looking for names. Questions such as, "Why did my ancestor move from Virginia to Tennessee?" or, "When did my ancestor come to America?" are the type of questions to ask.
The "U" stands for "Understand the times and seasons." Ewell summarized that every one of our ancestors lived in a time and season and that it's important to keep that in mind when doing genealogy. Focusing on an individual in a specific time period affects the questions we're going to ask, the span of time, the individuals associated, the locations and the type of records you'll find. It affects everything about the individual and the groups he or she associated with.
"It's the idea that when you step back and look at the times and seasons you're now in a better position to ask better questions and find answers," Ewell said.
The "E" stands for "Engage with others to extend your knowledge and expertise." Ewell suggested contacting individuals and genealogical societies in charge of genealogy for the specific area you are researching, or individuals who are researching genealogy that crosses paths with your own research.
The "S" stands for "Searching for one ancestor, one generation, one question at a time, stay focused." Ewell said to focus on one individual and to ask questions one at a time.
"Your research will move three to 400 times faster because you're focused. If you're looking for information and you find others, make a note and put it into your to-do pile. Then later you'll make a decision on what you want to do next," Ewell said.Comment on this story
The "T" stands for "Tie generations together." Ewell heavily encouraged the audience to make sure they've got all the resources that delineate the connections between individuals. You want to be sure that you have the right individuals linking to the correct relations.
Ewell closed his class with an admonition to look at the times and seasons.
"When you put people in their times and seasons and you see them in the groups that they belong with, I promise you, you will see the clues that you need, because if there is a record, you will find it."
Ewell's blog on genealogy can be found at www.mygenshare.com