New features are being added regularly to the FamilySearch.org website. Most of these are unheralded, but for the past few months, FamilySearch has posted a blog post summarizing the new features. The latest version is by Steve Anderson and is entitled, "What's New in FamilySearch -- September, 2015." Just as regularly, I try to comment on the changes and elaborate on those that need more explanation. There are two features highlighted in Steve's article: the new Messaging system (which I have already discussed in a previous post) and several enhancements to the Search function of the Historical Record Collections. I decided to write some thoughts on searching on FamilySearch.org.
The Search functions on FamilySearch.org have been the subject of considerable discussion in the genealogical community. Not all of this discussion has been favorable to FamilySearch.org. The real issue is based on a comparison between FamilySearch and other websites. To be fair, search engine technology is rapidly evolving and FamilySearch.org is in the forefront of websites developing sophisticated search technologies. The capabilities of the FamilySearch search functions is colored, in part, by the fact that there are a number of separate search functions which are not directly related. Those search functions include the following:
- Searches made for individuals in the Family Tree including duplicate searches, searches for individuals, searches for existing individuals upon adding family members
- Help menu searches
- Searches within the Memories section of the website
- Searches within the digitized book section of the website
- Catalog searches in the FamilySearch catalog
- Wiki searches in the FamilySearch Research Wiki
- Searches in the Genealogies section
- Searches within the Historical Record Collections
Although most of these searches involve similar processes, the information involved either assists or limits the searches made.
It may seem obvious, but all searches are limited by the amount of information available for the search. In the case of the Historical Record Collections, that limitation is absolute and limited to indexed records only. That means that any search of the Historical Record Collections searches only a percentage of the entire records available on the website. From time to time, I hear people complain that they can find no information on the FamilySearch.org website about their family. Usually the person making such a complaint has done what they feel to be, an exhaustive search using the FamilySearch.org search engines. Unfortunately they have missed the vast majority of the records on FamilySearch.org which are still in microfilm or digitized microfilm format and remain unindexed. For this reason, even for searches concentrating on the Historical Record Collections should include a detailed search in the FamilySearch Catalog.
A second important point about searching is that all searches are limited to the accuracy of the underlying indexing system. Indexing systems are not perfect and therefore any search of historical records that fails to produce specific results should move from using a search engine in a website to examination of the original, paper or digitized records. One common indication of the limitations of search engines in general is the fact that a particular family may be found in only certain years of the US Federal Census records. Obviously, if a family is found in the 1910 census and again in the 1930 census, they must of been in existence during the time of the 1920 census. Although there is always the possibility that the family was missed during the census, more likely the real reason the family cannot be found is because the indexing of the census is incomplete or inaccurate.
Given those limitations it is also important to understand the details of the searching process as it has been implemented on any particular website. Because the new features outlined in the FamilySearch blog post referenced above involve the Historical Record Collections, I will focus on those new changes. Quoting from the article:
When doing a new search, when you enter information you want to find (such as marriage information), you may be surprised to see census records or death certificates in the search results. That happens because the census record and death certificate contain some marriage information. But sometimes you may want to look for a person in a specific type of record for a specific place (for example, Henry Huff in marriage records for Nova Scotia, Canada).
Let's suppose, that I were to search for my great-grandfather Henry Martin Tanner. I could begin by entering his name in the search fields as shown in the image above at the beginning of his post. However, without some qualifying limitations on the search, I am likely to have too many false results. Therefore it is necessary to limit the search by more specific information, assuming I know more information. As with any search engine of this type, you should always begin with entering as little information as possible to obtain results and then proceed by adding additional information. It is always useful to restrict the records to a specific country or region.
In this case, I will restrict my search for my great-grandfather to the United States and the state of Arizona. Here's a screenshot showing the area of the search that can be restricted geographically:
It is always more effective in searching records to restrict the scope of the search to a specific geographic area before beginning the search. There is however a danger here that you will eliminate records because you are unaware that your ancestor lived in a different geographic area.
Here are the results of my search:
As you can see from the search, there is more than one instance of a person with the name of "Henry Tanner" in the state of Arizona at about the same time and interestingly, they both had a wife named Eliza. Without more information from the user, a search engine will probably never be able to differentiate between this type of similar individuals.
One new feature of the search is that I can now click on the entry and see an expanded version of the record. Here's a screenshot showing the expanded version:
One last change, is outlined as follows from the FamilySearch post:
FamilySearch.org has begun publishing collections that contain searchable indexed information that was extracted from images by computers rather than by people. This monumental advancement promises to dramatically increase the indexed information available for the many image-only collections currently published on FamilySearch.org.
While we are developing these automated indexing tools, your feedback on the accuracy of these records will greatly accelerate the improvement of the tools. On auto-indexed records only, you will see a new tab at the bottom labeled “Errors?” When you click Errors?, you will be able to provide direct feedback to the engineer on the type and specific nature of any errors you encounter.The addition of an error reporting capability is a step in the right direction but it would be helpful also to have the ability to make a suggested correction to the index and have it added as an alternative search term.