Using Targeted Approach to Searches,

I think my favorite features of our house are the porches. We have a large covered porch in the back that is my favorite place to sit in the spring and summer, and we have another smaller porch in front that I love to wander during conference calls and sit on some evenings chatting with neighbors.

But it’s that time of year again–time to put a stain/water seal on the porches. This year won’t be as bad as last year. Those of you who read my column last year may remember me moaning about the love/hate relationship I had with a belt sander. (Actually that should be plural, as I killed the first one.) We had to strip off layers of paint before applying the stain, and it was quite the chore.

This year my big challenge will be the lattice under the back deck. When I first stained it, I was painstakingly painting each wooden strip with a small brush when my neighbor suggested I use a sprayer to do the lattice. While it saved a lot of time, it wasted a ton of stain and didn’t do the best job. (Of course some of the fault there may fall on the person wielding the sprayer!) This year, I think I’ll revert to a brush again and go back to a more targeted approach. While it will take longer, I like the results I get with a brush.

We face the choice of a targeted approach or a shotgun-type method often in life, and our family history searches are no exception. With huge collections of databases and mega-searches available online, it can be tempting to go for the time-saver and just search everything at once.

The shotgun approach isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and in fact, it may turn up ancestors in places you might not have thought to look or with spellings you might not have tried. The ranked search is kind of a shotgun approach, but you can narrow your sights by adding more search criteria (e.g., birth and death dates, and locations). Once the broad ranked search is done, it’s good to take a more methodical and targeted look at certain databases in which you think your ancestors may be lurking undetected.

Knowing What’s Available
The first step in a targeted search is determining what’s available for your ancestor’s area and time of interest. While a browse of all of the 23,775 database titles available at would have been a huge undertaking, the new Card Catalog allows you to search the collection more effectively for databases of interest. More information and some tips for using the new catalog can be found in the 24/7 Family History Circle post from May 12.

Once you’ve zeroed in on a database of interest, read the description. Coverage on a particular database may be limited, or it may include extras that may not be evident in the database title. The description should provide helpful details that will either confirm that you are searching in the right place for your ancestors, or save you from beating your head on your keyboard when, after pulling an all-nighter searching for your elusive ancestor, you find that it doesn’t cover that particular year or location you need.

For example, in the index of New York City Births, 1891-1902, the description states, “For the years 1891 to 1897 these records include Manhattan, parts of the Bronx, and Brooklyn. For these earlier years, users must note that the information is from Manhattan, Brooklyn, and part of the Bronx only. From 1898 through 1902 all five boroughs of New York City are listed: Brooklyn, Bronx, Manhattan, Richmond, and Queens.” If you’ve estimated that your ancestor was born in Queens in 1895, unless your estimate is wrong, you’re not going to find him here. However, you may be able to find his little sister, who was born in 1900.

Choose a Target
Even when I have multiple ancestors in one location at a particular time, I try to resist the urge to randomly enter names of anyone and everyone just to get that “happy dance fix.” Instead, I’ll choose a focus family or individual for my search and consult one of my homemade timelines (more on this in the Library), and after determining first that they should indeed be included in that database, I’ll look for clues that can aid me in my search. For example, if I am looking for the passenger arrival record of an ancestor, my timelines typically include estimates for their time of arrival in this country. I can use that information to narrow my search in the database to relevant entries. Passenger Arrival databases allow you to specify arrival dates within plus or minus one, two, five, ten, or twenty years.

Examine Search Options
One of the biggest advantages of searching databases directly is that many include specialized search forms with searchable fields in the database that are not evident when using the global search form. Also, try some sample searches and note the fields that are available and how they are set up. For example, if you were searching the North Carolina Marriage Collection, 1741-2000, you might use the county field to narrow your search to the county in which your ancestor lived.

In cases where you can see that information is available but there isn’t a specific field for it, you can sometimes use the keyword search, provided the field was rendered searchable when it was created. This typically works in databases like city directories from the late 1880s and early 1890s that were posted as part of the 1890 Census Substitute. An example would be the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania City Directories, 1888-92. The fields available for this database are Name, Business Name, Occupation, and Keyword. Although there is no field for Address, in this database it is searchable. After locating an ancestor, you could then go back and search for that address alone and see who else was living in the home. You may find in-laws, siblings, or other relatives living at that same address who might otherwise be overlooked if they had a different surname.
Bottom Line
When you are focused on a particular database, you have the ability to be more creative with your searches. Why not pull out one of your more challenging lines and put a targeted search to the test?

Juliana Smith has been the editor of newsletters for eight years and is author of The Ancestry Family Historian’s Address Book. She has written for Ancestry Magazine and Genealogical Computing. Juliana can be reached by e-mail at:, but she regrets that her schedule does not allow her to assist with personal research.

4 thoughts on “Using Targeted Approach to Searches,

  1. After reading your article of June 18th (the follow-up to this article) I printed it and came back to this article. How can I print this one? I would like to save it. Thanks

  2. I printed this, but it used 4 pages instead of 2. A “printable version” would be nice.

  3. To print go to file, scroll down to print preview,open, and this will show you how many pages will print. You can print one at a time or preview the printed pages first and print the pages that you want. (this is done by placing the page numbers like 1-2 or 1-4 in the box and these will be the only ones printed).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *