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Twigs & Trees with Rhonda: Are You Really Using Your Resources?
by Rhonda R. McClure

September 23, 1999
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

How many of you have searched the index of a book, not found your ancestor in it and moved on to another book? Go ahead, admit it. We're all guilty of it. We somehow get into the feeling that if we look through the records faster we will be able to push back our ancestry faster. Usually what this means is that we are in such a hurry that we are missing tips and clues. This is especially true with books.

Many of the books that are currently available are some sort of transcription or abstract of a record type we would find useful. This could be the transcription of the tombstones in the cemetery where our ancestors were buried, or we hope they were buried. It could be abstracts from the probate files in the county courthouse. You know -- the ones that haven't been microfilmed by the Family History Library yet.

To use a record type effectively, you must take your time and truly get familiar with it.

Getting Familiar with the Record Type

You cannot get familiar with a resource or record type if you only have it in your hands or on your microfilm reader for a total of ten minutes. In fact, you can't even do a thorough search of a resource in that amount of time. Just because a record type has an index, does not always mean that you should check off that source as having been searched.

To get familiar with any record type requires that you take a moment to really look and see how the record is organized. Are the entries compiled all together? Or are they divided by name of cemetery or town? If divided, are there separate indexes or an all encompassing index? If using a microfilmed record type, how easy is it to read? Could you search page by page if necessary without having to actually read everything on each page?

These are just some of the questions that should be coming up as you are looking at a new volume of probate records, or that newly published abstract of land records.

At the Mercy of the Index

As genealogists, we soon find ourselves relying heavily on indexes. We groan when we discover that there isn't an index to a census or to the probate record volume that probably holds the will of an ancestor. However, all indexes are not created equal. Some books have excellent indexes leading you to entries for everyone listed in the volume. Others include only those who are not easily located in the body of book (perhaps the book was arranged alphabetically). Still others may only include the names of those who appear in the body of the book, omitting anyone listed in footnotes or end notes.

How can you tell how thorough the index is? The best way is to test it. Begin by opening the book. Select a name found in the body of the book, then turn to the index and see if the index lists that name and the page on which you found it.

The next test should be to pick a name that is included in a footnote or an end note. See if the name appears in the index. If it does, see if there is a difference in the types of footnotes or end notes that are used. Sometimes books will have anecdotes or further information about a given individual mentioned in the body of the book as well. However, there will be names of people who appear in a record with that person. And it is highly possible that these individuals will not be included in the book's index.

If you find that a book's index is lacking, then you will want to keep that in mind, and make a note of it, for the next time you return to that book. And there may come a time where you will need to spend that extra time to really read through the majority of the pages of the book to be sure that your ancestors definitely are not in that book.

The Book's Introduction

Open almost any genealogy book and there will be some pages in the front. They may be labeled "Preface" or "Introduction", but regardless of what they are labeled, they are a wealth of information that have the potential to save time and frustration.

Book titles don't always offer the clearest picture about just what information will be included in the volume. Sometimes this is because the publisher is hoping for a catchy title or perhaps the title of the record type used is too long. If that is the case, it may not be clear just what years are covered by a given book.

The Introduction is the place to find this information out. It will explain the years covered in the volume. Other details you are likely to find in the Introduction may have to do with:

  • The organization of the book
  • The abbreviations used in the book
  • Possible omissions in the records used
  • Additional resources that might be of use in your research

In Conclusion

While it may seem like you are spending more time and moving slower in the research of your ancestors, by spending this time thoroughly investigating a given resource, you will actually find that you are less likely to over look something useful. Therefore you will not have to return to that source because you overlooked something. And you are less likely to be sent on a wild goose chase. Being thorough should be as important to you as finding your ancestors.

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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