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Twigs & Trees with Rhonda: Getting the Most from Online Research
by Rhonda R. McClure

November 16, 2000
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

The Internet should be a benefit to genealogists, and yet to many it is nothing but a frustration. You go out in search of a web site, and three hours later you have nothing to show for it, other than a massive headache and red burning eyes.

But what is it about the Internet that causes this frustration? What is it about the Internet and our computer that lets these machines get the better of us?

The Internet should be a benefit to genealogists, and yet it is often a frustration.

Gaining Confidence

For most people this frustration results from a lack of confidence when working on the computer. Unfortunately there isn't any easy fix to this. You just need to spend enough time working with the different programs so that you know what to expect. Above all, it is essential that you actually read the screen.

Looking at a computer screen is a lot like listening to a person. Sometimes we listen and sometimes we really hear. Sometimes we see and other times we really read. When working online, it is always a good idea to really read the screen.

In most cases the computer program or the Internet will tell you what it needs or what is wrong. While these messages may sometimes be of a "techie" nature, they are usually enough to tell you why something has gone wrong, or the program has not done what you wanted. The same is true of the Internet.

Do You Have a Plan?

It is also important to have a plan. If you go to the county courthouse or the library or archive without having a plan, generally you leave empty handed. It would stand to reason that if you do not have a plan when you are looking online that you are just as likely to end up empty handed.

Before you go online, decide what it is that you hope to find. Are you looking for a fellow researcher who may be looking in the same locality you are? Are you hoping to find a family history page for a given surname? Plan your work and work your plan.

Does the Computer Understand?

You also need to have an understanding about what it is you are hoping to find. Obviously looking for a SMITH family will result in a lot of family history pages on lines of that surname that don't apply to you. Searching for surnames like MINES may require you to be creative with your searches to omit those non-genealogical sites that might be devoted to such things as coal mines.

We often joke about wishing our computer had a DWIM key, a Do What I Mean key. Computers are literal. They cannot evaluate your search entry and make a conscious decision to gather information that is "close, but next exact." Computers do just what we tell them to, and only what we tell them to.

There will be times when this means you have run multiple searches to find the sites you are interested in. Other times this may mean rethinking the method you use to run the search in the first place.

In Conclusion

Each of you will learn at your own pace. Some of you will learn how to work the search engines while others of you will be happiest working with directories first. Just remember that in order to get the most out of the Internet, you need to take some time to learn how it works and experiment with what is most effective when looking for your families. Above all, don't be afraid to experiment. The worst that can happen is that you don't get the results you hoped for. You will certainly be no worse off.

See Rhonda's Previous Columns

About the Author
Rhonda R. McClure is a professional genealogist specializing in New England research and computerized genealogy. She has been involved in online genealogy for ten years. She was the Web Site Sysop for the Ultimate Family Tree web site. She was the Data Manager of the Genealogy RoundTable on Genie(r) for seven years and the forum manager for the Genealogy Forum on MSN(r). She is the author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Genealogy. She is a contributing editor for American Genealogy Magazine, Heritage Quest Magazine, the National Genealogical Society Computer Interest Group's Digest and Ancestry, Inc.'s Genealogical Computing. She also writes a 5-day a week e-mail newsletter, Family Tree Finders - for SodaMail. She may be contacted at

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