Instead of Failing, Read the Instructions

“When all else fails, read the instructions.”

How often have we heard that adage? How about reading the instructions before — and instead of — failing? It’s a strategy we should use in our genealogy.

It’s easy to be lured into searching a new website or a new database because its title seems to include everything. When we don’t find what we’re looking for, we go away thinking that our ancestor wasn’t <fill in the blank> — wasn’t born in that place during that time, wasn’t married in that state, wasn’t buried in that cemetery.

The problem with that conclusion is that it could be totally and completely wrong. Fortunately, there is a way to get around this.

read-instructionsRead the instructions.

A friend of mine on Facebook shared that FamilySearch has updated its collection of Ohio death records: Ohio, County Death Records, 1840-2001. Death records for Ohio through 2001?! Awesome!

There’s just one drawback. It doesn’t cover every county for all of those years. From the description of this database:

Index and images of death records from county courthouses. In some instances we did not have rights to publish images of records included in the index. Most of the records in this collection are death registers created before statewide death certificates in 1908. Death certificates issued by the state are published in the collection called Ohio Deaths, 1908-1953.1)FamilySearch, Ohio, County Death Records, 1840-2001. Accessed 13 January 2015.

This is our clue that this doesn’t have all of the death records for the entire state of Ohio from 1840-2001. Unfortunately, there’s no direct link to tell what is included. For that, we can browse the collection and look at what is included for individual counties. Belmont County has death certificates ranging from 1940 through 1982 (for some letters). Athens County has Death Records, 1867-1908 and Soldiers burial records, 1898-1912. Delaware County only has Death Records, 1867-1907.

Let’s say I’m looking for someone who I think died in Ohio in 1960. If he died in Belmont County, I might find them in this collection. If he died in Delaware County, I won’t. It isn’t that he didn’t die in Ohio. He just died in a county in a time that isn’t included in this collection. That’s a big difference than “he didn’t die in Ohio.”

It’s Everywhere

My example is from FamilySearch, but it could be any website – commercial or non-profit. Ideally, there’s a page (or at least a paragraph!) describing what is in that database and where it came from. Look for links that say “Learn more” or “About this collection.”

Archives have followed this pattern for years. It’s common practice to name a collection with the date of the earliest record and the date of the newest record that it contains. “Smith family papers, 1830-1912.” Sometimes they will add to the title “[bulk 1861-1895]” to indicate that most of the records are in this time span. (Yes, the Smith family papers has something dated 1830 and 1912, but most of the papers are from 1861-1895.) However, sometimes it’s in the collection’s description and not the title.

Yes, Even Books

You would think that a book that’s titled Franklin County, Ohio, cemeteries, vol. 2 Madison Township2)Franklin County Genealogical Society. Franklin County, Ohio, cemeteries, vol. 2 Madison Township. Columbus: by the society, 1980. would contain readings from all of the legible tombstones in those cemeteries. So you turn to the back of the book for the index, look for your ancestor and don’t find them. Well, they must not be buried in Madison Township (or maybe they have an illegible stone); either way, there’s no tombstone to find. Right? Wrong.

In the section for Union Grove Cemetery is this notice:

“Stones with death dates through 1920 were included in this reading.”

If your ancestor might be buried in Union Grove. But if he died after 1920, he’s not in this book.

Explore Before You Search

So often, we see a website or a new database whose title tantalizes us and brings visions of finding that Brick Wall Ancestor. We dive right in, doing search after search. Sometimes we find what we’re looking for, but often we walk away without any new information. What’s worse is that we leave thinking that our ancestor wasn’t part of whatever that collection was about.

It’s normal to be excited about a new database or a new book. But don’t set yourself up for failure. Take a minute or two and explore what that database or book is all about. You’ll have much more success this way.

References   [ + ]

1. FamilySearch, Ohio, County Death Records, 1840-2001. Accessed 13 January 2015.
2. Franklin County Genealogical Society. Franklin County, Ohio, cemeteries, vol. 2 Madison Township. Columbus: by the society, 1980.

4 thoughts on “Instead of Failing, Read the Instructions

  1. Lesli M

    Huh. It’s interesting that no one has updated that wiki page with a coverage table. I was JUST looking at the FamilySearch wiki pages for collection information. I was so stunned (in a very grateful way) to see a coverage table. Now, I can’t find the page…so maybe I dreamed it. LOL

    1. Amy Johnson Crow Post author

      Some of the FamilySearch collections have wonderful wiki pages that outline what’s included. (Of course, we still need to check them!) I was surprised that this one didn’t — or, at least didn’t have a link that I saw.

  2. Michelle Rasmussen

    I had this experience recently – with I was looking for an obituary. I KNEW it existed, because several people had posted pictures of it in many sites, but I wanted to clip it from so I had a better copy. I looked until I was blue in the face. Then – sitting there with my blue face – I clicked on the Newspaper name – to see what was included. And….. the Newspaper archives end in 1922, and my obituary was from 1929. I could have saved a bunch of time looking there FIRST!!!!


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