From the Ancestry Daily News
  Michael John Neill -  6/8/2005

From Their Mouth to Your Computer Screen

While it would be nice for our ancestors' information to instantly appear on the computer screen, most of us know that it simply does not work that way. This week we take a look at the steps that data took to get from our ancestors' mouth to our computer monitor. Being aware of these steps is crucial to effectively searching for ancestors in transcriptions, indexes, and other finding aids.

From the Ancestor's Mouth
Few of us were present when our ancestor gave the answers to the census taker or the records clerk. There is no way for us to know exactly what question came out of the clerk's mouth and how this question was interpreted by our ancestor, particularly if he or she could barely understand the language the records clerk used. Even if the ancestor understood the question perfectly, there are additional considerations. Did the person answering questions have a German accent? Did she have an Irish brogue? Did he insert a guttural sound into the name that might have been interpreted as an extra letter? Did your ancestor have difficulty speaking? Did your ancestor fail to give complete answers? Did your ancestor even really understand the questions, even if they spoke the same language?

To the Clerk's Ear
Did the clerk ask for clarification or just spell a name the way it sounded? Did he even care if he spelled the name correctly? Did he spell your Danish ancestor's last name the way a Swede would spell it because many other immigrants to the area were Swedish and not Danish? Did the clerk say the question in a way that was confusing to your ancestor? Did the clerk have difficulty understanding your ancestor and wrote down his best guess instead of clarifying the answer with your ancestor? Was the census taker a German native who insisted on spelling even the English language last names the "German way?" Did the records clerk put down "Germany" as the place of birth because that was easier than writing down Wildbrechtrode, Thuringen, Germany?

To the Official Document
Did the clerk have handwriting that was very flourished and difficult to read? Was his handwriting sloppy? Did his letter "u" look like a letter "n?" Did he use an ink or a pencil that has faded over time? Was the document written on low-quality paper? Is there an inkblot right over the most crucial word in the entire document?

To Be Filed Away
Many of the documents used by genealogists were not originally stored under the most ideal conditions for long-term preservation. Some are still not stored under such conditions. Extreme heat or cold, mildew, water, insects, or other environmental factors could easily have impacted the condition of the records used to create an index or a finding aid. Bottoms of pages may have worn away after years of use. Pages may have fallen out and gotten lost as the binding of the book deteriorated beyond repair. Does the transcription of finding aid you are using make it clear whether such issues were encountered when the records were read? Were original documents folded, creating an illegible line of text that invariably is the most important line in the entire document.

To the Transcriptionist's Eye
Is the indexer using the original document or a microfilm copy? Is that microfilmed copy the only copy and a poor copy at that? Is the transcriptionist familiar with the last names of the area or the language the individuals listed in the records likely spoke? I recently helped someone find their family in the 1880 census only and realized that the last name of Pundt had been transcribed as Bennet. When the microfilm was viewed, it was easy to see how the interpretation was made. I might have thought it was Bennet myself. The handwriting was faint, the "B" was difficult to read and the other letters before the final "t" were not clear. I would not have read it as Pundt, but it was (based upon the first names that all matched the family group of the researcher).

To the Database Entry
Those who key in data occasionally make a mistake. For this reason, vary which search box you leave empty when performing online searches. Use wildcard operators and Soundex options when available. And if the records are not impossible to search one at a time, consider a manual search of the information page by page. You never know what you might discover.

To the Researcher's Search Technique
Are you considering all the possible variant spellings? Is there a chance that you do not understand completely how the search interface works? Are you assuming something about your ancestor that is not true and is this assumption hindering your search? If an online database is being used, are as few search boxes as possible being filled in? The more boxes that are completed when performing a search, the more narrow the search and the greater the chance the desired entry is not located.

Failure to find the desired entry in an online finding aid is not always the fault of the researcher. Sometimes our ancestor is just not in the records. Sometimes he gave misleading information. Sometimes the clerk did not care how the name was spelled. Sometimes the keeper of the records was not concerned with preserving the records. Sometimes the transcriptionist makes a mistake. It is those sometimes that get us in trouble. Think about all the steps that information took from your ancestor's mouth to your computer screen. Remembering these steps may help you to keep your failed searches in perspective.

Additional Reading from This Column

Michael John Neill is the Course I Coordinator at the Genealogical Institute of Mid America (GIMA) held annually in Springfield, Illinois, and is also on the faculty of Carl Sandburg College in Galesburg, Illinois. Michael is currently a member of the board of the Federation of Genealogical Societies (FGS) He conducts seminars and lectures nationally on a wide variety of genealogical and computer topics and contributes to several genealogical publications, including Ancestry Magazine and Genealogical Computing. You can e-mail him at or visit his website at, but he regrets that he is unable to assist with personal research.

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