Book Review: The Historical Biographer's Guide to Finding People in Databases & Indexes, by Elizabeth Shown Mills

Prepared by Gena Philibert-Ortega.

There's no doubt that when genealogists talk of the top genealogists in the field Elizabeth Shown Mills' name is one of the first mentioned. And with good reason, she has contributed so much to the field of genealogy including writing her essential guide on citations, "Evidence Explained." In the QuickSheet "The Historical Biographer's Guide to Finding People in Databases& Indexes," Mills helps researchers enhance their searching techniques when researching indexes and databases by going beyond searching a surname as you would expect it to be spelled and considering alternative versions as well as other keywords for searching. Think you've hit a brick wall? Think again, with this guide you may still have hope of finding an ancestor in that database or index.

Most researchers are familiar with using databases and indexes; they are often our go-to places for initial searches for an ancestor. However, sometimes finding an ancestor in one of these can be a challenge. Misspellings, illegible handwriting, and sorting errors can all make the difference in finding a name and assuming that it just isn't there. This QuickSheet's premise is that "Historical records . . . involve vagaries that defy technical formulas. Databases and indexes become shields that actually block discoveries if researchers do not apply more analytical strategies."

What are some of the strategies covered? Well there are proactive strategies like using keywords that describe the ancestor's life such as an occupation. Often as genealogists we are so focused on searching on a name that we don't consider searching other keywords that could list our ancestor. Other considerations include regional dialects and penmanship.

Whether you are researching online or in person at a repository the advice found on these four pages is crucial to your research. For those going to a courthouse, the methodology found here will serve you as you try to find ancestors in an index. Mills points out that court indexes can vary from place to place and provides some advice for finding what you need. One of the tips she gives is that if an index is newer, it may omit older records that are considered obsolete "such as slave sales and wartime hiring of substitutes." This was a good reminder for me that it's always a good idea to ask about records that might be in storage when visiting a courthouse.

So how can this QuickSheet be of use to you? There are some resources that are great to have next to your computer for quick reference, this is one of them. Once you search a database or an index and can't find what you need, look through the strategies outlined in this guide and try each one to ensure that you have made a reasonably exhaustive search. Many of these strategies would also be useful in searching a library or archive catalog.

"The Historical Biographer's Guide to Finding People in Databases & Indexes" is just one of the QuickSheets written by Elizabeth Shown Mills. To see others, you can visit the publisher's website.

The Historical Biographer's Guide to Finding People in Databases & Indexes, by Elizabeth Shown Mills. Genealogical Publishing Co., 2012.

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