Take the time to mull over what you hope to get out of a database. A database is just a collection of existing data. Think of it as a huge card file of information copied from paper that was created at a given point in history.
There is an old adage that you can only get out of a database what has been put into it. The 1850 federal census never collected data about American's religious affiliation. It is unlikely that any 1850 census database will contain that information.
A database can contain a vast amount of information that can be quickly searched. The information is stored in a logical way.
The first name and the last name of a person appears in the same place on the screen for each person. You can search on most fields; sometimes every field. You can usually look for more than one piece of information at a time, even if they are not equivalent. For example, you can search for people named "Vago" who lived in "Kansas."
Even though all databases are essentially similar, each is also unique. Until you try the searches for yourself, you probably are not in a position to determine if you will be able to access information that is valuable to your personal research. Look for an option to subscribe on a monthly basis or a free trial basis, if you are not sure if the database contains the kind of data you are looking for or if you will be able to find it easily.
Beyond the routine search, some of databases now feature the more recent trend of presenting a copy of the original document along with a transcription of the data. A perpetual problem with many published versions has always been poorly transcribed handwritten documents. The originals can be just plain difficult to read.
Several fee-based sites now present a graphic image of the original document. Researchers no longer have to accept the transcription as being final. Some of these sites even offer researchers the option to comment if they believe the transcription is inaccurate or if the original data might have been less than complete or correct.
That means the database is constantly evolving and becoming more accurate, if there is such a thing. In other words, the data is not carved in stone or, worse yet, printed on paper numerous times and distributed so widely it is impossible to make corrections available to everyone who reads it.
Not all sites verify their data. In 2007, the Footnote website became an affiliate of FamilySearch. This nonprofit organization, sponsored by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, features an ongoing effort to increase the accuracy of transcribed data. Original images are transcribed by volunteers. At least two reviewers verify the accuracy of the transcription. If necessary, an arbitrator is called in to determine which transcription is more accurate if there is a discrepancy. The data is probably more accurate than any place else just because of this multi-level review process.
Are there pitfalls in online databases? Probably the most serious is family-submitted records without documentation. That does not necessarily mean the information is wrong. But, dedicated researchers want to go to the original source to make sure that a date wasn't transposed or a name written down wrong. Use them as a starting point if you want, but keep in mind they are not a legitimate source for information.
Databases are difficult to use without a fast Internet connection. If you are still using a modem to access the Internet, you are likely to find that online databases work very slowly for you -- if at all.
Some databases require you to install Flash, Java, or other software "assistants" called "plug-ins" on your computer. Certain databases recommend installing a special free viewer it provides. You need to be willing to install these on your computer to get the full database experience.
Depending on how your computer is set up, you may need to have the administrator password in order to do that. If you are uncomfortable installing software or do not have administrator access, you may find that the database, or some of its features, do not work. These plug-ins are free, but they must be installed by the user.
Online databases require a browser, just like you use to look at anything on the Internet. But some require the browser to be current. Some databases will only work with a specific browser, or may work better with one than with another. The database will often direct you to a location where you can download the recommended browser. Again, the recommended browser is free but you do have to install and upgrade it.
I recommend a fun test to determine if your browser can handle online databases. If you can use eBay, you can probably use any database out there! eBay is a big database with search tools, just like any of the genealogy databases you might be considering.
Just like eBay, you will make some wonderful discoveries out there. Many databases have a feature that allows you to share information you do find with other people for free, if you want. You can always bookmark information and keep it confidential so only you see your notations. In other words, a client could not "follow you" electronically and collect your research efforts as you go. But, when you return to that database in the future, your bookmarks will be there so you know what you covered already.
Sometimes database information can be copied to your computer, but you still need to document the source just as you do with a book or courthouse record. The data can be taken from the database and copied into another kind of file. The kind of file you can copy to can vary. So can the ability to copy it. Sometimes all you can do is print the screen; other times you can export the file into a database of your own.
The best part about online databases is they make it possible to search information from home. You save travel expenses. Even if you need to order a copy of a marriage certificate or visit a courthouse to pick up a copy of a death certificate, you will find that searching online databases is very quick and saves you a lot of effort and time. That, alone, can justify the expense.
Keep in mind that nothing takes the place of the original document. You still need that. But, finding information quickly and reducing your travel expenses can easily justify the cost of membership.
So how much does membership cost and what do you get for your money? The costliest memberships are those that include international records. If you only need to research in the United States, the less expensive membership might be worthwhile. Some databases even offer a pay-by-view option if you need short-term access to a specific type of record.
A month-by-month membership can run from about $12.00 to $30.00. Most of us have spent more than that driving to a courthouse to research a single name – and often coming up empty handed.
Memberships do not take the place of onsite research. They just make locating solid sources faster because you know what you will find before you do leave home. In that respect, they are priceless.