Indexed vs. Image-Only Record Collections

After a period of using the search boxes on websites like Ancestry, I realized I was missing a big chunk of the record collections these companies offered (and I was paying for!). Many of the collections and databases online have not been indexed, which means I never would have found them by searching if I hadn’t been proactive. I’m going to share what I’ve learned.

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Over the past two decades or more, and especially in the past 10 years, amateur genealogists have typically started their search for their ancestors online.   Genealogists today have many ancestral bread crumbs left for us on our computer screens by companies such as Ancestry, FamilySearch, and countless others. We could spend the rest of our lives glued to our devices and still not even scratch the surface of what is available out in cyberspace. Of course, the records that have been digitized are only a fraction of what is accessible at libraries, archives, historical societies, genealogical societies, and other repositories.

Like most of you, when I first started researching my family online, I didn’t really know the best ways to find records. I thought I could just plug my ancestor’s name into a search box and magically all of his/her records would fall in my lap. Okay, maybe I wasn’t quite that naïve, but you get the picture. I have the benefit of a history degree, so researching, and therefore searching, come naturally. However, after a period of using the search boxes on websites like Ancestry, I realized I was missing a big chunk of the record collections these companies offered (and I was paying for!). Many of the collections and databases online have not been indexed, which means I never would have found them by searching if I hadn’t been proactive. I’m going to share what I’ve learned, but first let’s go over a few definitions so we are all on the same page.

Indexed record collection – a collection of records which a person (or computer) has read, organized, and made searchable. Sometimes there are corresponding images, but not always. It is common to find mistakes made by the indexers. An indexed record collection should not be confused with an index, which is a collection without the original source material, but important information such as names and dates have been pulled from the record and transcribed and/or abstracted.

Image-Only record collection – also known as an image-first and/or a browsable collection. Digital images of a source, which are viewable page by page. This type of collection is NOT searchable. The FamilySearch Wiki has a helpful page on how best to work with these collections:

If you have searched for an ancestor by using a search box, you have used indexed record collections. So, I won’t spend time telling you how to find these collections. It is the image-only collections which can be tough to find if you don’t know where to look. Websites differ, but the idea is the same on all the major genealogy sites. I’ll use Ancestry as the first example.

Unfortunately, like most websites, Ancestry does not have a “Sort” feature for indexed and image-only collections. However, you can sort by location, date, and/or type of collection. There are a few ways to access these features, but here is one of my favorites: Along the top menu on the website, click on the “Search” tab. Then click on the first option in the drop-down menu, “All Collections.” Resist the temptation to use the search boxes and scroll down about half way down the page until you see the map. You have the ability to narrow down the record collections by location. I think the Card Catalog is easier to sort collections for type of collection and date. In my opinion, the Card Catalog is less visually appealing, but can get you to the desired record collection faster.

The best place to try to sort image-only vs. indexed record collections on your own is the Card Catalog. Go back to “Search” at the top of your screen, then click on that. Choose “Card Catalog” near the bottom of the drop-down menu. The Card Catalog lists all of Ancestry’s collections (as I’m writing this article, it is well over 32,000). In order to narrow the number of collections down, we have to enter something in the “Title” or “Keyword” boxes, or we can use the filtering options below the boxes on the left-hand side of the page. I find the keyword box very helpful, so we will use that for now.

Let’s say I want to find records substantiating my family’s lore about an ancestor who may have died in a Union prisoner of war camp. He was a private citizen, not a Confederate soldier, however at least two of his sons fought for the Confederacy. I might enter “US Civil War” into the keyword search box in the Card Catalog to see how many collections Ancestry has which relate to the American Civil War. This search comes up with 118 record collections, some of which I can tell don’t pertain to my ancestor. However, I see some which I’ve never seen before and look promising. I choose a record collection entitled, “U.S., Union Provost Marshal Files of Individual Civilians, 1861-1866.” If you click on this collection, you might notice something different from the other collections you are used to using. There are no search boxes, only an option to “Browse this collection” on the right side of the page. We’ve found an image-only record collection on Ancestry!

Now what, right? Lucky, I have a name which will really help me. To keep using my example, I find the ancestor in question (one of my paternal 3rd great-grandfathers, Francis M. Weems) in the correct surname range image set. There are pages and pages of letters and military documents, all of which document his two-year journey from Florida to see his family in Maryland (through many Union lines and military districts) before he died. I’m still trying to find out if he actually died in a federal facility or with family in Baltimore. But without this image-only collection, I probably would not have known what happened to him in the last few years of his life.

One other tip on image-only record collections like the one mentioned above: check the other images/pages surrounding your ancestor’s records. It is very possible you may find relative of that ancestor. Perhaps an even more common occurrence is that your ancestor’s name was not spelled correctly on the original record. Using my Francis Weems again as an example, I have found records which have spelled his surname Weims, Wiems, Weem, Weams, and more. Don’t forget to look for common misspellings in the record collections.

Let’s move on to I actually like the way FamilySearch displays and sorts out their record collections. In many respects, FamilySearch surpasses Ancestry is this department. One sorting feature, “Sort by Records,” is a powerful tool if you know how to use it. Here’s how:

Go back to the main search page (“Search” then “Records”) and scroll down to below the map and click on “Browse all published collections.” This will take you to a list of FamilySearch’s record collections. The trick comes in how you sort this list. The default way is alphabetically, but you want to change it. Click on the word “Records” on the right side of the page, directly under the shaded-out word “Previous.” The list will still be sorted alphabetically, but it is first sorted by the number of records. Since image-only collections are not indexed, there is no count of the number of records included. Only the words, “Browse Images” appear. This is great for us because it creates an alphabetical list of the image-only collections on FamilySearch! If you want to get fancy, you can try to use the “Title” or “Last Updated” columns in conjunction with the “Records” column to sort the image-only collections in a different manner.

There is also an option to sort the record collections by location. On the top of the FamilySearch homepage after you log in, click on the “Search” at the top and then “Records” in the drop-down menu. Ignore the tempting search boxes on the left and click on an area of the map on the right side of the page. Since this is the Genealogical Society of Pennsylvania’s newsletter, let’s choose the Keystone State. Click on the U.S., then find Pennsylvania in the menu and click on it.

You are now at the Pennsylvania research page. Again, ignore the search boxes under “Indexed Historical Records” and scroll down until you see “Image-Only Historical Records.” All the records found in these collections would never be found if you had stopped at searching only the indexed collections. Notice under the “Military” subheading that there are four more collections besides the five listed. If you scroll down even farther, there is a section called “Catalog Material.” I think FamilySearch’s catalog, books, wiki, and more are better left for another article, but many of the image-only collections available on FamilySearch can be found by searching in their catalog.

Patience and persistence can yield rich results in the field of genealogy. Do you have any tips or tricks for navigating genealogy websites? Have you had success finding an ancestor in an image-only record collection?

This article was originally published in the April 2019 issue of The Genealogical Society of Pennsylvania’s online newsletter.