The good news: With more than 14 billion records in 32,000-plus databases, Ancestry.com is sure to hold answers to many of your family tree questions. The bad news: Ancestry.com has more than 14 billion records in 32,000-plus databases. How are you ever supposed to home in on the data specifically about your family?
Indeed, figuring out how to make your ancestors float to the top in that vast sea of data is a frustration of many Ancestry.com users. Sifting through pages of search results can feel much like that old adage: “Water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink.”
1. Open the Card Catalog.
The catalog is a listing of all of Ancestry.com’s databases of records. You’ll see two main columns here: The right column lists the titles of databases, while the left column has title and keyword search boxes, as well as several filters.
2. Search for databases of interest.
If you’re unsure how a database might be named on Ancestry.com—or if using the Title box doesn’t return the results you’re looking for—use the Keywords search box [F], which looks for the word you enter anywhere in the database description, instead of just the title. This is especially important because databases aren’t always intuitively named. For example, one of the people in my family line worked for the railroad, and I wanted to see what kind of railroad-related databases were on Ancestry.com. Searching for the word railroad in database titles returns 24 databases. But when I entered railroad in the Keyword box, the search resulted in 65 databases, including employment records and a business directory of principal towns along the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe (A, T and SF) routes in 1889.
If you hover your mouse over any title in the results list [E], a popup box will display a brief description of the database, including the type of information it contains, when it was originally published on Ancestry.com, and when it was last updated. If you see a database title that begins with “web,” the popup description will inform you that this is a third-party database. You can search it and view initial results on Ancestry.com, but you’ll be linked to the third-party site for full results.
3. Drill down to databases using filters.
The Ancestry.com Card Catalog has four sets of filters in the left column: collection, location, date, and languages. You can use one filter or multiple filters in combination to narrow the list of databases in your search results to those most relevant to the relatives your researching. Let’s explore each type of filter.
I went back up to the Military filter and choose the subset Draft, Enlistment, and Service records [K], one of several subsets of the Military collection (most collections have multiple subfilters like this). With this last filter, I narrowed the databases down to 16—a number I could easily launch and then search.
4. Explore catalog collections.
Ancestry.com’s catalog covers the site’s 11 main collections, along with several subsets of each one. Here’s an overview of the types of databases you can expect to find:
5. Search an individual database.
Next, scroll down on the database home page for source information that tells you where the data came from. For many databases, you’ll also find information about the database that goes beyond the popup description in step 2. This section may tell you about the collection’s coverage and any missing records, potentially shedding light on unsuccessful searches. If you searched for Kentucky ancestors in the 1880 Schedules of Defective, Dependent, and Delinquent Classes, for example, you’d come up empty: This collection covers 21 of the 38 US states in existence at the time.
6. Explore “non-people” databases.
You may be wondering why you’d want to work with a database that’s not specific to an ancestor.
Some collection types, such as maps and historical postcards, aren’t indexed by people’s names. Don’t dismiss such collections because they lack ancestor names: These materials can have great value, especially for learning more about your ancestors’ places and times.
Title/Keyword search boxes. Otherwise, the system will remember your filters from the last search and apply
them to your new search.