So the Library offers free access to Ancestry.com, what do I do next?

Whether this is something you’ve wanted to do for a long time but never got around to it or, with all the spare time you’ve found you now have you’ve just decided to give it a try, there’s no better time to begin your climb up your family tree. Why? Because, for the first time ever, Hamden Public Library is able to offer our patrons free access to Ancestry.com from home!

Before we talk about how to begin your actual research, let me guide you through the process of signing into Ancestry. First, you need a Hamden Public Library card. Don’t have one? No problem! Just click here to register for a card online. Once that’s accomplished you can go to our homepage and click on “Log in to my account” in the upper right-hand corner of the page. This will take you to a login screen which will ask for your name and library card number. From there you’ll go to your account page where you’ll find “Ancestry Library Edition” is the final choice in the LINKS section on the left-hand side of the page. Select it and you should find yourself in Ancestry.

OK. We’ve got the technicalities out of the way, so let’s get down to basics on how to climb your family tree—how to do your online research. After more than 20 years of family history researching on and offline (and 20,000+ members in my own family tree), my first and most important piece of advice is to gather together the facts you already have—what you know about your ancestors. Whether that’s a shoebox or manila envelope full of bits and pieces or a list you’ve carefully made in a special notebook or on your computer, or notes you need to make based on the family stories you’ve heard over the years, consider this information the roots your tree needs to support its growth.

If you haven’t done so already, the best way to organize the information you have is to separate it by family lines: your parents, your grandparents. Separate the people in your mother’s side of the family from the people in your father’s side. Then, if possible, break those down into those related to your mother’s mother (your maternal grandmother), your mother’s father (your maternal grandfather), your father’s mother (your paternal grandmother) and your father’s father (your paternal grandfather). Now you’re truly ready to embark on this rewarding (and often addictive) quest to find your family.

Ancestry’s home screen offers several points of entry to their databases which includes the U.S. Census Records from 1790 (when the first decennial census was taken) to 1940 (the latest census for which records have been made public—next year 1950 will be added). The “Quick Links” section provides easy access to several of their other most-used databases including birth, death and marriage records, military records, city directories, even high school yearbooks!

If you choose to start at the green “Begin Searching” button in the middle of the screen, you can search all of these records—and more—simultaneously.

Wow!  That sounds pretty simple, doesn’t it?

It is and it isn’t.

Before you type Grandpa Henry’s name into the search box, let’s talk a little bit more about what you’re searching and the best ways to search. Then I promise I’ll let you get started!

First, what you’re searching. Ancestry is a vast network of thousands of historical databases gleaned from both public and private records, records that were stored at the national, state and county levels, in church parishes and family archives. Many date back centuries and were written by hand in ink that has now faded on paper that has yellowed over the years. This is truly a treasure trove, but even with this wealth of information, many of these datasets are incomplete. A few townships’ census records or a particular battalion’s military records may be missing because they were destroyed in a flood or fire—or just lost. Some churches do not allow their historical records to be made public, etc., etc.  (Also, please note that a large set of records within Ancestry are based on family trees contributed by subscribers. While many of them are the result of years of careful research others may reflect a more haphazard approach which is not necessarily accurate.)

The means by which we access these databases is through their indexes. Just like the index at the back of a book leads us to the page or pages that deal with our topic of interest, the index of a database is designed to point us to the information we are seeking. And, like most things computer related, an index is only as good as the information that was input during the indexing process.  Depending on the type and age of a resource the index may have been constructed manually, by a person or persons sifting through the lists or records at hand, interpreting handwriting, second-guessing letters hidden by a smudge or a stain on the page or it may have been scanned by an OCR (optical character recognition) reader that will match pixels of dark and light on a page with the alphabets it is programmed to recognize. Both of these methods can produce both accurate and inaccurate results.

But what does all of this mean to you as you begin your search process? It means that this work is something that requires patience and a bit of ingenuity—both of which you have more time to cultivate these days!

If your Grandpa Henry’s name is Henry Brown, you’ll need patience to sort through the thousands of results you may retrieve or you may decide to employ your ingenuity by reworking your search to include a few more specific facts: do you know where he was born? When? What is/was his middle name? Just a few more facts can separate your Henry Brown from the throngs that are vying for attention on your computer screen. On the other hand, if Grandpa Henry’s last name is something more uncommon, but easily misspelled, your first searches may yield no results. Patience: remember those indexers. Did they get the spelling wrong? Ingenuity: how many possible ways can you think of to spell Grandpa’s last name?

(One more caveat here: if you start out with too much information (middle name, birth place and year, you’re asking the databases to give you only records that contain all of that information, so you may be missing records that do not include birth year, for instance.)

But all of this is part of the fun of family history research. You will quickly hone your sleuthing skills. And when you’re ready, you can add even more details to your searches using the Show More Options function.

Plus, Ancestry provides an abundance of help with learning to search and understanding what you find. These articles, videos, tutorials, tools and networking opportunities are available through drop-down menus at the top of the screen

Frankly, I envy you being at the beginning of your journey. Not only do you have the possibility of many, many hours of exciting detective work ahead of you, but in the end, you will come to know more about your family and, ultimately, yourself. Enjoy!