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Engaging Methuen Readers

Database Spotlight Special: How to use Ancestry.com Library Edition

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So you’ve decided to do your genealogy. Congratulations! You’re in for a fascinating search process. However, you may also be unsure of where to start. Ancestry.com is one of the leading standards of genealogical research, but you might not want to shell out for their full service before you’re really sure if you’re into this whole ancestor research deal.

That’s why the library has a free version available! Ancestry.com Library Edition has fewer bells and whistles than the full version, but the basic information is still there: census records, draft cards, naturalization records, and so much more. It’s only available within the library, either on one of our computers or on our wifi network.

Today, we’ll get started in Ancestry.com Library Edition by researching an ancestor of mine, Great Grandma Connie.

I was lucky enough to know Grandma Connie personally, so I know a few things about her. She spoke with a heavy Italian accent. She was about 91 when she died in 1993. Her married surname was Mortelliti.

The first thing I’m going to do is head over to the Nevins Library homepage, thence to our Online Resources page and directly to Ancestry.com, which is listed near the top of the page. Once you’re in, here’s what you’ll see:

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The first thing we’re going to do is hit that green button and start searching. Here’s the basic search screen…

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…But, as you can see, it’s lame. Is this the vaunted Ancestry.com? Well, before you slam your laptop and stalk away in a huff, click on the link that reads “Show more options.”

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Hey, this Ancestry business isn’t so bad after all! Fill in what you know about your relative.

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Notice that I haven’t written out Grandma Connie’s given name. That’s because I’m not sure about the spelling. So instead of making a million guesses, I’ve used a wildcard symbol. That asterisk tells Ancestry to add any number of letters after “Con.” This search will find “Connie,” “Concieta,” “Conchetta,” “Concetta,” “Conway,” “Conscript,” and anything else that begins with a “Con.” If I knew the exact number of letters in her full name, I could use a truncation symbol instead. (In Ancestry, this is a “?”) In the case of truncation, each symbol may be substituted for exactly one letter or number. For example, if I knew that my ancestor was listed as “Connie” in official records, I could search “Con???” This would yield “Connie,” “Conair,” and anything else where the prefix “Con” were followed by three letters, which would allow for any misspellings or a range of variation. I could also search for “Con??e” if I were sure her name ended with that “e.” However, I find it unlikely that she was officially known as “Connie,” so I’m opting to use the wildcard instead.

Even so, notice that I’m not searching in an exact way. The two radio buttons under her given and surnames, labeled “Exact…” are blank. I don’t want to restrict this search too much right now because it’s too new. I’m not going to press my luck by eliminating names that are not exactly what I’ve typed in.

However, I am more certain about where and when Grandma Connie was born. She was definitely born in Italy, so I’ll tell Ancestry to look for records listing someone Italian-born. This won’t capture every record listing Grandma Connie, but hopefully it’ll at least provide me with a couple detailed, fairly complete records. They’ll be a good jumping-off place for further research.

I also feel pretty confident that she was born in or around 1902. The box right below that field I’ve checked, and I’ve set Ancestry to search plus or minus a year just to be sure. (Not only am I not completely certain of her age, but documentation back then wasn’t necessarily spot-on itself.)

I hit the orange search button, and here’s what I find:

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Success! I have a few records on my great grandmother already. I feel pretty confident that this is her – there aren’t many Concetta Mortellitis out there – and I know that she did live in or around Philadelphia. “Pietro” is an Italian variation of “Peter,” so that consistency further suggests that this record deals with the same person. It looks like at least one census officer had a spelling issue, but he wouldn’t be the first person to misspell “Mortelliti” as “Mortillitti.” (People spell that name every which way. “Mortelli,” “Martelli,” “Martellini.” For one unfortunate minute, I was identified in a publication as “Anna Tortellini Call.” Alas.)

This is clearly a job for wildcards and truncation, and we’re probably going to spend a while looking at Grandpa Pietro’s records, too. But before we dive down that rabbit hole, let’s open these records and save them. First, click on the record you want to download.

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Look at all that information! This is the catalog record for this passenger list. It contains what we in the library industry call “metadata.” Metadata is searchable information about information. For example, a name and birth location both count as metadata and, sure enough, you can search for those in the database, because they’re indexed and placed in that record in a uniform way. Very convenient. But wait – there’s more information in the document that isn’t indexed! For instance, did she have any company or did she come over alone? Her circumstances may provide valuable clues as to who she was and how she made this incredible cross-oceanic leap to a new life. But we can’t find all that with a quick database search. Click on the little image on the left to open a scan of the passenger list itself.

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Zoom controls are on the right. Click the plus sign to magnify the document.

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There’s Grandma Connie! There’s Grandpa Pietro, too. It looks like he’s an American citizen, they’re already married, and he doesn’t bear the name “Donato.” Could that marriage have happened in her hometown of Diviedo? Was Donato Connie’s maiden name? What this document doesn’t say is as interesting as what it does. For example, here Pietro is supposed to be 29 years old, but the censuses from 1930 and 1940 suggest that he was actually 40! Was there a mistake on his passport?

Though this doc is exciting, it raises too many questions to answer right now. I’ve got to save it and examine it more closely when I have more context. To do that, I’m going to click on the green “Save” button in the top right corner. Options to “Send image home” and “Save to this computer” will appear. Sending will email you the doc; saving will keep it on your hard drive or storage device. You also have the option to email yourself the document in the metadata record, which we saw before. There, look for the orange button that says “Send Document.” It should be on the right of the page.

Puzzles just like this one lie before you on your own genealogical adventure. Once you’ve found one relative in Ancestry, just like I’ve found my Grandma Connie, then the rest are sure to follow. If you want more searching tips, come to our Ancestry.com introduction on Saturday, January 28 in the Nevins Library at 10:00am. See you then!

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Author: Anna

Anna is a reference librarian and computer nerd at the Nevins Library. She is a fan of all speculative fiction.

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