We live in the golden age of genealogical and historical research. DNA tests, coupled with mainstream websites, such as Ancestry and Family Search, place millions of documents at the fingertips of researchers. However, these well-known sites are not the only place to locate historical information. They are often the first resource many people consult because they are heavily advertised, to the point that they are now synonymous with genealogy research, and rightfully so. Just below the surface though, with some carefully crafted search terms, there are numerous other repositories with resources seldom tapped, which can provide vital clues to even the most puzzling historical queries. It is not so much what you search for, but how you search for it, that may end up yielding the best results.
The how depends on numerous variables unrelated to the query itself and results may differ depending on several factors. Pages can appear to users based on age, location, previously visited sites, current web browser, the corresponding search engine, as well as numerous other factors. Sites that advertise or receive high traffic will appear at the top of the results, whereas less frequented pages will populate the remaining space available. Sometimes, despite entering the correct string of words, the desired information is nowhere in sight. With that in mind, try to approach a search from multiple angles and think of different phrases that could characterize the data you are seeking. Searching for a specific soldier by name might leave a researcher empty handed. However, tracking down a soldier through the unit they served in may yield more results. But even with the best crafted search, the chance of success comes down to the way individual repositories provide data to search engines.
The internet is full of various digital repositories, some professional and government run, while others are curated by amateur enthusiasts. Even though the content may be free on many of these sites, it can be challenging to know what link or page to correctly click on to find the desired content. Records are often nested behind a multi-layered system, which requires a login or launching a separate web application. Documents on these systems may not be indexed or catalogued in a way that will show up during a standard search. There is no one size fits all approach, for every modern and efficient site, there are plenty that are severely outdated and difficult to use. Systems can even be stitched together. One minute the user is on one platform and the click of a link whisks them away to something completely different and unfamiliar.
The final challenge that a researcher may need to overcome deals with metadata, the data about the data. This information categorizes records and often dictates when and how they shows up in a search. When the metadata is incorrect, content may be undetectable, even with the correct search terms. This typically occurs with records that are not indexed, tagged, or identified properly. Users may experience this while searching census records with misspellings or a document that has the wrong year attributed to it. Understanding the underlying data, or lack thereof, can help result in a successful search. As a researcher, if you can fill in even the tiniest of gaps or correct erroneous data, it will aid others tremendously in the future. Included below, is a sample of two websites that have been recommended or surfaced during the many research requests performed at the Society. Both are part of a larger system and may be difficult to find using a standard search. Nonetheless, they serve as a fantastic source of information for anyone interested in local history.
This website is a wonderful starting point for anyone interested in aerial photography of Pennsylvania. Hosted and curated by Penn State Libraries, the page connects to more than a dozen different resources. Clicking any of the links will open a unique viewer for each designated service. Note that users may be redirected to other repositories, such as the Pennsylvania State Archives. These items were not born digital, unlike their modern counterparts, in services like Google Maps. With every inch of the county covered, you can be sure to find something related to your area of research.
The site has a convenient introduction video, which instructs visitors how to use this unique system. A large map of Pennsylvania displays locations where specific image files were taken, and when clicked, produces the aerial photograph in various image qualities. Visitors can narrow the search by year and location to reduce the amount of material to sift through. Due to missing metadata on some items, specific names, addresses, and properties may not show on every search. Users can also download many of the files, which are suitable for print.
Resources on the page can help to narrow down the year a property was settled, farmed, or had a structure erected on it. Old roads and routes are easily visible, helping researchers to paint a better picture of the environment their ancestor lived in. The Society has paper copies of some of the aerial maps. They were initially used by the local planning commission until recent years. Higher resolution and more current digital systems are now the norm. These aerials are one of kind and serve as a great resource for anyone interested in learning about the local landscape and how it has changed over the decades.
Information related to historic buildings and properties is one of the most sought-after items for researchers visiting the Helman Library. Many visitors are looking for historic uses of their home, basic ownership data, or a photograph. Although the information can often be pieced together through various other sources, there is a system which already has most of the relevant data all in one place.
The PA-Share site is managed officially by the Pennsylvania State Historic Preservation Office and provides users with a host of resources. The data stems from multiples surveys completed over the last fifty years. This site will require a guest login and provides full access from there. All that needs to be done, is select the desired county and use the map tool to navigate the landscape. Historic districts and assessed structures will then pop-up in the form of little blocks on the map. From there the user can click on the structure and read the official report. One great feature is that the service is statewide, so all Pennsylvania counties can be accessed. The downside to this platform is that structures are marked using an in-house cataloging system, making keyword searches difficult. The site has improved since its inception and will hopefully integrate new features in the future.
Users can expect to find narrative information on their building’s history, the original owner or use of the land, as well as a professional analysis of the historical integrity. There is even a section indicating whether the building should be considered for the historic register. This is another resource that the Society has paper copies of for structures located in Indiana County. The PA-Share system is great for curious residents who wish to delve deeper into their town’s history or the avid researcher looking to trace their family’s story across the state. Either way, the site does a wonderful job cataloguing the built environment that we interact with daily.
The two websites mentioned in this article are a small sampling of everything out there. As millions of documents are published to the internet each year, it is a wonderful time to be a genealogist and researcher. What websites have you found particularly useful in your quest to complete your family history? As more records come online every day, the level of research that can be remotely conducted is amazing. What makes it more impressive, is that it can all be done from the comfort of your own home.