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Genealogy Resources: Search Tips

Phrase Searching

Quotation Marks

Quotation marks keep words together as phrases for most databases. However, not all databases or search engines recognize this method. Some databases or search engines use parentheses or single quotes instead. Check the Help page if you're not sure. 

Credit: North Carolina State University Libraries on YouTube


Most databases have limiters (sometimes called filters) to help you narrow the focus of your search. These tools are often on the same page as your search results or you can access them by doing an Advanced Search in some databases.

In genealogy databases, limiters might ask for birth year, gender, race/nationality, or allow you to specify that type of resource you want to search such as U.S. Census records, vital statistics, or family trees.

 If you're searching for journal articles or other documents, the options might allow you to limit your search by selecting full-text, publication date, and so on.

Online Research: Tips for Effective Search Strategies

Brick Walls

Begin your research with an open mind and an understanding that you will encounter many surprises and many brick walls along the way. Some stumbling blocks may include:

Different Spellings

Surnames may be spelled differently. One ancestor might have chosen to spell his name as "Pea," while the another spelled it "Peay." Census takers often misspelled names because the subjects could not read and write. Typos, illegible handwriting and misinterpreted dialects also caused mistakes.

Boundary/Name Changes

State and county boundaries have changed throughout our country's history. The records you need might be in a neighboring county or state. It's good to research local history to understand boundary and location name changes.

Family Legends

Sometimes they're simply not true. Oral history is often embellished or changes over time. Also, several people can witness an event and come away with a different understanding or memory of it. Even so, these stories provide clues that may lead you to the facts.

Migration Patterns

There are times throughout history when people moved in large numbers. (Remember, "Go west, young man!) African-Americans migrated from the South to opportunities in the northern cities. People moved for new opportunities or to escape plagues or famine. Research your family's ethnic heritage and look for clues to the whereabouts of missing ancestors.

Wrong Dates

Dates may be incorrect. In general, use the date closest to the event. For example, a birth certificate is more reliable for a birth date than a death certificate. Remember, try not to rely on one record.

Destroyed or Non-existent Records

You may discover that family records were destroyed by fire or flood or they were accidentally discarded. Many African-Americans may find that there are no records of their ancestors prior to 1870 because enslaved black people were listed as property and often excluded from the U.S. Census.

Hidden History

You may discover family facts that are not pleasant or contradict what you've been told about your lineage. Family secrets may be uncovered in your research.


Truncation & Wildcards

Truncation and Wildcard symbols

Truncation uses the asterisk (*) to help you broaden your search to include words with various endings or spellings.

   Example: Use the asterisk and the root word educat* to get educate, educated, education, educational, educator.

Wildcards also use symbols to help you find variations of words.

   Example: Use wom?n to get woman or women, or use col?r to get color or colour.

Truncation and wildcard symbols vary by database or search engine, but common ones include *, !, ?, or #. Check the database’s Help page before you search.

Credit: How Library Stuff Works: Boolean Modifiers "",*,() by McMaster Libraries on YouTube.


Most databases have tools to help you manage your research. Tools may include:
  • Permalink to help you navigate back to information
  • Citations with options to cite the source in various styles
  • Save to allow you to save to a file or to a folder within the database (if you have created an account)
  • Email so you can send it to yourself or someone else