How to make more organised family history searches with Ancestry


21 May 2024
The Ancestry Card Catalogue is a family historian's friend, helping you conduct precise research The Ancestry Card Catalogue is a family historian's friend, helping you conduct precise research
We have practical steps to help you conduct more organised and productive family history search sessions on Ancestry.

When searching our family tree online and trying to track down clues about our family history it can be easy to feel as though we’re either faced with an overwhelming number of results… or we have no good search results at all. To help you conduct more organised and productive family history searches, we have 5 practical steps.

Step 1: Decide how 'exact' you want your search to be

From the menu, choose: Search > Search All Records to bring up the search interface.
In addition to first, middle and last name, the place your ancestor may have lived and their birth year, there is the option to ‘Match all terms exactly’.

Do you want to do exact searches on Ancestry?

It can be tempting to tick the option to 'Match all terms exactly' if you feel very certain of the facts. However, do remember that the details may have been recorded differently, for any number of reasons. There may be spelling mistakes or variations in surname spelling that you are not expecting. Alternatively there may be entirely different place names (for instance was the birth village given, or was the name of the nearest large town given instead).

Ancestry search tip:

Think carefully about whether you want to do 'exact' searches on Ancestry, and experiment with your search terms to make sure you're not missing out on a relevant search result.

Step 2: Experiment with search fields & collections

You may also fine-tune your search by adding details for an event (such as a birth, marriage, death and more) or a member of the family (for instance, father, mother, sibling, spouse, child).
Scrolling down Search All Records you’ll note that you may refine your search by keyword, gender, race/nationality.
You may also check/uncheck the boxes to include search results from historical records, family trees, stories & publications, and photos & maps.
These options give you considerable control over your search results. But let’s drill a little deeper.

Step 3: Use the Ancestry Card Catalogue to find a specific record collection to search within

The default setting is for the search to be conducted across all the Ancestry collections. You may, if you wish, specify your country of interest, however, for more precise search results.

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Why is Ancestry Card Catalogue useful?

By using the Ancestry Card Catalogue you can search just within one record collection. For instance you can just search within the 1939 National Register. Or just within First World War Medal Index Cards. You can also explore to find all the records that are relevant to a place or a time period, for instance. This means that instead of receiving a massive list of search results, many of which will be irrelevant to you, you will have controlled the search results in line with your research requirements.

Ancestry search tip:

You will note that, when you choose a specific record collection, the search fields specific to that collection make your search experience much more detailed and controllable.

Step 4: Make a family history research plan

Searching the Card Catalogue, for instance, for a date or place, or exploring and filtering the categories on Ancestry will give you ideas of record collections to explore of which you may not otherwise have been aware.

Why is a research plan useful for family history?

Drawing up a list of records that you need to search is a key part of making a research plan. A research plan is central to keeping your search for clues about your ancestor organised and thorough. For every search you make to learn about your ancestor it can be very helpful to have a research plan. This does not need to be complicated.

  • Simply make a note of your research goal - what is it that you wish to find out.
  • Then spend a little time researching and thinking about the sorts of records that may be useful to your search.

A research plan will help ensure that you have not overlooked a useful record collection, it will help you think clearly about what you are searching for, and will help you keep your focus.

Leading on from the research plan, let's have a think about research logs. Both of these are central to great family history research skills.

Step 5: Keep a genealogy research log

When building your tree online, you'll see that many of the online tree builders provide space for you to keep notes, write narrative life stories, and add sources and facts to your ancestors on the tree. We would really urge you to keep a research log, however, and think that it is the most important single thing to help you conduct successful family history searches.

Why is a research log useful for family history?

A research log records your research process: what you are planning, what you did, what you found, and your deductions about what you've found, and a note to yourself what it is that you need to do next time, so that you can pick up where you left off really easily.

A research log allows you to create your own record of all your family history discoveries and clues, whether you have found the information online, in archives, when doing background reading or speaking with relations. Get into the habit of recording your research in a log and you will soon be wondering why you haven't kept one before!