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One of the questions I constantly struggle with is how to evaluate whether it is worth it to me to subscribe or buy credits on Pay-Per-View (PPV) at the websites of the big data providers. (Side note: if you are trying to evaluate whether a site will be useful to you, the question What can be gained by paying for a subscription website such as Ancestry.com? may also be of interest to you. This question is about evaluating the coverage a site has for the historical record collections we want to search.)

One approach might be to look for a one-to-one correspondence between data sets (i.e. to examine whether a particular data set on Ancestry and Find My Past actually comes from Family Search and can be searched for free there), but what happens when someone has a data set exclusive to that subscription site? How do you guess whether there will be enough people in the data set to make it worth your while, before you pay?

Especially now when times are tight, there are only so many subscriptions I can afford. What are some search strategies I can use to figure out whether there will be enough content for me to subscribe?

As I get more experienced, and sign up for short-term subscriptions, I can see the value of making detailed research plans and keeping track of what records I want to find. I'm currently using the following tools:

  • GenQuiry, the research manager written by our own ColeValleyGirl
  • GenSmarts, a research-assistant program that reads your files and looks for gaps in your research
  • GenDetective, a newer research-assistant program that has a different way of organizing things than GenSmarts
  • A research journal (I use Scrivener and Scapple from Literature and Latte) and a research log (e.g. spreadsheets in LibreOffice Calc)
  • Source Research Checklists similar to the ones designed by Crista Cowan (YouTube video) and DearMYRTLE and Cousin Russ (YouTube Video) Russ demonstrates a really cool feature in Google Sheets that allows you to run a Google search from within a sheet, so if you want to save links to particular databases within a sheet, it's easy to do so. If you find a database like the WWI Draft Registration Cards behind a paywall, you can search for places you can find the same dataset for free.

What I'm looking for now are suggestions about how to run searches and evaluate the hits you get when a lot of the information that would tell you whether it might be the person you want (or not) is masked.

If the question isn't clear, let me know and I'll edit it.


Here's an example of what I mean by "masked" search results. In my answer below, I will refer to the limited subset that shows up in the search result summary list as "teaser results":

Search results from Ancestry.com for the 1920 Census:

Logged in with a subscription:

Name Parent or spouse names Home in 1940 (City, County, State) Birth Year Birthplace Relation to Head of House

Leo Durocher George A, Clara West Springfield, Hampden, Massachusetts abt 1906 Massachusetts Son

If you pop out the information card:

  • Name: Leo Durocher
  • Age: 14
  • Birth Year: 1906
  • Birthplace: Massachusetts
  • Home in 1920: West Springfield, Hampden, Massachusetts
  • Street: Elmdale Avenue
  • Race: White
  • Gender: Male
  • Relation to Head of House: Son
  • Marital Status: Single
  • Father's Name: George A Durocher
  • Father's Birthplace: New York
  • Mother's Name: Clara Durocher
  • Mother's Birthplace: Canada
  • Able to Speak English: Yes
  • Occupation: Apprentice
  • Industry: Plumbing
  • Employment Field: Wage or Salary
  • Attended School: No
  • Able to read: Yes
  • Able to Write: Yes
  • Household Members
  • Name Age
  • George A Durocher 43
  • Clara Durocher 41
  • Clarence Durocher 21
  • Raymond Durocher 19
  • Armand Durocher 16
  • Leo Durocher 14
  • Thomas Sweeney 21
  • Ruth Allen 35

And without a subscription (signed in as a 'registered guest', or free/unsubscribed user):

Leo Durocher George A, Clara city, Hampden, Massachusetts abt 1906 Massachusetts info

and the pop-out says:

Name: Leo Durocher Age: 14 Birth Year: 1906

  • There's more to see
  • A picture of the original document
  • And things like Birthplace
  • Home in 1920
  • Street
  • Race
  • Gender
  • Relation to Head of House
  • Marital Status
  • Father's Name
  • Father's Birthplace
  • Mother's Name
  • Mother's Birthplace
  • Able to Speak English
  • Occupation
  • Industry
  • Employment
  • Field
  • Attended School
  • Able to read
  • Able to Write
  • Household Members

If you are in the US and you search the international collections, so much of the search result is masked out, it's difficult to guess whether the record might belong to anyone you are looking for. How do you cope with the 'this might be, except that I can't see anything?' scenario?

  • I know what she means and have used other tools for other data types. I'm also evaluating how to respond in this context in a helpful way with specific suggestions I've tested a bit. – CRSouser Dec 6 '14 at 6:24
  • I've edited the question title and added some content to the introduction to make it more clear (I hope) that I am asking about strategies to evaluate the time, place, and subject coverage of any given subscription website. – Jan Murphy Dec 7 '14 at 21:46
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    Both of the mentioned sites can be used for free at any Family Search Center, which exist in most larger cities in the US and elsewhere. It is possible that you could simply visit one of those, and get the information you need. If you find yourself doing that frequently, or it is quite difficult to get there, then you could get the subscription. – PearsonArtPhoto Jul 27 '15 at 19:10
  • @PearsonArtPhoto that's true, but the point of this Q/A was how to assess a site for coverage without being able to view the actual data. This technique might be helpful when planning a trip to a Family History Center or regional Library. – Jan Murphy Jul 27 '15 at 20:58
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There are a couple of sites where I have subscriptions for US records but not international ones. There are other sites where I have registered, but have no subscription. I tested one of those "registration only" sites to see what a non-subscriber can see.

A Test of TheGenealogist.co.uk:

Searching here one can filter to search 'all records' or by category.

Let's enter a name of one of the oldest people in my tree without his birth date, and the place where he lived. I set the search filters to 'phonetic' to get the widest possible search (the other choices are 'standard' and 'exact'. Most of the results are from the "Diamond" collection, which I do not have access to, so I can only see partial results. Here's what I see:

  • 3 hits from the directory collections from the early 20th century, all after he has died, so it's pretty clear this is NOT the person I am looking for.
  • 7 hits from the census collection. I'm pretty sure I have found all of the census records already but for the purposes of the test, let's take a look:

Breaking the census hits down further:

  • 1841 shows two results from my chosen county. The first shows a name, an age, a calculated birth year, and a profession. To see the rest of the 'transcription', I have to subscribe (or wait until this county has a free access period). The second shows a name, an age, and a calculated birth year. This is probably my research subject and his son, from the census I already collected on Find My Past.
  • 1851 is consistent with the previous census, allowing for the differences in reporting ages in the 1841 census vs. the following ones. This is probably my research subject and his son, from the census I already collected on Find My Past.
  • 1861 is consistent with the previous census, except that the profession on the older person is 'scholar' (aged '55' and scholar? really?). The younger man now has a profession. This is consistent with the earlier results, and again, this is probably the census household I already collected via Find My Past.
  • 1871 has results for the older of the two people; the younger man is missing. This is consistent with the census previously collected on Find My Past (I know where the younger has gone from other records).
  • There are no later census results. This is consistent with other records (both men died before 1881).

What else have I learned from this search?

  • Putting in the place name where this person and his family lives seems to be an exact search. I did not get any results for the GRO civil registrations (which I've already collected); presumably those would have been listed under the name of the registration district, so let's give that a try -- entering the name of the district gives me someone with the right surname and a consistent middle initial born in 1944, but not the two people from my previous search.
  • Changing the place name to the county in the keyword search gives 29 hits, a mix of Church records and Civil registrations. I can filter these by record set; I have one baptism and 28 Civil Registrations. The baptism is (no surprise) in the most expensive collection, but the teaser shows the full name, the beginning of an archive reference (RG4), baptism, county, and event year. The civil registrations show full name, year of registration, and event year; to see the rest, I have to subscribe. Useful for seeing the years of coverage in the collection, and to see similar-name candidates.

With this wider search I also see:

  • The search hits from "British and International" seem to be mostly 20th century directories for this particular search -- there are 44 of those, from various countries. Results are displayed with the title of the directory and a numerical "result reference", which I'm guessing might be a page or image number.
  • "Court and Criminal" has 43 hits, under "Chancery Proceedings". Results are displpayed with the title of the record set and a "result reference number". From the titles I can see that none of the records cover the time period I am interested in. There are no results from the sub-category "Transportation Records". Apparently they don't have any records for the younger man's trial and transportation, which I have already collected via Ancestry.co.uk, and various free sites from Australia. (The big winner here in the "which website is best?" competition is the British Newspaper Archive, which had extensive nationwide coverage of the trial.)
  • "Deaths and Burials" has 17 hits, all Civil Registrations, with results similar to the Births and Baptisms above. Teaser results are useful to gather names and years of deaths, but to see more, I have to subscribe.
  • "Education Registers" show 45 hits, probably NOT my Agricultural laborers. Despite putting the county in the keyword box, I get results from all over the nation, but choosing my county of interest narrows it down to 4 results from a single school register. This starts after both my research subjects are dead, so obviously not my people. However, this category might be useful to search later for one of my other research subjects who is an engineer.
  • "Insolvents and Bankrupts" shows 11 hits, all from "1891 Perry's Bankrupt and Insolvent Gazette". My research subjects are not alive in 1891. This title is also available, at least in part, via The British Newspaper Archive.
  • "Marriages", with the county-wide search, shows one parish record from the period before both men were born, but I can see a groom's name, a bride's name, the county, the parish name, and a year. To see any other details, I have to subscribe. The Civil Registrations are similar to those for Births and Deaths previously discussed. No hits in the Overseas Marriages, the Banns, the Licenses, or the category 'BMD Registers' which is one of the collections this site likes to boast about.
  • "Military" yields 51 results. These are obviously not my people, but I see one hit from a WWI memorial in France, 15 hits from weekly casualty lists in WWI, and 35 hits from Army Lists, ranging in dates from the mid-19th century to the WWI period. Results show a title and result reference (probably a page number). There are lots of subcategories here -- it looks like the site could be quite useful for people searching for WWI or earlier military ancestors. I'll have to come back and test this for the people in my file who are known to have served, to see if I can guess whether these are officers' records or enlisted men.
  • "Newspapers and Magazines" has 29 hits, one from Flight Magazine, the rest from the Illustrated London News. Results show publication dates and result references, plus issue and/or volume numbers. Details available to Diamond subscribers. (Are you seeing a pattern yet?) I don't see any issues around the date of the notorious trial, so I'm guessing none of these belong to my people.
  • "Occupational" has 51 hits and looks like it would be useful, if my research subjects weren't agricultural labourers. I can filter these by category. The Clergy subcategory shows titles such as "1929 Crockford's Clerical Directory" with a result reference number. Clicking on the title in the results narrows the view to just the result from that directory. This category could be useful for people looking for Solicitors, Doctors, and other professionals who might show up in Who's Who volumes. Once again, it requires the top-level "Diamond" subscription to see the details.
  • Under "Parish Record Books" there are 8 hits for "Exeter Cathedral 1594-1813" with record reference numbers. Probably not my research subject.
  • "Peerage, Gentry, and Royalty" has 73 hits, but when I expand the search result widget, none are from my chosen county.
  • "Tithe and Landowner" -- probably not my people, but there is one hit from "1873 Landowner Records for Devonshire" with a record reference number and nine Tithe Appointments from a parish which is not my place of interest. Griffith's Valuation is also in this category. Potentially useful for people searching for landowners.
  • "Trade, Residential, and Telephone" has 22 hits from my county of interest, showing a title and result reference number.
  • "Wills" has 2 hits from the Prerogative Court of Canterbury Wills Index from periods before my two research subjects died, so those are obviously not my people. The other 9 hits are from a collection that ends in 1799, so again, too early for my needs.

General observations about the site

Their list of all datasets link (like Ancestry's Card Catalog or Find My Past's A-Z list of record sets) is buried at the bottom of their home page. Clicking on this takes you to the list of categories; clicking through shows more information about the titles included with some source-of-source information like this example:

Online access to the Anglesey 1891 census transcript. This transcript gives full name, age, relation, occupation, county & parish of birth and address as well as a reference to the microfilm and the S&N/BDA census CD sets.

There is also some information in the News and Articles introducing each new record set as it is added to the site.

The coverage list is filterable by subscription level, so you can see what collections will be visible to you, depending on which subscription you purchase. (This chart shows what categories are available at the different levels.)

I haven't explored the forums or created a tree yet. There are FAQs, video tutorials, and research guides which I plan to explore before subscribing.

One useful feature is that if you sign up for their email newsletter, they give out codes so their newsletter subscribers can access a particular record set free for a month. These and other free access offers give users the chance to try out the site and get used to the search engine before signing up for a free trial or paying for a subscription. If you register and use any of these codes, you can find the details about what you have access to in a box at the bottom of the main search screen. There is also a box to search for CDs at their sister site www.genealogysupplies.com.

The teaser results for the directories are detailed enough that I could cross-check those results against those specific directories on free sites like the Historical Directories at the University of Leicester. In some cases, I could see enough to guess whether it might be my person, and worth getting pay-per-view credits for, but for collections like the directories, I understand where it isn't really practical for them to show more.

Conclusion:

This site would probably be of much more use to someone who is just starting out in their research than it could be to me. Like all subscriptions, the value depends on how much coverage they have of the time and place you are studying. If I could subscribe to the Diamond Subscription for a month, this might be a great site to explore, but at the moment, the only Diamond-level subscription available is for a year-long subscription.

I plan to make a source record checklist to keep track of the records that might be of interest in the Diamond collection, and re-evaluate as new record collections are added. If they have a promotion for a month-long Diamond subscription, then I'll be ready to take advantage of it.


I've been able to explore the site further since I wrote my original answer in 2014. The Genealogist has added Tithe Maps and Tithe Records, which would be valuable if I were looking for landowners, and some Non-Conformist Registers (potentially useful for me, since some of my subject family were Wesleyan Methodists).

My original answer talked about evaluating the record collections on the site, and my guesses about whether I could find my research subject in the collections. I did not discuss the tools and other features on the site. The site now (Dec 2016) offers:

  • A Marriage SmartSearch which suggests possible marriages (e.g. for a marriage couple in a census)
  • A Potential Birth SmartSearch which looks for possible GRO index entries for an individual's entry on the census (if their calculated birth date is 1837 or later)
  • Mapping options put search results on a map -- handy for comparing the surname distribution in different counties
  • Address tools in census results. Clicking on the address displays other search results from the same address. From there you can also see other census entries with the same street name or house/farm name. Looking at "Water Gate" (restricted by county) shows me 8 other entries in that Census year with "Water Gate" or variations of that name in the county in nearby places, as well as the town I started from -- extremely helpful in sorting out same-name houses.
  • the option to save records to a Research Log or to an online tree
  • the printable transcription details page for the censuses include the Archive reference number for each census, and for the 1821/1831 Census transcriptions onsite, the name of the genealogist whose transcription was used is given
  • print options for transcription pages and other search results are clean and easy to read, and don't seem to drop as much information between the screen display and the printable page as some other sites do.

Because of these features that allow the researcher to cross-check record sets against each other, The Genealogist is especially valuable for beginning researchers, for people doing one-place or one-name studies, or anyone doing family reconstruction on a large scale. My primary consideration when evaluating any subscription is still record coverage, but if you do have enough people to look for in their record sets to make this worthwhile, the BMD SmartSearch and the Census search features are very powerful tools.

I also encourage anyone considering a website to make use of available tutorials and research guides, like the video tutorials and featured articles such as What Land Did My Ancestor Own or Occupy?.

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    I welcome other answers about different sites that you are interested in but have not subscribed to yet. If you have particular search strategies, or ways of recording data sets you might want to search later, please include that information in your answer. – Jan Murphy Dec 7 '14 at 21:29

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