Some state and national libraries and archives are going a step beyond simply posting their library catalogs online: They are also digitizing some of their more popular collections and making them available online.
The National Archives (NARA) in Washington, D.C., has begun an impressive program called the Access to Archival Databases (AAD) System (www.archives.gov/aad/index.html). This system lets people search and view electronic records. It includes some interesting searchable databases. The National Archives also offers a powerful online inventory of some of the holdings of the main archives in Washington, D.C., as well as their network of 13 regional archives and additional record facilities, through the Archival Research Catalog (ARC) (www.archives.gov/research/arc/). This is far from complete and should not be considered a definitive answer as to whether or not a specific resource is available through the National Archives network.
Many of the regional branch archives have their own Web sites, as do the Presidential libraries. Some of these have their own searchable online catalogs. You can find out more about these repositories by checking out the Locations and Hours link in the Research Room section of the NARA Web site (www.archives.gov).
The Florida State Archives, another repository embracing the current technology, has digitized a number of its collections, including World War I service cards, Florida Confederate pension application files, and Spanish land grants (some of the earliest records identifying residents in what eventually became Florida).
The online availability of such records is a dream for genealogists. To have such a convenient (and often free!) way to research obscure records is an incredible time-saver. It may save you a trip to the actual repository, but even if it doesn't, it will almost certainly help you accomplish a large portion of your research from home. You can postpone the visit until you have managed to identify other individuals and records needed, in order to make your trip to the archives a truly useful one.
Although not all libraries and archives are fully entrenched on the Internet, they remain an excellent resource. Even if you are unable to view original records online, researching a library's archives or card catalog online can be an extremely valuable time-saver. The first step is to use the Internet to uncover existing libraries, especially if the only information you have is the state or county in which your ancestors lived. One way to do this is through a directory of online library catalogs.
LibDex, The Library Index (www.libdex.com), is a great resource because it shares lists of public libraries, state libraries, law and medical libraries, academic libraries, and more. It allows you to search for libraries using a keyword, such as the city, or a phrase. You can also browse for libraries by county or by state.
LibDex is a list of only those libraries that offer an online site. Not all of these sites will offer online library catalogs, but at the very least the Web site should provide helpful contact information.
Another directory for library catalogs is the Gateway to Library Catalogs (www.loc.gov/z3950/). In addition to allowing you to search the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., this site provides a number of links to other catalogs all over the world.
How to Use an Online Genealogy Index
Indexes that are accessible online require a little different thinking than a printed index. When searching the index to a book, it's easy to evaluate the variant spellings of a surname. For instance, while looking for the surname Johnson you may also spot entries for Johnsen and Jonson and consider checking those out. However, when you type Johnson into a computerized index, you will get hits only for this spelling, not for any variations.
Search engines are not designed to guess what might be considered a variant spelling. With the exception of the databases at FamilySearch.org (www.familysearch.org), which group variations together, there are only a few databases that offer an option for alternative spellings.
Ancestry.com (www.ancestry.com) allows you to request a Soundex search, which tells the search engine to include some variant spellings. All of the variations for the Johnson surname have the same Soundex code, which means that an online index using a Soundex search would explore these variations and more.
While you don't need to know how to code a surname using the Soundex system when working in online indexes, there are other records for which you will need to figure out the code. Most genealogy programs include a Soundex converter tool, and there are plenty of Web sites that convert names into code for you. Here are a few:
- Free Online Soundex Calculator (www.frontiernet.net/~rjacob/soundex.htm)
- Soundex Code Generator in Java Script (www.billcarney.com/brickmasons/genmisc/soundex.html)
- Surname to Soundex Code (searches.rootsweb.com/cgi-bin/Genea/soundex.sh)
- Ancestor Search: Surname to Soundex Converter (www.searchforancestors.com/soundex.html)
Rhonda R. McClure is a professional genealogist who began the search for her personal family tree 20 years ago through genealogy courses and conferences. Today she is an author and national lecturer guiding other newcomers through this exciting hobby.