One of the first things you probably learned as a beginning genealogist was that your family names could be spelled in different ways. You've watched for these different spellings when you searched microfilms and you've noticed in FamilySearch that you had the choice of looking for the exact or the approximate spellings. Now, with the advent of genealogical CDs and on-line databases, it seems that you have many more opportunities to look for those elusive names. It's easy nowadays to search in sources that would only have been available to dedicated experts who lived near or traveled to the locality of the original events. As an amateur, you may be looking at records never before available to amateurs. Don't forget those quaint spelling variations, now that you can search electronically.
One of the best things to let you know of the possibilities in name searching is, believe it or not, the old indexes you may have thought you could bypass. After all, a search algorithm allows you to find incidences of names an indexer may have thought were not important enough to includežso why not go directly to the subject matter? Ten minutes spent reading down an old index will give you at least ten reasons why not.
Some observations, while extracting from an old index:
There are many more abbreviations than would be found in similar records today, and they're not the abbreviations you might expect. Even surnames were sometimes abbreviated in the days of pen and quill and expensive paper. Rob'r Alex'r for Robert Alexander? Good grief, how cheeseparing can you get? As you can see, you won't find this record by searching with the full name, unless the index is available for electronic search and the compiler of the index (perhaps a hundred years later) decided to index that name under the full spelling. There's a good possibility that the name is only indexed under the abbreviated spellingža much safer policy, when the abbreviation is not marked with a period or superscripted letters. An apostrophe was a common mark for early abbreviations, unlike today, but if the full name Alexander could have been spelled Alexander, Alixander, Alexandor, Allixander, or Allexsander, how would the indexer always know which way to expand an abbreviation? Most of the time they didn't try, but instead, entered the abbreviated form as a separate listing. For example, Stephen, Steph., and Steph'n would be separate listings. (Note that Steph'n saves no space at all!)
Old records have other quirks as well. Military officers were frequently mentioned without the use of their given names. Captain Allen, for example. This was sometimes a badge of respect, meaning the given name was not necessary; he was THE Captain Allen. How do you index a reference to this Allen? With Captain, of course, but perhaps not under the C. In an index, titles may be at the beginning of the Allens, before Allen, Adam. And while you'd still find this electronically, you wouldn't find it if you didn't know your ancestor was a military officer and you looked him up only under his baptismal name, or under Captain Robert Allen. And then, was that military title abbreviated? How about Genlr for General?
Indexes may suggest many more spelling variations than you ever dreamed of. Take the name Gottlieb. Try Godlep, Gotlib, Gotlieb, Godlip, Gortlip, and would you believe Cut Lip? Even "simple" abbreviations like Jr. and Sr. may have been Junr, Jun'r, Ju'r, Sen'r, or Senr.
Indexers worked under a budget, just as workers today. Not having the benefit of the computer they may have decided they could not retype a page just to include a forgotten entry. That could account for some listings being a couple of pages away from where they should have appeared alphabetically. It could also account for carelessness in punctuation. You may think you have a man with a middle initial of V, when it's really Volume or Volume V, so look at the context and don't take that extra period as a sure indicator.
CDs and on-line databases are wonderful new resources. If you're a Sunday genealogist, you have searching opportunities as never before. But if you search a record superficially and then carefully record that there's nothing there for your lineage, you may do more harm than good. Consider buying that CD when it has records for your locality, or subscribing to that database service, so that you don't have to look only while at the library. You need to become well acquainted with it. Search it over and over again. Even with technology, some research principles never change.
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