Dec 052011

The mantra of real estate agents is “Location! Location! Location!” I am beginning to think that this may also be the mantra of genealogists.

I have the distinct pleasure of participating in an online study group — twelve of us exporling American Records using Greenwood’s “The Researcher’s Guide to American Records” and “The Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy” by Eicholz, et al.

I am beginning to find an answer to a question I raised when dealing with an assignment on “organizing our data.” At the time, I mused: “I am curious about why Greenwood considers locality such a primary factor in a research organizer. Can anyone explain that to me?”
A little over a month later, I began to get an answer to that question when reading William Dollarhide’s “Managing a Genealogical Project.” He writes “There are three vital pieces of [genealogical] information … (1) a name, (2) a date, and (3) a place. …Of these three, the place is the one that tells you where to look for further information. The place of the event … is what a genealogist must know before a copy of that record can be obtained.”

Dollarhide’s input helped me better understand Greenwood’s concern, but it didn’t convince me that I needed to change anything that I was currently doing. More recently I read James Tanner’s post entitled “Searching 40 TB of Records on an iPad,” which draws from a NARA report on the 2011 Large Data Analysis and Visualization (LDAV) symposium. Based on NARA’s work, Tanner suggests four areas in which genealogical researchers need to develop greater proficiency, especially as “large record repositories … make more of their collections available electronically.” One of the areas he suggests relates directly to the concern for locality. “Genealogists need to understand maps and be more consistent in recording the location of events. … The whole NARA project points out the geographical basis for nearly all organizations of record collections.”

As users of websites with huge datasets (such as and, we continuely face the frustration of changed search templates for accessing wanted data. It’s “old search” versus “new search;” “New search” versus “newer search;” etc. etc. etc. We expect the proprieters of websites with large datasets to have perfected their search engines so that we can find easily the data we are looking for.  I never even thought about how they might organize their data or how their search engines operated.  I just knew that when I typed in my 2g-grandfather’s name, I expected to find all the records for him that existed in their datasets.  Of course, I was always frustrated when the searches provided either 124,728 results (too general a search) or 0 results (too many “exact” filters in my search).

Of course, we don’t develop sophisticated search engines to access our own data – whether it is stored in physical file folders and filing cabinets or in digital folders on hard drives and/or the Cloud. We either just look until we find or we have a simple tracking system.  My files (4.6 GB) are in stored in a) in my 2TB external hard drive, b) on, and c) in my online Research Wiki.  They are filed by name and, in the WIKI, cross-referenced by event type.  The only files I have by location are some histories of particular location. I can’t imagine having to look through a personal storage system with 40 TB or more of data. Then I would truly need a rather sophisticated and complex personal search engine. In the environment of large datasets, locality (geospatial information) seems to be the key ingredient for genealogical records.  As I access my records, my primary concern is for the people in my family tree.  That’s how my records are organized.

My conclusion from this: I don’t need to change my organizational system, but I do need to be more aware of the central importance of locality as I continue to search online providers of large data sets. Without that awareness, I might find myself having access to less and less records, rather than more and more!

  One Response to “Location! Location! Location! — A Question Answered”

  1. I agree that an awareness of 'locality' is vital. I could give so many examples. (Hmm. Note to self: Topic for a future blog post!) When someone wants advice on overcoming their genealogical brick wall, I always ask 'Where?' and 'When?' If I have some idea of the time period and geographical area, it is much easier to decide which sources and research strategies are likely to help. For example, probate files at Queensland State Archives are arranged by Supreme Court district, and during the 20th century there were three such districts.

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