Welcome to iHCPL: The Next Generation. This site was created as the next step in Harris County Public Library's iHCPL Learning 2.0 Program; a discovery learning program designed to encourage staff to explore new technologies. The original iHCPL program was adapted from The Public Library of Charlotte & Mecklenburg County's Learning 2.0 Program.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Genealogy #69: Database Researching

When conducting genealogical research it is necessary to use information found in official records to assist in tracking your ancestors. The records most commonly used for this purpose are federal census records and vital records. Access to these records is limited by privacy guidelines. For example, even though the federal census is conducted every 10 years, access to those records is not allowed until 72 years later. Currently, the 1930 census records are the most recent that can be accessed for genealogical research. The 1940 census records will be made available to the public in 2012.

When working with these records, keep in mind:

  • Official records are not always completely accurate or available

  • Handwriting is often difficult to decipher in the years prior to typed records-this provides challenges for indexers and researchers alike

  • Names and/or their spelling can change over the years, or be recorded incorrectly-a reason for the creation of the Soundex

  • Due to a fire at the National Archives in 1921, except for fragments from certain states, the 1890 federal census is unavailable

  • Examine all information provided on a record as you never know what might trigger your next great find – a street address on a census form can lead you to finding that ancestor in a city directory

  • Questions asked from decade to decade on the census vary, so each time you locate your ancestors you have the potential to learn something new about them; the Minnesota Population Center at the University of Minnesota has created a site that lists the census questions from 1850-2000 and another that provides the Census Enumerator instructions from each decade to help with deciphering entries

HCPL Genealogy Databases

The records necessary to genealogical research are more accessible today than they have been in the past due to the digitization of records by organizations like HeritageQuest, Family Search and Ancestry.com. Records which in the past were only accessible via hardcopy or microfilm, often requiring travel and/or expense on the part of the researcher, are now available online and can be accessed for free through public libraries, Family History Centers, or a National Archives Research Room. HCPL subscribes to two different genealogy databases – Ancestry.com & HeritageQuest: Genealogy & Local History.


This database is accessible from home with a library card, an advantage over Ancestry.com which, due to licensing restrictions, is only available for use at the library. The index provided by HeritageQuest for the federal census contains only the names of those listed as head of household. However, advanced search features in HeritageQuest allow you to search by series, roll or page number, or by other indexed fields: county, locality, age, sex or birthplace. In addition to federal census records, HeritageQuest contains five other databases that cover:

  • Records and digitized books or articles concerning people and places as they are mentioned in family, genealogy and local history articles
  • Selected records from Revolutionary War era
  • Individuals listed in the Freedman’s Bank (1865-1874)
  • Select records of the U.S. Congress from the LexisNexis® U.S. Serial Set

As you find relevant items they can be marked for addition to your “notebook” which can be printed, emailed or downloaded once your search is complete.


As mentioned earlier, Ancestry.com (Library Edition) is only accessible to users in the library; however it can also be accessed via WiFi for those who bring their personal laptop to the library. As opposed to HeritageQuest’s six searchable databases, Ancestry.com contains over 6,500 databases for searching, some of the most popular of which include:

  • Federal, state, and some foreign census records
  • Voter registration records
  • Military records
  • Public directories and member lists
  • Court, land, wills and financial records
  • Birth, marriage and death records
  • Immigration and passenger lists

Ancestry.com also provides blank copies of many of the charts and forms used in genealogical research. Records from Ancestry.com can be printed out or saved to a flash drive. For those willing to pay for access to Ancestry.com as opposed to using the free library edition, additional features are accessible:

  • Create a family tree adding as much or as little detail as you like
  • Store the records that you find in a “shoebox” or attach them to the profile of the person to whom they pertain
  • Include stories about or told by members of your family, and attach photos, audio or video
  • Make your family tree public so that you can make connections with others who might also be searching for the same people as you
  • Access to webinars and reference tools

Additional Resources

Archives Library Information Center (ALIC): Genealogy – links put together by the U.S. National Archive and Records Administration for learning how to do genealogical research and how to obtain records

Cyndi’s List – one of the most comprehensive lists of genealogy sites on the internet

US GenWeb – collaborative effort by volunteers to list U.S. genealogy websites by state and county

Photos c2009 JupiterImages


  1. Conduct a search in Ancestry.com or HeritageQuest for historical records concerning somebody in your family. Were you successful? If not, what difficulties did you encounter? How could you improve your search results?

This module brought to you by Jorie Nissen (FM), Laura Smith (FM) & Rhiannon Perry (LAP).

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