30 March 2012

Getting to Know Google

While the days of microfiche and dusty libraries aren't gone yet, technology is steadily improving to the point that one day we won't need to travel so far to find our roots. The majority of what we want to find isn't online; let me be clear about that. I've heard people figure it at about 5% of all the documents available are online. There are companies that are trying to digitise and transcribe as many records as they can. Ancestry has the World Archives Project and FamilySearch has Index projects that include the 1940 census. Until all the world's records are digitised, how do we know what's available online? And where do we find the documents that aren't? As I have already blogged, sometimes we just need to look to Google first. And interestingly, Google has a lot of tools that can make the life of a genealogist easier.

The most obvious is the search tool. Seriously, who doesn't know to "Google it"? Well actually, for many people it comes counter-intuitive to start with a Google search. I can't tell you the number of times I've "Googled it" for someone and found just what they were looking for on the first page. To others, the sheer volume of results can be daunting, especially for a common name. Well, take those hints from Crista about searching like a pro and use them here! Know what you are looking for and be specific. Use search operators like AND, OR, or - (Note and/or have to be in all caps to count or they'll be ignored). Lifehack did an article about searching Google like a pro, which I have bookmarked for easy reference. And did you know you could search Google Images by image now? That's right! There's a little camera on the right of the search bar. If you click on that, Google Images will let you add a photo to search. Now, it's still very new, so when you put in a black and white photo of a person, you get black and white photos of people new and old. Add some words "John So-n-so, 1864, Texas", and it'll help narrow your search.

But that's just the tip of our Google iceberg! Add to the search the toolbar download to have the search tool always ready. There are also a number of "buttons" you can add to help you. My favorite is the Translate tool. It can be very helpful when you are Googling where/how to find foreign records and the website is not in English. There's a Spell Checker to help when writing on a website (like Blogger). It's capable of spell check in a few languages, so if you know Spanish, but your spelling isn't always the best, Google will help! The "Highlight All" button will highlight the words from your search that are found on the page, making it easier for you to scan the page and decide if it's pertinent. You can add a share button so you can email, Facebook, Google+, blog, etc. your find to anyone you wish. Google has enhanced search features to find related content, auto fill forms and search bars with most likely information, and more. Please note: those features do take/share some of your information, so be sure to check all the settings to the level you want before proceeding! Also, there are third-party options that aren't Google, so check reliability of the company providing them.

There are three tools outside of searching that I use quite a bit. My favorite of course is Google Translate. I can input a bit of text from a document and Google will figure out what the language is and translate it for me. I used this tool to translate some postcards I got at an antique store that were from Germany 1912. Not life-changing information, but it was fun to read nonetheless. You can make special characters like å by using your computer's special characters map (You can find that in Accessories usually). It even suggested spelling changes if a letter was missed/unclear. Google Calendar is a great tool that can be accessed from a computer or smartphone. I share my calendar with family so they can see what I'm doing and when. This way, when they want to hang out with me, all they have to do is check the calendar. They can even add an event to a free moment if they want to reserve that time. If I'm headed to a library for the day, I've had relatives email me a list of items they need, or names of relatives that may be found in archives. Google Docs is a great place to store copies of pdf files, documents, and family group sheets. In fact, after clicking on "create" and choosing "from template", I was able to search "census" and found this 1790 census extraction form. Ancestry has a printable option, but here was one I could just type into. If I needed to do so, I could create and share a template for such a thing. And I know I've seen people asking for it, so there ya go.

In my blog post about genealogy and television, I mentioned YouTube. There are several channels devoted to genealogy by your favorite companies, but also by devoted fans and hobbyists. Judicious use of YouTube can also bring you finds like the 1940 census introduction. And the Google Books search was how I found an ebook of the Kemper line printed in 1899. It traced a great many Kempers back to our earliest ancestor, John Kemper of Virginia in 1714. There was a brief historical sketch of the earliest church record they found in Germany, but it was the names that were the most helpful. Using that book (with actual verified documents like birth records, marriage licenses and censuses) helped me connect to other Ancestry members who had information on their direct line to that tree as well. I only wish I could find more books about the other lines I'm working on! Picasa is Google's photo sharing option, and can be useful for keeping a centralised location for your digital photos. I use Flickr, but really it's personal preference, just like social networking. I'm sure a few of us use Facebook over Google+ just because our family and friends are more active on Facebook.

Speaking of social networking, Google+ is a clean version of what Facebook was pre-Timeline. Quite a few genealogy sites like Ancestry and Olive Tree have a presence on Google+, but it's underutilised......... so get over there now and give them a reason to patronise it! Google+ allows you to share photos, and tag people in them. Once they're tagged, Google can use their burgeoning face recognition options to find more photos of that person........ which sounds cool. Again, if you are privacy wary, this won't be something you want. Another great product from Google is Blogger. I won't link that one as you currently find yourself on Blogger reading this wonderful (and in my humble opinion, brilliant) article. You can create a blog to help others or just use as a journal of your own trials and tribulations. Share it with the world, or a select few. Blogger has it's own set of tools to make a useful landing zone for your information, be it in posts, photo or video. If you want something more of a website with the option for wikis and the like, Google Sites is your go-to area. (I actually have a draft blog about language study I'm thinking of transferring to a site instead. I think that'll be an easier format for what I really want to do.) Google Groups allows you to join or create a group on any topic you wish, from surnames to general genealogy. And Google Reader allows you to subscribe to a blog or site and get them in a simple news feed rather than hunt each one down every time you want to read them.

There are also a few I consider more "just for fun" than day-to-day useful. Panoramio is Google Maps meets Picasa. Search a location and see photographs of that location. Some old, some new, all beautiful. Really a great idea if you're planning a trip or want an idea of the environment your relatives lived in. Patent Search is useful if you had an inventor in the family and want to see their patent proposal (or if you want to invent something yourself and need to know if it's already in existence). Google Scholar will search out scholarly papers, legal opinions and journals and articles. A worthwhile option for someone wanting an opinion based on deep study; for example, how "experts" feel about archive handling and care. It's quite dry reading, as it's not prepared for common consumption, but the information can be invaluable to a serious mind.

We're always looking for ways to organise our research so that we aren't lost in it (or signed up for the show "Hoarders" by less than understanding relatives). There are so many great options in Google that you really should add it to your toolkit. Because I hear complaints about it all the time, it bears repeating that ONCE IT'S ON THE INTERNET, IT'S THERE TO STAY. Don't share what you are uncomfortable sharing. Read all privacy policies before using a product. Google spells it out very neatly in their new policies, so take the time to familiarise yourself with your options for protecting your rights. In the end, use it as much or as little as you are comfortable, but use it.

-See you on the interwebs!

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