The 2 Minute Cyndi’s List Experiment That Helped Me Find My Elusive Ancestor
By Marsha Peterson-Maass, author of Fundamentals of Genealogy®: The Most Helpful Tools You’ve Never Used
If you’re new to genealogy, there’s no denying it, Cyndi’s List is an absolute must! Cyndi Ingle describes her free website as, “A categorized & cross-referenced index to genealogical resources on the Internet.” But I’m afraid that many of us genealogy old timers (who remember when Cyndi’s List was simply a LONG scrolling list), still see it as a mere online directory. Is this how you feel about it? If so, then chances are you’re not using Cyndi’s List to its full potential.
What if you could transform Cyndi’s List into an even more valuable online research tool than it already is? Below, I’ll share a quick experiment that helped me do just that. The truth is, Cyndi’s List might have already discovered what you’re looking for – along with what you didn’t realize you needed. Sounds too good to be true, right? Not necessarily.
While this site is definitely an online directory showing you links (within organized categories, to websites of genealogical interest), if you use it as a research tool it might surprise you by revealing a different research strategy than you’re currently using. In the case of my 2-minute experiment below, it might even lead you to an answer or show you why you were having the research problem in the first place.
Editor’s Note: We conducted a short interview with Cyndi in 2015. You can read that here.
The “Cyndi’s List 2 Minute Experiment”
Skeptical? I was too until I tried this little experiment. I challenged myself by saying, “I’m going to use what I’m currently researching (I’m having a problem finding biographical details for the elusive Percy of Tucson) and use Cyndi’s List as a research tool to see whether it can help me get past this problem – and I’m not spending more than two minutes on this experiment.” Two minutes later I surprisingly proclaimed, “WOW!”
No joke. (Too bad I can’t be this enthusiastic about the dirty dishes in the kitchen sink.)
Let me explain what I did and why. The problem: I couldn’t find many biographical details for a WWII veteran named Percy who lived in Tucson, Pima County, Arizona until his death there in 1980. I found several military and vital event documents by simply searching my favorite online databases, including his military headstone and an obituary from “The Arizona Daily Star” (Tucson, Arizona) newspaper.
In the past, I’ve relied heavily on newspaper sources for biographical detail. I had checked the largest U.S. digital newspapers database to retrieve Percy’s obituary but that’s all the information I could find in that mega source. I began my 2-minute experiment by going to the Cyndi’s List homepage and typing the two words “Tucson newspaper” in the Search Box (upper right corner of the homepage).
In the category called, “United States » Arizona » Counties » Pima » Newspapers”, it provided links to two databases with searchable digitized Tucson newspapers. The first choice was Ancestry’s “Tucson Daily Citizen” digitized newspaper collection, along with a second Tucson newspaper collection.
It was then that it dawned on me: in searching the largest online newspaper database, I didn’t check to see whether I had conducted “reasonably exhaustive research” of ALL local Tucson newspapers. (Not doing so is a big no-no, according to Component 1 of the 5-Component Genealogical Proof Standard as developed by the Board for Certification of Genealogists).
Cyndi’s List just gave me the gentle reminder about how important it is to follow accredited methods and know the sources a database offers so I can also search elsewhere to achieve “reasonably exhaustive research.” That took about 30 seconds (the admission that I had rightly earned an extremely red face happened instantly).
But I wasn’t done with the experiment. I then clicked the Cyndi’s List link to Ancestry’s “Tucson Daily Citizen” newspaper collection and it took me to their searchable webpage of that collection (with no subscription required, YET). Unbelievable.
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I searched Percy’s unusual name and BINGO: 12 indexed newspaper entries popped up, with readable thumbnail images of the newspaper itself (still no subscription required).
By simply reading these 12 thumbnails listed by their dates of publication, I learned that Percy had made some life choices that led him to state prison. What an experiment!
So, I found the biographical details, an answer as to why I was having the research problem (I had incorrectly assumed that the initial mega newspaper database I searched included all local newspaper sources), and it was free in just two minutes.
Try Using Cyndi’s List as a Research Tool
If you want to see the criteria used in Cyndi’s List naming conventions (to help you use the “right” keywords), you can find a description on her FAQ page under “How Links are Titled and Indexed”, and don’t forget to browse the posts on her Cyndis List Blog for more helpful tips.
Take two minutes and try using Cyndi’s List as a research tool, just to see what happens. What have you got to lose? You might even have immediate success. Did it give you new ideas or get you past a research problem? Did you catch yourself in any faulty assumptions or find a unique local source?
If you have any success using these ideas, share them below to help other researchers! Me? I’ll be getting after those pesky dishes with the extra time Cyndi’s List helped me to find.
About the Author: Marsha Peterson-Maass, contributing writer, lecturer, and author of the Fundamentals of Genealogy® textbook series, including the referenced title, Fundamentals of Genealogy®: The Most Helpful Tools You’ve Never Used.
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