The following article is a free excerpt from a lesson in our online Ancestry.com Crash Course.
This Ancestry Crash Course is an unofficial guide from Family History Daily. We are not associated with Ancestry except to act as an affiliate partner – which means we may earn a commission to support our work if you choose to subscribe to their services from a link on our pages.
Ancestry.com now offers 20 billion online records, most of which can be searched through the All Collections search box on their pages, as well as through individual collection search boxes. The Ancestry Crash Course covers numerous ways to maximize these search options and avoid pitfalls that limit your ability to uncover records. But today we are going to look at another way to access records on Ancestry.com – records which cannot be found via search at all.
Many people are unaware of the fact that not all of Ancestry’s records show up in search. A surprising number of collections have not been indexed and are therefore virtually invisible to the everyday user of the site. These browse-only collections, as they are known, need to be purposely sought out if you want to take advantage of the records they contain. Some collections have been on Ancestry’s site for years and are still not searchable, while others are new collections that have not yet been indexed.
Let’s take a look at how to find them. For your convenience we have also linked to several of these collections in the article, as well as at the bottom.
Because searching is such a huge part of modern genealogy research browse-only collections are repeatedly overlooked and underused. Not only are they often hard to find but, even when they are located by an interested researcher, many people shy away because they don’t know how to use these records.
Ignoring these records is a huge mistake, however, since they could contain valuable information about your ancestors.
Ancestry does not make it particularly hard to find their browse-only collections, but they do make it difficult for a researcher to know which records fall into this browse-only category – and, therefore, which records are being excluded from search.
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To discover browse-only collections we’ll need to visit the Card Catalog we discussed in a previous lesson. To find the Card Catalog you can select it from the dropdown under Search in the top menu.
The best way to locate non-searchable collections that may be of interest to you is to search for a location you are researching in on this page. Let’s pretend that we are researching an ancestor in Oklahoma in 1890 and see what we can find.
We’ll start by typing Oklahoma in the Title box on the left to see what collections have Oklahoma in the title. Upon searching, Ancestry returns 37 options. As we click through to the collections that seem like a good match we see that each of them can be searched with their own custom search box. We already know what a powerful thing searching individual collections can be and we will definitely want to check these out.
But as we move further down the page, and click on a collection that looks promising, we find that no search box is presented to us. We’ve stumbled across a browse-only collection.
Going back a page we can see that there is nothing on the Card Catalog search page that denotes that this is a browse-only collection. We don’t find out until we visit the landing page. And, in fact, there is no way to sort for these non-searchable collections in the Card Catalog.
But stumbling across one is significant – because we’ve just found a treasure trove of information that would never come up in a search on Ancestry’s site.
But the lack of search capabilities will make our job a bit more difficult. Without a search box we’re going to have to dig through these records just like they did in the “old” days.
Let’s go back to the landing page for this collection and explore how we can view the records. On the right side you will see the Browse This Collection box – as is present on most collections. But now it holds special importance because it is the only way we can access this collection.
Each collection offers its own browsing format and this one is by Roll. Some are organized by location, others by date and still others by name or some other system.
There are 72 Rolls in all, in groups of 4 or 5. Clicking on the first one shows us a map, and then on page two we find the opening page for this collection. It seems a bit intimidating at first… how can we possibly flip through all of these pages to find what we are looking for?
But as you’ll notice in the screenshot above, there are some controls provided by Ancestry to help. Of course, there are the page numbers – and we can type in any page number we like. But there is also the option to view the entire “film strip” – or the images of this collection in the order they were digitized.
Clicking on the film strip brings up a small view of all of the pages in this roll, in order. Rolling over any image brings up a preview and clicking on the image brings us to the page itself.
We can now attempt to figure out in what manner these records are organized so we can we go about trying to find our ancestor. This step is a bit like being presented with an old book or record collection in an archive. Just as in printed records there is usually some way to find what you need without having to flip through each page individually.
We may find that the information is in alphabetical order, or was entered by date – or we may find a table of contents in the beginning or an index at the end of a volume, roll or entire collection. Figuring this out takes some detective work but it will save us a good deal of time in the end.
Of course, this isn’t always the case. The collection above is not organized by date or name and there is no printed index available. The entries may be organized by land tract, but this isn’t a great deal of help to us unless we know the tract our ancestor owned.
Using a resource like this will take additional research on the nature of the collection and how our ancestor may have been included. We may need to use additional outside resources to help us understand how and why it was created, and how to properly use it. A good start on this is to carefully read the descriptions and tips for each collection as provided by Ancestry on the collection landing page. Do as much research as you need to to make sense of the collection and you will almost always be able to make good use of the records.
Luckily, not all browse-only collections are so difficult to navigate – the Nevada Marriages collection seen below is organized by county and date making it fairly easy to use.
When you do find a record you need you can save it to someone in your tree, or to your computer or shoebox, with the green save button in the upper right hand corner. You won’t get the same options you do with an indexed collection once saved, but attaching it your tree as a source is still fairly simple. More help is provided on sourcing later in the course.
There are many browse-only collections just like these ones waiting to be discovered and the information they contain may provide the breakthrough you’ve been hoping for. If you have an Ancestry subscription, head over to the Card Catalog now and conduct a search for collections related to your research. You might be surprised by what you’ve been missing.
If you do not have an Ancestry subscription you might like to read our article about accessing their free collections, or you can read our guide to accessing browse-only collections on FamilySearch for free.
Below is a small selection of these browse-only collections for your convenience. This is just a sample, to discover more you will need to do some digging.
It is possible that some of these collections may be viewable or searchable on other sites, such as FamilySearch – but be careful not to confuse the name of a browse-only collection on Ancestry with a searchable collection by a similar name. Many collection names look like they may contain the same records at first glance, but a closer look at the title or description shows us they are unique.
- Ireland, Newspapers, 1763-1890
- New Zealand, Registered Ships & Owners, 1840-1950
- Pennsylvania, WPA Church Archives, 1937-1940
- Warwickshire, England, Parish Poor Law, 1546-1904
- Czech Republic, Land Records, 1450-1889
- Netherlands, Army Service Records, 1807-1929
- England, County Maps, 1695-1940
- North Carolina, State Supreme Court Case Files, 1800-1909
- North Carolina, Confederate Soldiers and Widows Pension Applications, 1885-1953
- Mississippi, Confederate Veterans and Widows Pension Applications, 1900-1974
- Newport Pagnell, Buckinghamshire, England, Vaccination Register, 1909-1927
- Chronicles of the N.Z.E.F., 1916-1919
This article is an excerpt from our 21 lesson Ancestry Crash Course. Take the full course online here.