Friday, February 25, 2011

Answer: What's my mother's maiden name?

When I was talking about this search challenge with a friend yesterday, I described the solution I had.  "But.. that's cheating!!" he said, annoyed at my solution.  

Hey, these are "open internet" problems.  As I keep saying, nothing is out of bounds when doing these kinds of research pieces.  

But why did he think I was cheating?  Answer:  Because I couldn't find any solution by using just the regular search engines.  I had to go to to solve the problem.  

Yes, is a major subscription-based (meaning, you need to pay for it!) online repository.  

HOWEVER (and this is one of my two key points for today)... I did this research at my public library for free!  

Yep.  The Palo Alto public library has a subscription to and you can go do everything shown below for free.  Since it was raining yesterday, I just stopped by my local branch, sat down for 5 minutes, and was done. 

My other key point is this:

        If you don't know the data exists, you're never going to find it. 

I know, I know--it's very Zen koan-like.  In this case, though, you knew the research question was genealogical, so you should be thinking "what genealogy resources do I know about?"  And should spring to mind as one of the biggest resources available.    

It's not hard to figure out my hometown (I've mentioned it in this blog before), and from that you can find my address and/or my age (easily findable with iSearch, Zabasearch or similar other people search engines).  Once you know those bits of information you can easily use Ancestry to limit searches for "Daniel Martin Russell, b. 1955 in Los Angeles county."  (Why LA county?  Because in the US, births, deaths and marriages are tracked by county rather than at the city, state or federal level.) 

Once at, I just plugged in the information I had from other resources... 

and quickly came up with only one plausible person... and mother... and mother's maiden name.  

And there's the answer.  It took me about 15 seconds after logging in to get to his.  And you can get more information than this pretty easily.  (But I'll leave those details on how to run genealogy searches to other, more expert authors than I. Links to tutorials on the topic:  LearnWebSkills Genealogy,  GeneaSearch introduction, Cyndi's List.) 

Search takeaways:  
1.  Sometimes the answer isn't ON the open internet.  One of the jobs of an information specialist is to know what's where and how to get to it.  While the internet has made vast resources available, there are (and forever will be) pockets of information that require lots of curation.  Genealogical data is one of those resources.  Plan on spending money to get access to this kind of data.  Know that is slightly expensive, but they have really great genealogical information that you can't get elsewhere... or.... 

2.  Sometimes a library is your best friend.  As  a society we have made a huge investment and commitment to having a publicly funded institution for information and literate access.  Public libraries make many different kinds of information freely available for the public good.  My advice to you is to learn what they have and what's possible there.  The libraries aren't perfect--they're not as comprehensive as they could be and have their own limits, but they're great resources.  

Search on!

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