Category Archives: Research Help

Ohio Genealogical Society Presentation Notes

This blog post offers links and notes related to my live webinar presentation to the Ohio Genealogical Society on July 11, 2023. It will be updated slightly after the presentation, to reflect any changes or discussions during the presentation. It’s not intended to represent all of the comments shared during the presentation, but instead to be a place where links and notes are stored, for the benefit of attendees.

Section 1. Using vessel research in genealogy – how it can be applied, and how it can benefit genealogy research

Important: Know what a resource can do: ShipIndex cannot really help you find information about a person, and the large genealogy databases cannot really help you find information about vessels. Use the right tool for the job!

SS Imperator, also Berengaria. Source: Library of Congress, via Wikipedia

Vessel research can help you find an image of the ship an ancestor emigrated on, or perhaps a picture of the ship that grandparents took their honeymoon on.

For ancestors who served in the military, vessel research can help you learn about their experiences: if you know what ship they were on, and when, then researching the history of the ship will help you learn more about their experiences.

Vessel research might help you find a diary or logbook kept by someone who was on the voyage that your ancestor was on.

Section 2. Using vessel research in maritime and other history – not just genealogy

Research in local history can help learn a great deal from maritime history – researching the vessel, rather than the people on it. Perhaps you have a mid-19th century panorama of the city and you’d like to research some of the boats you see on it?

Portion of 1848 “Panorama of Progress,” by Charles Fontayne and William S. Porter, held at Cincinnati and Hamilton County Public Library.

Or you’re researching a schooner that’s been in the community for 70 years, but must be removed – such as Equator, in Everett, Washington.

Screenshot from Everett, Washington, HeraldNet.

Section 3. Using as a tool, among many, for doing this work

Introduction to ShipIndex, what it can and cannot do; comparing the free database and the subscription database.

‘Cards’ are used to differentiate between ships with the same name, and to bring together different names for the same ships. How does this work?

Options for doing advanced searching – see search features page for information about options on doing more advanced searching.

Section 4. Other options for vessel search, beyond ShipIndex

There are many ship registers available; not all are included in, since acquiring a list of their content can be quite difficult (or impossible!). Some examples:

Section 5. Ways of searching the free web most effectively

When using Google, try the “AROUND” function, with the vessel type – so, for example, “constellation AROUND(5) sloop-of-war” – very different results from just “constellation“!

Use citations from Wikipedia to discover great sources about those ships that have Wikipedia entries.

Section 6. Finding the books and journals you’ve identified

Using (from OCLC, based in Dublin, Ohio) to locate libraries that own a particular title – but consider the many challenges that come with searching WorldCat. It is not particularly reliable anymore. It’s very difficult to determine what library has a particular journal (ie, magazine) that you want. Become friends with your interlibrary borrowing partners! (And be sure to support them!)

If you’re having problems with OCLC, try searching the OhioLINK central catalog, to see which academic libraries in Ohio have a particular title.

Section 7. Searching for historical newspapers online – a great tool for learning more

See this list to locate digitized historical newspapers.

The Ohio Memory project includes lists of, and links to, many Ohio newspapers — most 19th century ones come from the Library of Congress’ Chronicling America project.

If searching is possible, certainly give it a try, but many interfaces do not have good search functionality. Conversion to text can also be very bad, which limits searching.

For an amazing interface and project, see the remarkable California Digital Newspaper Collection. I’ve become slightly obsessed with correcting content here, and I’ve discovered that the San Francisco Call has numerous listings of vessel arrivals and departures across the West Coast.

Section 8. Using University Libraries to do further research (APPROACH #1 – with database access)

Many – but definitely not all – academic libraries will allow visitors to enter and use their databases. When librarians sign contracts to provide access to these expensive databases, we try to ensure access for “walk-in” users – for anyone who comes in to the library. This will especially be true for public academic libraries. If you have an academic library near you, ask if you can use most of its resources as a walk-in user.

In Ohio, you have access to a range of databases via Ohio Web Library (though not, notably, ProQuest newspaper databases).

ProQuest Historical Newspapers is a valuable resource when searching newspapers. Others include Accessible Archives, NewsBank, and more. In ProQuest, try using “NEAR” function: so, “monongahela NEAR oiler“. (Use NEAR/#, where # is the number of words. NEAR without a number defaults to 4 words.)

Section 9. Using University Libraries without access, from afar – it’s still doable, sort of! (APPROACH #2 – without database access)

“Discovery Layers” are a tool for searching much (but definitely not all) subscription databases, all at once. Content from many subscription databases is pre-indexed and users can search a lot of databases all at once, similar to using Google.

There are two main companies who offer Discovery Layers: ProQuest (in their Ex Libris division) and EBSCO. Each discovery layer does NOT include the content from its competitor. Since ProQuest has superior coverage of historical newspapers, find a major research library who uses the Ex Libris CDI and also allows you to search their discovery layer without logging in. This site shows which of the largest US & Canadian libraries use which discovery layer. Use a library in the “Ex Libris CDI” section because they will include ProQuest databases in the discovery layer. Select a university, then click on “Library Web Site,” and find the place to start searching.

Not all libraries will allow you to search without logging in, so if one doesn’t, try another. Yale will, for example, so they’re a great place to start. In the Yale interface, you can even narrow it down to just newspaper articles. BUT BUT BUT BUT — and this is important — you CANNOT get to the article itself, at least not here! Discovering that the article exists, however, might be incredibly valuable.

For more information about historical newspapers in a certain state or city, consider looking at the LibGuides about newspapers in the state or province at the largest university library, or the state library, for that state or province. For example, OSU, or State Library of Ohio.

Section 10. Searching for journals and newspapers

What do you do if you’ve found an article, or a journal, that isn’t available at the library near you? Your best option is probably interlibrary borrowing, but there are other options, as well.

Section 11. Conclusion.

I believe that vessel research can improve your family history, and the story you tell in your genealogy. Some of it might just be “adding leaves to the tree” — finding images of ships that were tangentially connected with your family story, and look good in a document or book you create. Others will directly inform your understanding of your ancestors’ lives, such as by learning about the battles those on board a warship (including your ancestor) during World War II, or during another conflict.

I hope that learning a bit about some ways of doing some of this research might be useful and helpful to you.

Advanced Searching in

Our “Introduction to Searching” Research Help Guide provides an overview of the basic parts of searching There are some advanced features, as well, and they’re worth knowing about.

It seems straightforward – type in a ship name, get results. Actually, there’s a whole lot more that you can do in the database, and it is, admittedly, kinda wonky and a bit tricky. Please watch the following video to better understand how to use the search features more effectively.

Here’s an overview of the most important points:

  • Remember that your search only brings back that ship name. There’s lots more after you click on the “See other matching ships” button.
  • To limit a search to just the ship name field, use the term “@ship_name” and then the name of the ship. For example, “@ship_name union“.
  • To search for a ship name that starts or ends with a specific word, use these characters: use “^” (the carat character) in front of a word, to indicate that the ship name must start with that word; or “$” (dollar sign) at the end of the word, to indicate the ship name must end with that word. For example:
    • @ship_name ^union” to display ships whose name starts with “union” – Sample search
    • @ship_name castle$” to display ships whose name ends with “castle” – Sample search
  • Use “*” (asterisk) to expand a search, but you must start with at least two characters.
    • A search for “acht*” returns ships where a word that starts with “acht” appears in the ship name or the citation. In this case, it includes “Acht Gebroeders”, “Achtienhoven”, “Martini Achter”, and “Y’acht Tu Put Family First”. Sample search. It does not look for “acht” within a word; it only looks for words that start with “acht”. (The apostrophe in “Y’acht” appears to create a new word; note that no entries with the full word “Yacht” appear in this search.)
    • If you search for “@ship_name *acht” you’ll get lots of citations for ships with names like “Deltagracht”, “Dotte Yacht”, and more. – Sample search.
    • And, if you put an asterisk before and after “acht”, you’ll get a combination of both searches from above, plus ship names where “acht” just appears within a word, as in “A Lil Naughty Yachty”. – Sample search.
  • You can even exclude specific words from ship names by putting a “!” (exclamation point) in front of the terms you want ignored. A search with the phrase “@ship_name ^mary !annie” will return all entries where the ship name starts with “mary” except for those that also have “annie” in the name. – Sample search

The full help page will give you more guidance as well. But it’s clear that there’s a lot you can do when searching the database.

An important concept here is that the database serves as a de facto authority file for vessels. There’s no larger collection of vessel names out there, and if you’re having a hard time finding information about a ship with the name you have, you might do some searching to see if there’s a different version of it. At a genealogy conference in England, a person came to me seeking information about a ship named “maid of sussex”. We found no ship with that name. Now, it might have still existed, but the database is pretty comprehensive at this point. By playing with the database, and searching for just “sussex”, for instance, then clicking on “See other matching ships”, we found “Sussex Maid,” which was, most likely, the ship she was seeking.

There are many ways of using and searching the database, even if you’re not subscribing. Give it a try, and let me know if you have questions or comments.

Introduction to Searching

The video below shows effective ways of using the database. It’s good to know what the database can, and cannot, do.

Here’s an overview: tells you what books, journals, websites, databases, resources, and more, mention the ships you want to learn more about.

There are, basically, two versions of the database: the free database and the subscription database. You’ll find over 150,00 citations, and lots of great content, from many significant books in maritime history, in the free database. You’ll also find links to subject headings in WorldCat, though have significantly declined in value, due to a change by OCLC, WorldCat’s owner, this past month. Read more about that here.

The subscription database has over 3.2 million citations in it, and it’s always growing. The subscription database contains lots more online content than the free database, plus many, many new books in maritime history. All content that’s been added since 2009 has gone into the subscription database, except for updates to the WorldCat file.

Watch this video to learn more about the specifics of searching the database, and a bit more about what you can expect:

Subscribing to the database is inexpensive and easy — you can subscribe for a set period of time, from two weeks to a year, or you can subscribe on a monthly basis, in which the subscription will continue until you cancel.

You might also find that an academic or public library near you subscribes to the database. If you’d like to suggest that your local public or academic library consider a subscription to ShipIndex, please take a moment to tell them about the database! We can set up a trial for them, and if they let patrons access resources during a trial, you could use it then. Ask your librarian to contact us about options for subscribing!

We believe strongly in the importance of maritime museums, so we offer free access to the full database for all full members of the Council of American Maritime Museums (CAMM). A museum staffperson can contact us to get access set up on their campus and in their buildings. If they so choose, they can offer this access to museum visitors, as well, such as in their library or through their wifi network.

Basic advanced searching

When you search for a ship name, you’ll often see the following phrase at the top of a results page: “See other matching ships”.

This means that, in this case, you’re looking at ships whose full name is “Eagle”, excluding any prefixes like “HMS”, “USS”, or of course, “USCGC”.

When you click on the “See other matching ships” link, which is in the red box shown above, you get this result:

Each ship name here either contains the word “Eagle” in the name, or somewhere in the citation. With a common one-word name like “Eagle”, this can be overwhelming. The next step is to narrow down the search, by using this search term: “@ship_name eagle“, to get this result:

Now every citation has the word “Eagle” in it, which definitely narrows down results. But there’s more that can be done to get to better results. See our video on advanced searching, to learn more.