Getting the most out of Google

Wendell Mansions by Alejandro Reyes November 2013A month or so ago, I knew comparatively little about one of my great-grandfathers, a Baltimore architect. Most of what I knew was genealogical in nature, but I had – and have – no photographs, and I did not know much about his oeuvre, which was mostly apartment houses in and around downtown Baltimore.

Putting on my genealogist’s hat, I turned to Google, searching for him under his full name. This yielded comparatively little, so I tried his professional name and then his initials with surname. All very well, but as I began putting together a timeline of his commissions, I kept (and keep) finding new details, all of which leads me to one not very profound point: Google will show you the universe (or a simulacrum, limited to whatever currently lives online), but you are responsible for sighting the telescope.

In my great-grandfather’s case, this means coming at the problem over and over again. He had several partners in his architecture firm, so the firm name offers – and his partner’s given names afford – important clues to be used in connection with my great-grandfather’s name. His apartment buildings also had names (Earl Court, the Esplanade); with their street addresses, these names are useful data points in tracing his building commissions.

Above all, try not to think like a genealogist. In my great-grandfather’s case, he generally went by his initials and surname professionally, reserving his full names for his grandest commissions, the ones that showed off his artistry. Google will only yield what is there, and, I have found, yield it somewhat grudgingly – hence the repeated attempts to find the same recalcitrant facts. For nineteenth- and early twentieth-century publications, Google gives what the compilers wrote, which is, in general, not what we as genealogists may naively expect.

So, by all means begin by searching full names, but be quick to move on to partial name searches and Soundex-style searches. Use every scrap of information you can think of, and use it aggressively, searching all the name variants for people and for places and things. Repeat these searches until you have exhausted every possible combination.

Nowadays, I can tell you quite a lot about the Baltimore architect Edward Hughes Glidden (1873-1924), but please, someone, find me his picture!

About Scott C. Steward

Scott C. Steward was the founding editor at Vita Brevis; he served as NEHGS Editor-in-Chief 2013-2022. He is the author, co-author, or editor of genealogies of the Ayer, Le Roy, Lowell, Saltonstall, Thorndike, and Winthrop families. His articles have appeared in The New England Historical and Genealogical Register, NEXUS, New England Ancestors, American Ancestors, and The Pennsylvania Genealogical Magazine, and he has written book reviews for the Register, The New York Genealogical and Biographical Record, and the National Genealogical Society Quarterly.

27 thoughts on “Getting the most out of Google

  1. I have experienced a similar situation while looking for my Great Grandfather in the 1870 census. I finally found him, not in his native New York, but in Iowa, and not under his name Rufus Davis Hastings but as R. D. Hastings. I have seen several examples since that if you want to know what a person was called by his associates look at his grave stone. In this case it says R. D. Hastings.

  2. Don’t forget to try other search tools, too. Using Netscape, Bing, Lycos, or others brings up a whole new list, with surprisingly few duplications. Even give a variation.

  3. Your advice was most excellent, and a good reminder to me to do my best to think laterally rather by my standard rote methods of search inquiry. Your have explained this so very well, and in such a poingnant fashion. Scott, I do hope you find that picture you are looking for. It’s out there, perhaps in a trade journal, so kudos to you for the great search advice! Many thanks,
    J. Record

      1. Kind of surprising that a professional with such a large number of projects never had his photo in a newspaper at a grand opening..

        1. It was a different time, I think. The projects were photographed and written about, but I haven’t come across much in the way of “press” relating to the opening of buildings a century ago.

      2. One hundred of his projects is something of an accomplishment in itself. You’ve got to be very close to discovery Scott!

        J. Record

        PS: By the way, it’s very enjoyable to read about your own personal projects – the ones that tug at your heart and mind. Thank-you for this.

  4. You probably know this already, but just in case you don’t,
    there’s a book on his work at the University of Maryland

  5. Have you tried contacting the AIA (American Institute of
    Architects) or the National Building Museum to see what they might
    have on him? I think the AIA may have a library, as well, possibly
    offering other sources to check, not sure. Nothing to do with
    Google, but just in case you haven’t tried them yet.

  6. This may be so obvious that you have already done it, but have you tried contacting other descendants? Someone may have inherited family papers and photos. My sister and I recently discovered many old family photo albums. Our father’s sister was interested in genealogy and had her own albums as well as her parents (our grandparents). She passed away over twenty years ago and her husband remarried and moved into his new wife’s home. The albums and all her research were half-forgotten in his old hime that he rents out to tourists on a weekly basis. Fortunately, we were able to scan all of it and preserve it.

    I took several classes at the Family History Library in Mesa, AZ from James Tanner ( who told a fascinating story. He knew his grandmother had been an early photographer here in Arizona, but somehow all her photos had gone missing after her death. He kept putting it out there on his blog, and after several years he was contacted by a cousin who had come into all the photographs. The cousin was eager to pass the large collection in to someone in the family who would appreciate them. I hope you have a similar happy ending!

  7. Go to The Cultural Landscape Foundation
    Photo and article about him! Wish my early 1800 ancestors were as easy to find as him!

  8. I’ve found that persistence is key. I have a mid-19th century daguerreotype of a 1770s-era portrait of my 5th-great-grandfather, and I started to wonder what became of the original. Part of the problem was his name, Samuel Treat. There are at least a half dozen Samuel Treats in my family, most of whom were named after Rev. Samuel Treat of Cape Cod. A genealogy of the Treat family from the 1880s mentioned a granddaughter who had owned it, and I was able to find a record of it being sold at auction in New York in the 1930s. Searches of repositories and emails to art galleries over the course of five years were largely fruitless. It wasn’t until I was researching the father of Mr. Treat’s third wife, a Frenchman, that I found original portraits of both men at a museum in New Hampshire. I was relieved to find that it’s hanging on a wall and not taking up space in an attic or a landfill.

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