Sunday, January 29, 2017

Week 2 of the FutureLearn Genealogy MOOC

This week the genealogy course I am taking online through FutureLearn focused issues with the spelling of names and wildcard searching. Both are topics I didn't consider focusing on much in the course I am preparing to teach online this summer. Of course I would have mentioned these aspects of genealogy research but I didn't consider spending much time on them at all. 

When I work with patrons at my part-time job as a genealogy librarian I always say that spelling never counts. There are many reasons why the spelling of a name might appear wrong in a record. I suppose sometimes the individual is lying to the government or hiding who they are but I think that is the least likely reason on them all. I think more often it is a human error in the indexing caused by poor penmanship of the past. For example, I just worked with a woman whose grandfather was indexed as "Mchlose" in the 1920 census. "Ooo, what kind of name is that?," she asked. When you open the image you can clearly see the swirly handwriting of the census taker and that grandpa's name was Nicholas, just as she always thought it was.

The course suggested that one way to combat spelling issues is to use wildcard searching. Wildcard searching is when a character, such as a * or !, replaces a letter or string of letters in a word.  That work sometimes. For example, I help my friend Ken with his family tree from time to time. He has the surname Caponetti in his family tree. I have seen some records show up as Capinetti, Caponelli, Caponeti. So I could do a search, depending on the database, for Cap* and pull back all sorts of records I might not otherwise have seen. That also pulls back every other name that starts with "Cap" though. So, eh, sometimes wildcard searches help, sometimes they are just as overwhelming. I still only plan to mention wildcard searching in my course though. 

This aspect of this week's course did shine light on the fact I was making the assumption that Library Science graduate students know how to do this type of searching and know when it is an appropriate time to do so. Maybe they don't/ I'll definitely mention it but I have no intention of spending that much time on it.

Now complete surname changes, though, can cause real issues for genealogists. In my own family history my great grandfather went from using the surname DesJardins to Gardner. If my grandpa hadn't told me that I might never have seen a record documenting that change. 

This past month I worked with another patron who came in with a nice Irish last name. However, his original family name wasn't even close to what his present surname is. It was very Russian...with a nice strong lankowicz at the end of it. This was revealed through his great grandfather's naturalization papers. 

It was very common for immigrants to Anglicize their last names. Very common. It wasn't the officials at Ellis Island that changed it either but we'll leave that myth for another day.


  1. I worked with someone who was looking into his family name of Regan - which seemed to be a very Irish last name. Well, wouldn't you know the family was straight-up Sicilian, and the original last name was Rodiguenzi - their family actually DID make an official change to their last name, as per a newspaper article, but more often than not there's not going to be any "official" paperwork documenting a complete change in last name, as you said...I've had luck as you have with finding the unofficial change "officially" recorded in naturalization records...always an interesting/frustrating research twist!!

  2. Hey, Cousin Mary. Thanks so much for your comment. Name changes are extremely challenging and a lot less official than most would assume. I wonder how many my summer students will encounter. Thanks for providing a real life example. :)