How to find your ancestors using Boolean searches

Boolean searches are a great way of sieving through vast databases when trying to find your ancestors.

Boolean searches are mathematical instructions to the search engine, telling it what details you consider important.

The terms used are AND, OR and NOT.

AND requires all terms to appear in a record. Using AND narrows a search and thus returns fewer results. Many databases use AND as their default.

OR retrieves records that include either term searched for. Using OR broadens a search and thus returns more results.

NOT excludes terms found within records. Using NOT narrows a search and thus returns fewer results.

This is simpler than you may think. If you are looking for a member of your family who you know lived in a particular town, say Manchester, England, and was born in a certain year, for example 1850.

You can include these details using a Boolean search technique.

So, you tell the search engine to look in the database for a person with your family name from Manchester AND born in 1850.

It is as simple as that. You have immediately zoned in your search to the exact details of the person you want to find.

It doesn’t necessarily mean your search will be successful, but it is a good place to start.

By eliminating all other records from the search, you can go through the results much more easily.

Boolean searches can quickly help you find your ancestors

There is also great benefit from using OR and NOT.

Was you relative born in the south west of Ireland, but you don’t know exactly where.

You can use the Boolean search to look for them in Co Kerry OR Co Cork.

If that doesn’t bring up the correct individual, then widen your search.

You now know the records are not registered in Cos Kerry or Cork.

Search again looking in the surrounding areas of Cos Limerick, Clare and Tipperary.

You can instruct the search engines not to include places you have already seen the results for, such as NOT in Co Kerry and NOT in Co Cork.

These instructions can be applied to dates, places, spellings, and gender so can really help you to focus in your searches.

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Key points to take away

  • Using Boolean searches is simpler than you may think. Don’t be intimidated by the new term and start with something easy to gain your confidence in how it works
  • Boolean searches are just mathematical instructions with you telling the search engine which information you consider to be important
  • The small pieces of information you know about your ancestors can quickly help to identify the correct individual.