Creating an Internet Database for Your Research Documents

Carmen J. Finley, C.G., Ph.D.

[National Genealogical Society Computer Interest Group, vol. 15, no. 6 (November December 1996)]

For those of us who really want to get down to the nitty gritty of genealogical research, wouldn't it be great if we could just go online to read land, probate, tax, census, military, church and other records for our ancestors? The Internet is sprouting all kinds of databases containing surname lists and some of the census, marriage, and other primary records are beginning to appear both on the Net and on CD-ROMs. But just think folks, most of what is available is secondary data. It is really great to find someone on a surname list who shares our research interests, but we all know the quality of the information we get from others depends ultimately on the primary records on which the information is based and the care with which the researcher copies and records his source of information.

It was my concern for quality in genealogical research that led me to explore and establish a system through the library of our local university that would allow me to set up a database in which citations to the documents from my personal files could be entered and accessed by others. We are now approaching two years since the initial planning began and, at this point, there exists a Finley Family History database that contains over 500 citations to individual primary documents, abstracts from standard secondary sources, and correspondence and research reports from my personal files. If you read no further than this you can access this database at:

If you want to know the details read on.

First Steps

In my case, the first step was to approach the institution, Sonoma State University at Rohnert Park, California, to express my interest and find out what might be involved in developing a database and depositing copies of the transcriptions together with copies of many of the documents in their Ruben Salazar Library. My point of contact was the Vice President for Development, who was very receptive to the idea. He felt this could be done, but I would have to foot the bill for the time it would take staff to develop the system. After he consulted with the library staff, we negotiated a fee and got down to serious work.

Preliminary Planning

Once the agreement was made, I met with three senior librarians. They were, by title, the Head Cataloguer and Documents Librarian, a Reference Librarian and Head of Document Delivery, and a librarian in the Cataloging Department specializing in local databases. The Special Collections Librarian would have been involved, but was on sabbatical leave during this phase of the planning. We spent a fair amount of time over three or four meetings discussing the types of documents I had that I wanted to deposit with them. I brought samples of the various documents--deeds, wills, inventories, court orders, tax lists, census records, military records, research reports, correspondence, photographs, maps, and a GEDCOM of my PAF database. Giving the library staff as complete a picture as I could of the types of documents I had was a very important first step. Next, the librarian in charge of preparing local databases designed a MARC form (that is a standard library format for creating citations), that would accommodate the basic information contained in these documents and would give me a systematic way to enter information that could be searched online.

It was an interesting first few months. I knew nothing about the technicalities of librarianship and they knew nothing about genealogy. But gradually we began to understand what each had to offer and a plan emerged. The librarian in charge of designing the system, Mary Dolan, took my sample documents and, using the MARC form she had designed, entered about ten or fifteen citations. The MARC system is a database but, as Mary said, "It is not like any other database you have ever known." It was a couple of months before I fully understood what she meant!!

Preparing the Data

Mary used my sample documents to create the first few citations online. Here are a few typical completed forms. The bold numbers and characters in the first example are what you see when you log onto the database and prepare to enter your information. They are the codes that determine how the citation appears on your screen.


245: 10 ; a Benjamin McKnight pension application, Fauquier County, Virginia, 30 August 1820. $

300: ; a transcription, 2 pp. $

520: : a Pension application of Benjamin McKnight gives service record during Revolutionary War. $

510; 4 ; a Fauquier County, Virginia, court records, 30 August 1820. $

541: ; a McFarling Family Collection; Carmen Finley Papers; $ c gift; $ d 1994.


690; ; a McKnight, Benjamin, $ d 175?-1848. $

690; ; a Farquier County, Virginia. $

690; ; a Pensions. $

690; ; a Revolutionary War. $


245; 10 ; a Southern Maryland and the Northern Neck of Virginia. $

300; ; a map, 1 p. $

520; ; a Map showing the proximity of Chaptico, Maryland to King George County, Virginia. $

510; 4 ; a Acquired form St. Mary's Historical Society, Leonardtown, Maryland. $

541; ; a McFarling Family Collection: Carmen Finley Papers, $ c gift; $ d 1994. $


690; ; a St. Mary's County, Maryland. $

690; ; a King George County, Virginia. $

690; ; a Maps. $


245; 10 ; a E.M. and R.K. York to James McFarling, 36 acres on Napa River adjacent to Charles Krug, 19 December 1882, Napa County, California. $

300: : a transcript, 1 p. $

520; ; a James McFarling's purchase of property in Napa County. $

510: ; a Napa County, California, Office of the Recorder, Deed Book K:33. $

541; ; a McFarling Family Collection; Carmen Finley Papers; $ c gift; $ d 1994. $


690; ; a McFarling, James, $ d 1821-1889. $

690; ; a Krug, Charles. $

690; ; a Napa County, California. $

690; ; a Land records.


245; 10 ; a Alice Victoria Hackney McFarling, 1860-1934. $

300; ; a photographs. $

520; ; a Three portraits of Alice Victoria Hackney McFarling, at various ages. $

541; ; a McFarling Family Collection; Carmen Finley Papers; $ c gift; $ d 1994.


690; ; a McFarling, Alice Victoria Hackney, $ d 1860-1934 x photograph. $


The standard MARC form uses more fields than are seen here. Unused fields are deleted and the subject fields, the 690s, can be expanded to suit the number of subject entries you wish to make. Briefly, the fields shown above are the most frequently used in my database and are defined as follows:

100: This field is reserved for the name of the author, if there is one.

245: This is the title found on the document which is filed in Special Collections.

300: This is a physical description of the item.

520: Gives a summary or abstract of the information found in the document.

541: Gives the source of the information. This field is changed when I begin a new major family line. At this point my opening screen says "Finley Family Collection . . ."

500: Gives the location within the library where the material is housed.

690: Is the subject field and open to the imagination and energy of the person doing the data entry. You can enter as many descriptors as you wish which will help the researcher find what he wants in your files. Generally it should include the names of the individuals referenced in the document, the locations, and the type of material to be found in the document.

Entering the Data

After I had prepared the first thirty or so forms offline, I made a trip to the library and got my first lesson on how to enter the information into the university's VAX computer. Mary was right; this is like no other database with which I am familiar. All the controls for moving from one field to another, adding or deleting field or subfields, inserting characters, correcting mistakes, etc., are on the keypad. At this point Leah Bloomfield, a library assistant in the Cataloging Department, took on the task of teaching me. After entering three or four citations, I went home to try to do the same thing from my computer.

My communications package at the time I began this project was PROCOMM PLUS. It worked just fine for accessing Internet, sending e-mail and the like. I found I was able to log on and reach my database, but when I tried to enter data, the keypad did not function. At this point Phil Huang, the Systems Librarian, came to the rescue. He provided me with a communications program, KERMIT, that did allow my keypad to function the way it should and I was on my way. The first fifty entries were the hardest!

During this period, Leah was monitoring my work from her desk at the library. If I had questions, I would send her an e-mail message and she would answer me the same way. We met again after I had entered the first fifty or so citations. She reviewed some of the finer points of classifying documents and entering data with me, and she caught a few duplicate records that had crept in. It was comforting to know she was there and was concerned about the quality of my work.

I chose to enter my McFarling line first because it was medium-sized in terms of the number of documents I had and it had a fairly wide range of different kinds of documents. It set the stage for work on my Finley line which is much larger. There were about 175 McFarling or related documents and photos. I work by major family lines and by state within the family. My database now has about 515 citations. I have been working my way through the Finleys in Pennsylvania, Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Indiana. I still have to do the Carolinas, Illinois, Missouri and California. Then I will move on to other major family lines.

From the User's Point of View

When the user logs onto the Finley Family History database, he can search by author, title, or subject just as with any standard library citation. In 1993 I had asked Christine Rose to do some research for me on one of my knotty Finley problems in Cumberland and Franklin Counties, Pennsylvania. She uncovered a great quantity of material and presented me with a thirteen page report. A person searching on the subject James Finley, John Finley, Cumberland County, Franklin County, land records, or court records would find her report listed among others. Searching on Franklin County would bring a list of thirty citations; among them is the report prepared for me by Christine Rose. A partial listing follows:

Because my files include probate records in Southern states, I chose to make it possible to search on the subject "slaves." There are, at this point, eleven documents which list the names of slaves and sometimes give other information about them. Searching on the subject "slave" will bring up this list:

When a researcher finds a item of interest and wants to see the document, it can be ordered through the SSU Ruben Salazar Library Special Collections Department. Current charges are at the rate of 10 per page. What the researcher gets is whatever is described in the entry and sometimes that may also include a copy of the actual document if it is a probate or land record. I am told that the technology is "just around the corner" for making the material on deposit available in full text form as a part of this database.

What's Next?

Currently there are plans on the horizon to make available online the full text of several papers which I have published in various genealogical journals. As of this date I have permission to do so from three of the four publishers involved, the National Genealogical Society Quarterly, The American Genealogist, and Tennessee Ancestors. These will be linked to the citations in the database and it will be possible for the researcher to read and download the full text of those articles. By the time this article is published, chances are this will have happened.

I fully realize that the utility of my database is limited to those persons who share interests in my family and the collateral lines. However, the methodology has been established and tested. Its viability for others to do the same will depend on their interest, their ability to find a host university or major library that will share in their interests, and their own ability to make it work. This should only be a matter of time and effort.

Carmen J. Finley, Ph.D., C.G. is a retired research psychologist. Her interest in genealogy began in 1979 and she started publishing articles in 1988, her first in the NGS Quarterly. Since then she has published additional articles in the NGS Quarterly as well as in The Virginia Genealogist, The American Genealogist and Tennessee Ancestors. She is especially interested in methodology as it applies to the study of family history. She has been chairman of the NGS Family History Contest since 1990 for which she recently received the NGS Distinguished Service Award. Her e-mail address is