• Devon Noel Lee

Find More Genealogy Discoveries Using the Ancestry Card Catalog


Screenshot of Ancestry card catalog with title Ancestry's Card Catalog

Have you struggled to find records on Ancestry to document your ancestors? Perhaps you're overlooking the one resource that can help you make amazing discoveries. If you haven't found or begun using the Card Catalog page, you miss out on a professional genealogy level tool.

What is the Card Catalog on Ancestry?


While I vaguely remember using a filing cabinet of 3x5 cards to locate books in my elementary school library, many can't remember what an actual library card catalog log is. Instead, we visualize the digital database for our local libraries where we can search for books, movies, and audio records by Title, Subject, Author, and Series.

On Ancestry, the Card Catalog is a searchable list of the available books, documents, and datasets available for subscribers. Many of the collections have collection-specific search forms or access points to browse the images digitally.

With over 27 billion records from over 80 countries, Ancestry.com has many data for the genealogy industry. But at the micro-researcher level, meaning Y-O-U, how can you access what you need to climb your family tree? The Ancestry Card Catalog has organized all of the available collections to make it easier to uncover hidden genealogy records not found through hints and search forms.

Don't you just love modern genealogy and the automatic hinting available from family history websites? However, experienced researchers know that computer algorithms can not find everything for us. (Darn it!)

We have to do our own manual searches. While you can search frequently used records, such as the US Census collections, you will not access every collection from the general search forms via the search forms. To get the most out of Ancestry, we have to dive into the Card Catalog.

Get It Out of the Way and Search For Your Surname

One of the least valuable ways to use the Ancestry Card Catalog is to search for a person. You'll regularly come to this resource page to find a collection by other terms and then look for your ancestor within the results.

However, let's get this out of the way and tell you where to search for your surname in the card catalog.

In the top right column of the Ancestry Catalog page, you'll see a box marked "Keyword." For simplicity's sake, type in your surname into that box.


While my last name Geiszler, Geissler, and Gei*ler returned no search results, the last name Townsend had 35 published genealogies for me to explore. I was afraid to use the name Comfort, but it didn't break the search form, which was nice.



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The Better Way to Use the Card Catalog


If you want to become a better genealogist, like Crista Cowan, you go to the database collection listing to find a collection and then search for a name. You also look for historical context and reference material to understand your research project better or write a family history.

Watch the full search process in this step-by-step family history how-to video:

Video: Ancestry Card Catalog: Search for Ancestors Beyond the Hints

Start With a Question

Successful genealogy investigations depend on quality research questions for finding answers. Once you have a target person in mind, genealogy research depends on time and location, not names.

When visiting the Card Catalog page on Ancestry, your goal is to find all the available record collections for a specific time and location where your ancestor lived. As such, you won't type in your ancestor's name but filter the more than 30,000 databases to a region and a date range.


Once you find a relevant records collection that might answer your question, you can either investigate the documents using a collection-only search form or browse the images.

Filter By Location


Since genealogy research relies on location-based investigations, start by filtering down to a narrow region and then expand out.


As you filter the databases, you will discover collections including genealogical recordset, genealogical society publications, county histories, reference guides, indexes to other records, manuscript collections, and more.

If you are researching the parish of Natchitoches, Louisiana, United States, you will find a collection that you can browse or search. I can type in the name Robert Durr and find entries that reference court cases. You will need to track down those records from the Natchitoches Court House.


For any location, filter down as far as you can go, then work your way to the largest political region. Be mindful of boundary changes. You can learn more about the relevant boundary changes for your location using the FamilySearch Wiki.

Filter By Category


Each time I talk about the filter by a category, I call it the filter by record type. Ah well. On Ancestry, you'll see the option to filter by type. Since some collections are not specific to a narrow location, you may want to filter by record types such as probate or city directories.



Screenshot of Ancestry Card Catalog page
Ancestry Card Catalog Page

Search By Title or Keyword


You may not know the exact title for a specific collection but rather a general idea. Use the Title search box to key in something like "New Jersey Census" for a list of state census and census substitutes for the Garden State.


The problem with a title search becomes apparent when you enter a term that isn't in the title. For instance, if you type the term "jail" into the search box, you only receive three results. If you search by keyword, you have four.


The reason is that the title lacks the term jail, but the collection description does contain it. Thus, a keyword search might be better than a title search. Try them both to see.

But, it would help if you tried variations of the keywords. Synonyms for jail could be prison or incarceration. The Title and Keyword search will not find a synonym search. You have to think of them yourself. Or, you can find many of them using the filter by category or by location.


Some possible topics for your keyword search include:

  • Catholic

  • Baptist

  • Civil War

  • Slave

  • Narratives

  • Poor House

  • Foundling

  • Deaf


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What to Do Once You Find a Collection of Interest

BEFORE you start typing in names or browsing pages, stop.

Please stop.

And read the collection's information section. After reading this summary, you might discover the resource might not cover what you had hoped it would. You might also learn a few valuable tips and techniques for working with the collection.


Do not reduce your chances of success by failing to read what the Ancestry content curators have written for your benefit.

Then explore the database and documents. Come to know the historical context for your ancestor or discover new details specifically about them.

What To Do After You Made a Discovery

Once you've found great discoveries on Ancestry, you can now transfer them to FamilySearch and other platforms. And maybe those discoveries will provide information that you wish to highlight about an ancestor using the MyTreeTags tool.



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