Tips on How to Search for Persons

Please send any comments or suggestions to jsoutter @ uwindsor . ca

This is not a guide intended for genealogical research but to assist you in finding information to create a profile or short biography of a person. The Leddy Library's Archives has a guide for those interested, titled Genealogical Resources in the Archives. You might also, for Indigenous persons, check out RBCM@Home: Indigenous Genealogy (video, 59 min) with a BC focus (ideas for records held elsewhere) and a Library and Archives (LAC) presentation (starting at around 30 minutes) of their databases. Also LAC offers this page on Indigenous Geneaology.
Please Keep in Mind!
  • Gaps in digitized materials not born-digital: covers roughly the turn of the century until the 1980s and 1990s.
  • Members of small or marginalized groups, including marginalized genders: there may be few resources available, these are in another language in which you may not be fluent, or they were not covered because these people were considered of less importance or culturally divergent, e.g. women, non-binary persons, Indigenous persons.
  • Digital or electronic colonialism: a continuing issue as the dominant culture(s) prioritize the digitization of their materials.
  • Optical Character Recognition: the problem of resources and writing/training programs to recognize languages so documents may be digitized and searchable using OCR. 
  • Genealogical research? Try your public library AND the public library local to where the person resided, the closest university archive, regional, provincial, or federal archive. Many guides are available online, including our Archives, at Genealogical Resources in the Archives. Look to Order in Council lists for immigrants, sponsors, Indigenous enfranchisement, and exit permits.
How to Search
  • Most important tip: don't forget the double quotes to force the search software to search for phrases. For example: "Mrs Smith" "Anna Smith" "Annie Smith" "Association of x" "University of x"
  • Second most important tip: record your searches. Why? Because as you combine searches using a mix of the suggestions below, e.g. "Mrs Smith" and "Association of x" vs "Annie Smith and "Association of x" you will start to lose track. I've been searching for information on persons for longer than you, and I lose track if I forget to record my searches.
Searching by Personal Name(s)
  • What is their given name?  Did someone get married or is considered common-law spouse? Did take their partner's name? Do they use both their given name and their partner's name? Do they have any nicknames or a popular name (first or last)? 
  • In the case of Indigenous persons they may have an Anglophone or Francophone name in addition to their given name. Plus has their Indigenous name changed over time for cultural reasons?
  • If looking for background information, considering searching for parent, aunts/uncles, sibling names or famous ancestors to see what information is available on their history.
Where to Search
  • Try our Library newspapers for coverage and if using Google, don't forget the News option.
  • Biographical sources such as the Dictionary of Canadian Biography, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, and relevant subject databases/the library catalogue in case journal articles/books have been written about the person. If they are a politician, relevant government websites might be helpful. Parish records or religious organizations' archives might even be applicable, as may FindAGrave. Look to Order in Council lists for immigrants, sponsors, Indigenous enfranchisement, and exit permits.
  • Try other University's Archive webpages to locate archives of freely available newspapers from those regions/areas.
  • Use both Google and Google Scholar. I inadvertently discovered someone had co-published an article, and the about section in the article offered rich data about the person's work history.
  • Social media plaforms such as Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and Instagram. Tools and tips for digging into Facebook from two investigative journalists.
  • Association/professional membership directories.
Other Searching Suggestions
  • Search by job/profession, by charity, by activist group, by activity. Also consider organizations, associations,and other institutions with which they might be associated.
  • Discover more searching ideas by using "resume" or "c.v." in your search to discover work history.
  • Do they associate themselves with any particular cultural group(s)? If the person is Indigenous, search by First Nation, other group name, reserve(s), or if belong to more than one cultural group, the name of that other group.
  • Are they associated with any geographic places? Any schools?
  • Did they receive awards, medals, honorary titles?
  • Add "obituary" to the search if the person is deceased.
Library Guides from Other Libraries
It is difficult to provide meaningful guides as they prioritize resources available at their own libraries, and for web-based resources, the majority of those may require subscriptions.
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