The nature of databases and paper-based genealogy has changed nearly as much as DNA genealogy itself.
If you tried ancestry.com five years agoIf you tried ancestry.com five years ago, and didn't find it useful, try again. The strength of the site is definitely in the period after 1800. But what a strength, due to interlocking search algorithms.
REALLY Robust Search Algorithms - If you subscribe to the "worldwide" package, ancestry now seamlessly finds individuals that have left one country for another one. If you have someone who was an immigrant to New York or Upper Canada or New South Wales, it is almost magic the way the robust search algorithms find him in Cornwall or East Yorkshire. As always it is a tougher road when someone comes from Ireland, but even from there the search works better than expected.
The Next Generation Trick - In many places, for example in Ontario or Maine, births, marriages and especially deaths were recorded consistently from the 1860s or so. And after 1900 the death certificates, and marriage certificates, increasingly gave the full father's name, and more importantly the mother's name.
Thus, if you suspect a particular couple even MAY be a part of your family, tentatively fill in the family, including all the children. Then perform those magical search algorithms on the children. Up come the results, with marriage and death records - inspect those, and with a little luck, you have the names of both parents. Now you can go back and search further, having the wife's full name.
The massed array of interlocking databases - Ancestry has now reached a point where it has thousands of massive databases that can be searched, either alone or in tandem. For example, if you are looking for an Eastern European emigrant who arrived in New York, perhaps after the pogroms of 1882, you can search both the New York (and other east coast) passenger lists, and the Hamburg, Germany departure lists. It is the interlocking nature of these databases that makes them especially useful.
In Ireland, the tithe applotments for all Ireland are online, although there are many errors. So too are the Victorian 6 inches = 1 mile maps, to more easily find those townlands, and determine close relationships.
U-shaped Genealogy - One of the great wonders of ancestry.com today, most especially in England, is doing what I call "U-shaped Genealogy". If you trace your ancestors back into the mid-19th century or before, you can also trace through ancestry.com and freebmds website back along other descendant lines to the present. In dozens of cases I have found living descendants that never left the area their ancestors lived in. In many of those cases they had more detailed family stories, and photographs in the post-1840 world of images. In some cases they can correct your errors, or have their own research to share.
Family Files as a Lure - Share your results. It pays off. Put your family material up on open files in ancestry.com and you are guaranteed that others with connections will come calling. Share and you will be rewarded 100-times over with new information that pushes back your own research into the more distant past.
These are not the entire bag-of-tricks offered by ancestry.com today, but it does make their "worldwide" subscription seem reasonable at $300 per year.
The Mormon website has changed, if you haven't used it in the past year or two. Instead of an "IGI" where there are infinite numbers of errors that are passed on, again and again, this LDS site has gone strongly towards actual databases of records.
Familysearch.org does not have the robust, magical search algorithms employed by ancestry.com, but they are still very useful indeed, especially since you can bore in on particular databases.
If you had ancestors that went to India in the military and were married there, or if you are just looking for New York City marriages, there are new and exciting databases that really do solve problems and push back the unknown.
Some real gems are not even databased. The LDS (Latter Day Saints) familysearch.org online resources include virtually the entire set of ship arrival manifests for New York City - and they are as crystal clear as modern imaging can make them. So if you are seeking a family coming in 1885 or whatever, you can actually read the manifests - they are neither too light nor too faint. Amazing, really.
The other point is that the records are world-wide in nature.
Ordering Films - As many will know, the LDS Family History Centres have now gone to online ordering of films, and strangely it is hard to find the address on the website. It is:
You will need to set up an account, and bring out that VISA card again, but what are VISA card numbers for, except solving genealogical puzzles.
This is a place that I personally have a love/hate relationship with. This subscription-based British company has many of the 19th century military pensions online; pensions that formerly required searches at the UK National Archives in Kew.
It is amazing how many men received some form of pension for their service in the Napoleonic Wars, and the pension records provide a goldmine of information, beginning with the place they were born, often in the 18th century.
The exasperating part is that I have found the transcriptions to be of little value, since so many of them were mis-transcribed. Instead, if you have a name, go directly to the scans yourself. And even there errors appear, as I found at least three with the wrong person's file associated with the name, and in other cases names that appeared in the UK National Archives' own database did not have files in the findmypast.co.uk database.
The point to be made by these examples is that new approaches are surfacing that go beyond the traditional search of either paper records or of "traditional" databases. It is more than just new material appearing online and elsewhere. It is the way the search methods are far more inclusive, or in some cases can be far more precise in looking at new databases that were not available a few years ago.
The internet itself, is of course an incredible resource. It is so easy to track down individuals, or to make a connection to search material in Russia, or southern France, or in Argentina for that matter.
Connecting these new "traditional" techniques to genetic genealogy will be left for another article.