The Geographic Names Information System(GNIS) is one of the greatest boons to those of us who love maps. It’s an extensive database of place names created by the US Geological Survey, and includes cities, towns, communities, crossroads, schools, churches, mountains, rivers, etc,. etc. Basically, any place in the US that has a name is in the database. The database includes coordinates, county, and other basic information about that location.
I’ve used and referenced the GNIS data on this blog many times. The raw data is freely available for download, and I have downloaded just the South Carolina data to create my South Carolina Place Names application. If you’ve ever used a GPS or looked up a location on an online mapping system, you’ve encountered GNIS data. Unfortunately, some companies use this freely available data to flood the web with crappy websites that pollute search results and interfere with the ability to do any meaningful online research about an area.
Here an example…
Yesterday my sister Glynda and I drove through the communities of Stomp Springs and Renno on our way back from visiting our parents in Prosperity. It’s a historical area, and we snapped a few photos and looked at the ruins of the old towns. When I got home I wanted to find more information about the area, so I did a quick Google search for Renno, SC. Here’s the first page of results. You’ll want to click to enlarge…
Most of the pages are for “hometown locators” and various real estate companies. There were even multiple websites for various cable companies. This goes on for multiple search pages – basically a spamming of the Internet based on the GNIS data.
A couple of these sites look like they may have useful information. Some of the real estate sites look like they have links to information about local government, weather, or anything else someone considering moving into the area might want to know. A closer look, though, shows that this is just using an algorithm to pull in the data based on the coordinates, and some of it may not be accurate. For example, the link for historic landmarks pulled up locations all over the state, and not just around Renno.
The other problem is that most of these websites are linking to the SAME data – over and over again. The result is an unusable mess of links with very little real information. The search engine doesn’t matter. I tried this with a number of search engines and got similar results. Some even tried to auto-correct, and returned results for Reno, NV.
So, if you’re like me and love to explore remote and unknown towns in the state, where do you go to find information about those towns? The best source of information is ALWAYS the local library or newspaper, and any serious research ought to start there. However, there are some strategies that will produce results.
1. Refine search terms.
This should go without saying. Adding the terms “history” or “genealogy” might work, and well as anything else specific to that area. Also try using the minus sign to eliminate terms, such as -“real estate”. Google’s Advanced Search will also help refine the terms.
2. Try different file types.
In Google’s Advanced Search you can also search for specific file types. I find it useful to search specifically for PDF files with my search terms. Many reports from official (and semi-official) state agencies are published online as PDF files, and these can contain a wealth of information. You might also try Microsoft Office file types such as .doc and .ppt.
3. Search Google Books.
You might start by searching for books about the county or a nearby city, then by searching for the terms within that book. Even if the entire book isn’t available online, lots of times there are are previews with enough information to get you started, or at the very least a title name with which you can follow-up at a library.
4. Start somewhere other than a search engine.
South Carolina has an excellent online digital library at www.scmemory.org. This contains links to other online digital libraries at South Carolina universities, and most of these can be searched from the SCMemory interface. The South Carolina Department of Archives also has some great online resources. Other good sources are SCIWay.net and the Library of Congress. South Carolina residents also have access to the DISCUS databases.
Of course, as I look at these suggestions, I realize that these are good suggestions for ANY online research, and not just looking up the history of places. And perhaps, that’s what learning how to do research is all about – honing the ability to cut through the cruft and get to the true information.