Show Notes: When you find family history information online you MUST make every effort to find the original genealogy record so that your family tree will be accurate! There are 5 reasons to find original records. I’ll explain what they are, and what to look for so that you get the most information possible for your family tree.
If you’re a genealogy beginner, this video will help you avoid a lot of problems. And if you’re an advanced genealogist, now is the time to fix things.
Watch the Video
#1 Many online records are simply way too vague.
Records come in many forms. Many genealogy websites consider that each name that appears on a document is a “record” when they’re counting records. So, when you hear that 10 million records have been added to a website, it doesn’t necessarily mean that 10 million genealogical documents have been added. It oftentimes means that that’s the number of names that they’ve added.
One document could have a lot of names. In the case of a death certificate, it could have the name of the deceased, the name of the spouse, the name of the informant, and the names of the parents. Each one of those gets counted as a record.
Recently, MyHeritage announced they’ve added 78 million new records to their website. However, many of these records are simply transcriptions, they’re extracting the information from whatever the original source was. That information becomes searchable, and that’s terrific because they are great clues. So, sometimes when you go and look at the records themselves, it turns out that record really is just a transcription. There is no digital record to look at.
Sometimes the website doesn’t even tell you what the original record was. There will be clues, though. You can use those clues and run a search on those words. So, if it talks about a particular location, or type of record, or the name of the record, you could start searching online and find out where are those original records are actually held. Sometimes they are on another genealogy website. But a lot of times, and I’ve seen this more recently, they are publicly available records, oftentimes from governmental agencies. Very recently, we’ve been seeing more recent records that are just selected text. They may be records for people who just passed away a year or two ago.
There are a wide range of places where these types of records can come from. But if that genealogy website got its hands on the record, chances are you could too. And it’s really important to do that.
#2 What’s important to you might not have been prioritized for indexing.
The indexer is a person, or perhaps even an artificial intelligence machine, who has gone through the documents and extracted information and provided it in text form. Sometimes when you search on a genealogy website, all you’re getting is just that typed text, that transcription, of some of the key data from the original document.
I’ll tell you about one example in my family. I was looking at a 2x great grandmother back in Germany. Her name was Louise Leckzyk. She’s listed as Louise Nikolowski in the Ancestry record hint. Technically, that’s true, she was Louise Nikolowski at the time of the birth of her child. But if you pull up the original record, what you discover is she’s not listed as Louise Nikolowski on the record. She’s listed with her maiden name, which was usually the case in those old German church records. So that’s huge. We’ve talked about how challenging it can be to find maiden names here on the Genealogy Gems channel. So, we don’t want to miss any opportunity to get one. But if we had taken this record hint at face value, and just extracted that information, put it in our database, or attached it to our online family tree, and never looked at the original document, we would have completely missed her maiden name. And that maiden name is the key to finding the next generation, her parents.
#3 Not all information on a record is indexed.
It’s very common for large portions of information on a document not to be indexed. Here’s the reason for that: Indexing costs money. When a genealogy company takes a look at a new record collection they have some hard decisions to make. They have to decide which fields of information will be included in the indexing. Oftentimes, there will be several columns, as in a church record or a census record. The 1950 census was an example of this. There’s so much data that the company has to look at that and say, what do we think would be of the most value to our users? They then index those fields. They’ve got to pay to not only have them indexed, but potentially also reviewed human eyes, or AI. That all costs money.
So, there will inevitably be information that gets left off the index. That means that when you search the website you’re going to see the record result, and it can give you the impression that that is the complete record. But very often, it’s not the complete record. Tracking down and taking a look at the original digital scan of the record is the only way to know.
It’s possible that the records have not been digitally scanned. In the case of public government records, that information may have been typed into a database, not extracted from a digital image. There may not be a digital scanned image. It may be very possible that the only original is sitting in a courthouse or church basement somewhere. It’s also possible that the digital images are only available on a subscription website that you don’t subscribe to.
We need to do our best to try to track down the original document and take a look at it to see if there’s anything else that’s of value to us in our research that the indexers or the company just didn’t pick up on or didn’t spend the money to index.
#4 Different websites potentially have different digital scans of the same record.
Websites sometimes collaborate on acquiring and indexing records. In those cases, they might be working with the same digital images. But oftentimes, they create their own digital scans. That means that a record may be darker or lighter, or sharper or blurrier from one website to the next. So while you found the record on one website, another might have a copy that’s much easier to read.
Digital scanning has also come a long way over the years. Many genealogy sites now are looking at some of the earlier scans they did. They’re realizing that some are pretty low quality by today’s standards. They might determine that it’s worth going back and rescanning the record collection. This happened with some of the earliest census records that were digitized many years ago. It makes a lot of sense, because a lot of time has passed, and technology has certainly changed.
So even though you found information many years ago, it might be worth taking a second look if you have any questions about what’s on that document. You may find that that record is actually a newly digitized image on the same website, or you might find that it’s also available somewhere else.
A lot of the partnerships out there are with FamilySearch which is free. So, while you may have a paid subscription to a site like Ancestry or MyHeritage, if there’s anything that you’re questionable on, or you didn’t actually see the original document from one of those paid websites, head to FamilySearch.org. Run a search and see if they happen to have the digitized images. There’s a good chance they might, and it’s worth taking a look.
Sometimes the genealogy website will have tools that allow you to get a better look at the digitized document. Ancestry is a great example of this. On the digitized image page click the tool icon to open the Tools menu. One of my favorite tools is “Invert colors”. Click that button, and it will turn it into a negative image. Sometimes this allows words to pop out in a way that they were not as clearly visible in the normal view.
I downloaded a digital scan from a website several years ago, and it was hard to decipher. I did some searching and was able to find a clearer copy on another website.
#5 You can verify that the words were indexed accurately.
Reviewing a scan of the entire document provides you with a lot of examples of the handwriting of the person who made the entry. If you have any doubt about words or spelling, making comparisons with other entries can be extremely helpful.
When I first looked at a baptismal record of my 2x great grandmother’s son, I thought her surname was Lekcyzk. However, after seeing a different digital scan, I started to question that. Having the original record allows me to review the handwriting of the person who wrote these records. Comparing the handwriting of other entries on the page helped me determine that the swish at the top is the dotting of an eye that just had a bit more flourish. I also reconfirmed that the Z in the name is definitely a Z by comparing it to other Zs on the page.
Bonus Reason: You may have missed the second page.
Some records have more than one page, and it’s easy to miss them. If the indexer took information primarily off of the first page, it may not be obvious when you look at that page, that in fact, it’s a two-page (or more) document. More pages potentially means more valuable information!
It’s also possible that if you downloaded a document years ago when you first started doing genealogy, you might have missed the additional pages. Now that you’re a more experienced researcher, it would be worth going back and looking at particular types of records that are prone to having second pages. Examples of this are:
- census records,
- passenger list,
- passport records,
- criminal records,
- and probate records.
If you have single page records that fall in one of these categories saved to your computer, you might want to go back and do another search for them and check the images that come before and after that page to see if there are more gems to be found.
I hope I’ve convinced you to always make the effort to obtain and review original records for the information that you find while doing genealogy research online.
I’ll bet there’s even more reasons to do this, so I’m counting on you. Please leave a comment and let me know what you’ve found following these 5 reasons, and any additional reasons that you have.
During this giving season, why not give back to the community of global genealogy lovers who quietly and continually enrich our family history research? Here are 4 ways to pay it forward in genealogy from the comfort of wherever you are! One gem you may not have heard of: the British Library’s project to index old maps.
4 Ways to Pay it Forward in Genealogy
1. Help with global gravestone research.
If you’re like me, you’ve probably discovered the final resting places of many an ancestor–perhaps along with important biographical data and even additional relatives–with the help of websites such as BillionGraves and Find A Grave.
BillionGraves says it’s “the world′s largest resource for searchable GPS cemetery data, and is growing bigger and better every day.” Its volunteers take GPS-tagged pictures of headstones in cemeteries around the world and transcribe them for their free searchable database.
How you can help:
- Image headstones: download the free app to your smartphone from the App Store or Google Play. Take images of headstones in cemeteries you visit, whether it’s your own ancestor’s burial place or a local graveyard.
- Transcribe personal information found on gravestone images. You can transcribe the images you take or you can visit the site and transcribe images that someone else has uploaded. Click here to get started.
- Upload additional source documentation to BillionGraves tombstone images, such as obituaries, cemetery records, and the like. You’ll make these virtual gravestone sites even more genealogically valuable! Click here to learn more.
Find A Grave has a slightly different model for collecting global gravestone data. Here you can create free memorial pages for ancestors, which “generally include birth, death, and burial information and may include pictures, biographies, family information, and more.” You can also upload your own headstone images and transcribe them (or someone else’s images), and you can even upload a spreadsheet of cemetery burials you may have already transcribed.
Who’s behind Find A Grave? It’s owned by subscription website Ancestry.com, but it’s a separate, free site powered by volunteers: “Thousands of contributors submit new listings, updates, corrections, photographs and virtual flowers every hour. The site simply wouldn’t exist without the million+ contributors.”
Find A Grave has recently updated its site to make it more secure, faster, easier to use, and accessible to new devices and other languages. More than 100 million graves from over half a million cemeteries worldwide are already searchable at the site. To get started, download the Find A Grave app at Google Play or the App Store, or just visit the website.
2. Transcribe old documents and maps.
Millions–even billions–of digital images of old documents contain genealogical clues, but those names, dates, and places need to be extracted from those image files before they become easily searchable. Transcribing that information is also known in genealogy circles as indexing (or creating indexes). Here are four places to contribute your indexing skills:
FamilySearch Indexing. Thousands of you have likely participated in this best-known volunteer record transcription project out there. (We blogged about it recently in honor of their worldwide weekend indexing event.) Their indexing platform recently became fully cloud-based, so you can index more easily on your computer or mobile device. Volunteers are especially needed right now who can read Spanish, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Russian, Japanese, Polish, Swedish, and Dutch.
British Library Georeferencing Project. The British Library is recruiting volunteers to help geo-reference thousands of old maps that are already online. Geo-referencing, or geotagging, means assigning geographic reference points (longitude, latitude) to points on a map image. Doing this with old maps allows them to be linked to their modern-day locations, allowing us to compare the past and present (as Lisa teaches about in her free Google Earth video class). Over 8,000 maps have already been “placed” by participants (and subsequently checked for accuracy and approved by their panel of expert reviewers). The latest phase of the project includes 50,000 maps, mostly 19th-century maps from books published in Europe. The British Library says that “some places have changed significantly or disappeared completely,” increasing both the intriguing challenges for volunteers and the value to those who will benefit from their map sleuthing skills.
Ancestry World Archives Project. “The Ancestry World Archives Project is thousands of volunteers from around the world with a passion for genealogy and a desire to help others discover their roots,” says the project home page. “And all it takes is a computer, some basic software we provide and a little of your time.” Even though Ancestry.com itself is a subscription website, any records indexed through the Ancestry World Archives Project remain free to search on the site.
Here’s a screenshot of their current projects (click on it to visit the site):
National Archives Citizen Archivist Program. “A Citizen Archivist is a virtual volunteer that helps the U.S. National Archives increase the online access to their historical records,” reports Melissa Barker in a recent blog post. “This is done by crowdsourcing metadata about their records through tagging, transcribing, and adding comments to the U.S. National Archives catalog.” Click here to read the full article and get started.
3. Reunite heirlooms with long-lost relatives.
Probably millions of “lost” family items are out there: in flea markets, second-hand shops, online auction listings, perhaps even your own closets or attics. Genealogy Gems has reported many times in the past about genealogy heroes who claim these “orphaned heirlooms” just long enough to research and contact living relatives who would love to find them.
Whether it’s a family bible, an old marriage certificate in a dusty frame, a fading photo album, or a pile of old letters, each “orphaned heirloom” is unique–and so is the experience of tracking down its family and reuniting them. Here are several stories to inspire your next visit to eBay or a secondhand shop:
- World War II dog tag finally returns to family
- Packet of labeled photos, school records, dance cards and letters home to Mom and Dad returned via Ancestry
- Orphaned WWI medal comes home via Facebook
- Facebook users reunite a bible with its family
4. Solve “unclaimed persons” mysteries.
“Many people are aware that it can be a real challenge when a coroner obtains a John or Jane Doe, an unidentified person,” writes Lacey Cooke, Genealogy Gems service manager, who has a forensic anthropology degree. “It presents the difficult task of identifying the person. But few people know that in fact the even bigger problem consuming morgues today is unclaimed persons, rather than unidentified ones: individuals who have passed but with no trace of living relatives to come and claim them.”
Lacey is the one who introduced us to the Unclaimed Persons project earlier this year. With Unclaimed Persons, an online community of volunteer researchers joins forces with medical examiners, forensic investigators, and coroners to help reunite families and bring closure so that the dead can finally be laid to rest. Click here to read more about that effort.
How will you pay it forward in genealogy?
Click on one of the opportunities above–or tell us about one you’ve tried–to give back to your genealogy community this season. This largely-invisible community is all around us and enriches all our efforts, from late-night research sessions by ourselves (in records indexed by volunteers!) to local societies who host classes that inspire us or who answer our obituary inquiries and Facebook posts about their locales. If you are already one of those volunteers, THANK YOU. You are a gem and we here at Genealogy Gems are grateful for you.
P.S. You can also “pay it forward” by sharing free content like this from our website with your genealogy friends and society members. Why not link to this post on social media or in an email and challenge those you know to do good in the genealogy world?