Professional Family History prides itself on working with original source material to provide research at the highest standard. Often this involves spending hours trawling through old documents at archives (incidentally the only time I’ve ever been asked to wear those white gloves was for my own protection with a particularly filthy set of Quarter Session rolls!).
However, more and material is becoming available online. This is fantastic for us all – high quality research without having to leave your computer! The building blocks of family history research: the GRO (General Register Office) BMD indexes and census returns, have been available online for several years now with the added bonus of having been indexed. The indexing process is not without issue and there are transcription errors. There are two ways around this: Firstly, on the commercial websites such as Ancestry or Find My Past, images of the original documents are there to be viewed and can be browsed page by page if required. Secondly, the information in a census can usually be verified with information from a birth or marriage certificate to verify that the document you have found is the right one. Most importantly when you look at a census return on Ancestry or Find My Past you have access to the reference number of the original document held at The National Archives in London.
The important part here is that even though you are looking at material online you know where it came from. You know what the original source was.
Parish registers are a different story. Some collections are transcriptions of the original images and must therefore be backed up by a search of the originals in the record office, others include register pages images that you can flick through as though you have the register in front of you. The important part again is knowing what is included.
The parish register collection for Cambridgeshire went online on Find My Past some years ago and originally you could click a link to find what parishes are included and over what date ranges. This was particularly important as the collection was not complete.
This all sounds good so far doesn’t it, so what’s changed?
There seems to have been a trend over the last year or so where the big commercial websites are “simplifying” their searches (the searches are a topic worthy of their own blog post). Unfortunately they also seem to have decided to simplify their source information. The breakdown on what is included in parish register collection for Cambridgeshire has all gone. I am sure that more parishes have been added but it seems as though we are expected to “black box” search.
Yesterday Ancestry announced “New Records! England and Wales ‘2007-2013’ Death Index” and created a stir of excitement amongst family historians. Except that, oh no hang on, it’s not actually the GRO indexes. On consulting the source information to discover what exactly this new index includes we find “British Death Indexes. Various sources” and that’s it – no more information. On querying with Ancestry what sources were included I was told that they couldn’t “reveal the source due to contractual obligations”. What?
Why is it important to know the source of the information? Surely if my ancestor’s name pops up that’s it, job done?
There are two reasons. Firstly, it is important to understand what your sources are: I have spent many years understanding the various documentary sources, why they were created and under what circumstances. Only by looking at records in detail can you understand whether indeed your ancestor is likely to be included and if not, why not. For example, many have suggested that the new Death Indexes on Ancestry are based on a probate source – so if your chap didn’t leave a will or go into administration he’s not going to be in there!
Secondly, you need to know how complete a record set is. If I sent a report to you saying “I searched for John in an incomplete set of baptisms for Suffolk and only found one result so that must be right” what would you think? How do you know he wasn’t baptised in one of the parishes not included?
Surely it’s a no brainer? If I don’t know what is included in a data set – how can I know what the results of a search mean?
Locally I don’t seem to find this problem. The Cambridgeshire Baptism Index (available from the Cambridgeshire Family History Society) includes details of all parishes included and over what date range. I can take things a step further by looking on the Cambridgeshire Archives website for details a particular register to see if there were any gaps in dates.
Essex parish registers are available online in digital form and searching is essentially like having the register in front of you at home. The digital register copies are certainly of far higher quality than the microfiche at Essex Archives.
In summary the new index from Ancestry is of no use to me at all professionally as I have no idea what is included and what is not. Similarly, I am sceptical about new parish register collections on Find My Past without any idea of which parishes are included. Simplification is not always good.
My plea to Ancestry and Find My Past is this: PLEASE! Show us your sources!