Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Do you love digital records? Pros and Cons?

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At first glance I’m sure most of us would readily agree. After all, what’s not to like in being able to search various genealogical records at any time, day or night, wherever you are in the world. The heavy hitters of the genealogy world, Ancestry, Find My Past, My Heritage, Family Search, and a plethora of others, keep offering us a smorgasbord of delightful records from various countries.  Archives and Reference Libraries also have been motivated by the growth of the family history industry to digitise some of their records, and index others. Among these, Australia’s Trove is a totally free wonderland of treasures of all sorts. You might be surprised how many overseas stories are covered there.

Similarly it’s great that, no matter where we live, we can become friends with people we’ve never met in person but with whom we share a passion for all things genealogical – this blog being just one example of collaboration without geographical boundaries.

So why am I even asking what might be classed a rhetorical question? Let me explain.

I’m a geneadinosaur having started my research when personal computers were in the infancy of their use and had vastly less memory than today’s memory sticks. Archives and reference libraries were meant for “serious” researchers and genealogists really weren’t catered for to any great extent. This made for a tough learning curve but it did generate determination, record discrimination, and some grassroots acquisition of knowledge.

With some pretty tight closure periods to data it also made for a good exercise in lateral thinking as to how to find the information you wanted. For example, death indexes closed? Search newspapers (via microfilm), request searches for death certificates, look for family names in funeral notices, search cemeteries (on site), and use funeral director’s books.

So am I advocating a return to the “good ol' days”?

Not at all but I do think there are some things which we can tend to miss when viewing shaky leaves or findings via other online options.
  • I  think one of the biggest issues with digital records is the tendency to zero straight in on ”your” one record and only that one….I know I do it sometimes. 
When you’re looking at an online census record (or any other) do you go straight to the name you’ve been searching for ?
Do you look at the adjoining pages to see if there’s family nearby?
Do you hunt down missing family members in case they’re staying with extended family?
Do you look to see what sort of neighbourhood they live in, who their neighbours were, and their occupations?
What standard of housing they’re living in? 

  • Do you document the source you’ve used to find that information? I’ll bet a fiver that each and every one of us has made that omission, especially in the early days of our research!
  • Do you explore what else is available for your place of interest by searching by place name? Most of the big genie-resources let you do that and you may find that there’s a totally unexpected record that might be of relevance to your search.
  • Do you quickly conclude that if you can’t find something in one of the online sources do you assume it just doesn’t exist? Do you check the timeframe for the specific record you’re searching? You might also want to check the catalogues for the archives in your ancestral places.
  • Do you use Family Search’s catalogue to see what they have offline? There is so much available that still isn’t digitised. I often see queries from people with Irish ancestry, for example, where the microfilms are available for ordering in at a pittance. Many a genealogical problem can be solved by eye-balling the original microfilmed document. You are the one familiar with your family and you’re more likely to pick up families whose names have been spelled inconsistently, or where occupations or townlands might solve your mystery. 
  • How do you maintain your genealogical information? In narrative form? In a genealogy program? Online? What are the benefits of each? I’ve often mentioned on my blog that I find genealogy programs like a straight-jacket: useful for the lineage but not the nuances, or perhaps that’s just the gap in how I use them. For years I’ve used an Australian program called Relatively Yours because it allowed me to add the sort of biographical nuances typical of families. However for various reasons I’m about to change track and move across to Family Historian…I’m hoping it will stack up favourably based on geminate recommendations.
    Image from http://www.keepcalm-o-matic.co.uk/
    How do you keep track of what you’ve got? Do you maintain a research log? Put everything in Evernote? Store digital files, preferably with a consistent naming format? 
I confess to being too haphazard in this regard and I need to do quite a bit of work tidying up my computer files. With decades of information and a mountain of paper files to digitise it will keep me busy.

It seems I’m not alone in this data confusion judging by the buzz round the geneaglobe generated by Thomas MacEntee’s Genealogy Do-Over and there’s heaps of ideas coming from the Facebook group.

  • Do you go back and look over your files, digital or hard copy to check your data recording is correct and you’ve absorbed all the information on each document?
  •  Do you purchase documents you need, especially certificates? Again, I’m often surprised by “brick walls” which could be knocked down with a relatively small expenditure. Yes, the costs add up but it’s cheaper than golf or sailing or…and they can always be presents.
  • Having found the document, saved it and documented it, do you then forget all about it as it disappears into your computer system?
  • Are you overwhelmed by the sheer avalanche of information coming out almost daily? How do you approach the process systematically? I’d certainly like to hear your ideas on that!
    Image from shutterstock.com
During 2015 I’m hoping to have a spring-clean of the record copies I hold. I’ll be digitising them (partly as a safety strategy given the risk of cyclones); slowly checking my file names and reviewing what I have and what I need to follow up. Here’s what I wrote about my 2015 goals.

So what’s your position on the pros and cons of digitised records, or more importantly, how we use them in our research? Please share your thoughts in the comments…I’d certainly like to hear them.


  1. I find that I have accumulated so many records that I have been spending time getting them in order rather than doing any research. I am hoping that by doing this I may prevent repeating searches for something I already have in my records. The online records are a temptation so when my subscription to Ancestry is due for renewal I will probably postpone it and I may do the same with Find My Past.
    The records will be there when I need them and Ancestry is available at the library.

    1. Hilary, you've given me food for thought about suspending your online subs for a while....it has a lot of merit but also makes me feel a little like hyperventilating :) I REALLY need to spend time sorting, labelling and reviewing my research discoveries.

    2. Hilary, I know what you mean about subscriptions. Nowadays a lot of people save money by just getting a one-month subscription when they know they'll have some spare time. It's worth bearing in mind that a GenesReunited Platinum subscription (currently just $1 for a month) gives you access to 1841-1911 British census records and some births, deaths and marriages.Go to http://bit.ly/2GRsub and on the payment page enter discount code SYFTW1. After paying, in GenesReunited click 'Account' then 'Subscription details' and change 'Auto-renew' to OFF.

  2. Oh, I so so agree Pauline. I wrote in a similar vein as part of the 2014 A to Z blogging challenge. Digital records are great but we need to understand what we are looking at. https://thehistoryinterpreter.wordpress.com/2014/04/10/i-is-for-internet-genealogy-is-this-progress/

    1. Janet I didn't follow A to Z last year, having done 2012 and 2013. I posted this response on your blog and will just copy it here.
      Amen Janet! I empathise with what you've had to say here as my own experience is similar and I too confess to being something of a genealogy snob...I suppose if you care about something deeply you want others to also treat it with respect. I love the "genealogy for grown-ups" concept...recognising that at some point in the past we were all genealogy crawlers, then toddlers then teens. Conferences add value because they let us engage with our fellow enthusiasts as well as triggering thoughts for future research directions. Conversely as someone who lives thousands of kilometres from my primary research area, with limited numbers of peers locally, I love that the virtual world has given me a worldwide genealogy community.

  3. In the search for my husband's remaining 5 missing siblings, we wondered if there were other children between the one born in 1947 and the one born in 1952. Had I bothered to really look at his original birth certificate, I would have known there were no other children during that time. It says number of live births - 4, and my husband is the 5th child. Such a small box, such a big piece of information. I am doing the Do-Over because I missed so much important information.

    1. You're so right Ann...we all make that kind of mistake which is why I think it's so important to review and revise. I used to do it more when I started than I do now I'm deluged with information. On the other hand, sometimes the relevance only becomes clear over time. I wonder if his mother had stillbirths or miscarriages in those intervening years 1947-1952? Is there a history of Rh negative blood in the family? Or was her husband away for work? Or....

  4. I made the decision that I would not do the Do Over. I am doing a review over. Starting with me. As I start the various hormonal processes that women over 40 navigate and with no descendants it is important that I add my own details to the files - birth, work, schools, education, likes and dislikes etc - the book of me! Then I am going backwards, to my parents and grandparents, great Aunts, Uncles, Cousins and plugging the gaps with facts that I know - then the proof to support it. Once I have got beyond my Great Great Maternal line I will be reliant on evidential proof alone - no snippets from Great Aunts to support a theory.

    I agree Ann, that that what you flag is a big bit of info, but even those that are the most experienced amongst us would say that it is easy to miss something vital and from evidence in front of our nose. REVIEW is the order of the day and the way forward.

    1. We have similar goals Julie wrt the Review. It's particularly interesting to see a strategy for genies who don't have immediate descendants...but the wise genie of the future knows that it will often be great great aunt Julie (or similar) who holds the stories.

    2. You are right Pauleen. I was a Great Aunt at 30 years of age; which is something I always smile at. In my youth Great Aunts were always elderly! But that fact alone, adds to the historical detail - where some are having children early and by default almost getting in an extra generation. It is absolutely possible that my Great Neice will make me & my husband Great great Aunt & Uncle within our lifetimes. Apart from being a very scary thought! It also enables the generation gap - bringing the last to the future within easy reach.

  5. I adore the geneadinosaur term. So many of us are, but not all will move to technology. I agree with Julie Goucher. I am not doing a do over as I had already started back at the beginning and have been cleaning and adding sources that were not in my tree and making sure things are correct ... Hoping others with join in with me. Since my funds are low and and travel is family, I am thankful for the digitalized records, but often order files because every piece isn't always digitalized. Great post.!

    1. Fran, feel free to use geneadinosaur at will...I must have been hanging round my grandkids too much :) It seems a lot of us are going Back to Basics as I've called my 2015 project, and reviewing what I have already. I agree that digital records can be invaluable when we can't travel but that the entire original file may well offer more information or at least context.

  6. A very thought provoking article, Pauleen. Like you I began my family history research before the advent of computers, Now that I am living some distance from my main area of research, finding digital records (particularly the parochial records) on Ancestry has been a bonus. They are grand if you are looking for a specific person/family but you do miss out on the value and pleasure that comes from browsing. To answer your specific questions: Yes - I do explore neighbourinng streets in the census returns to find out who was living there, their occupations and type of abode, as you may well find other family members, and yes I look up other family members in the search for a missing person. . Yes, I do also explore other records for the town/village. I must admit I have never used the Family Search Catalogue, so thank you for the mention. Like you I could describe my record keeping at times as haphazard, especially if, to save on photocopying charges at archive centres, I rely on my notes - only later to realist I have forgotten to record some vital fact. I use Legacy as my FH programme, but I admit it is not up to date, and I use files/boxes per family name for paper info. I sometimes think I spend too long "sorting" through these to little effect. But to your main question - I would not want to be without digital records and they will be a good asset in my year of "Revisit, Record, Revise".

  7. I'm not doing the do-over but I find writing a blog really helps with the review process. I review what I have, write down the gaps in my research log (new), transcribe every record I do have, and start working my to-do list. As offline information arrives, I scan it, transcribe it and save it to my tree. When I find an online record I associate it to the appropriate individuals and transcribe it. Then I'm ready to write. Sometimes I only tell a small snippet of someone's life. I rarely tell their entire story. All the research is background for the incident I am writing about. I might use it or I might not, but my tree is better for it. If they lived in a place, I look it up. Was it fast-growing when they lived there, how did it get its name, what industries did it support, what is it like today...how did my ancestor get there? All that ancillary historical research is my favorite part. I now own the oddest collection of used books you could imagine!

    1. I found your strategy really interesting Schalene...you're obviously very systematic. I like your selectivity in your writing - not sure I manage that at all, I tend to rabbit on as we say ;) As to the locational context..we're on the same page entirely :)

  8. Brilliant post, Pauleen. I am eternally grateful that I did a huge amount of family history research in the twenty-two years (yes, 22) *before* I had Internet access. That gave me skills and good habits that many young genealogists lack nowadays.

    Like many of you, I'm doing a 'review', not a do-over. I explained why and how in Genealogy Do-Over or Source-Based Incremental Fix?. Step 1 is to change the way I name and organise my digital records. (My old filing system for paper records is fine. In fact, it works brilliantly, and I've been asked to write a mini-guide to explain it.) I will also be adding metadata to digital files. I now know that you can't do it with Windows-based programmes because the tags etc won't 'stick' with the image. I'll be using software that has a specific area to enter IPTC data. At the moment I'm leaning towards IrfanView, and I'd be interested in comments from anyone who has used it for IPTC.

    For those of you who are still organising your records, I highly recommend the very affordable e-books by Nancy Loe, including Cataloging Digital Family Photographs and Records and Organizing Genealogy Research Using Archival Principles.

    Last but not least (I cannot help myself)... Pauleen, I must add an extra tip to your good point about lateral thinking and 'death indexes closed'. It is... use wills, intestacies, probate and related series.

    Congratulations on a very helpful post, which I will be recommending to all and sundry.

    1. Judy you made me LOL with that last comment :) I completely agree of course! 22 years pre-digital is pretty impressive...sure you weren't still a toddler?

      That's a great point about the tagging etc. Do let us know how you're getting on with it. Mine need taking care of - part of my "Back to Basics" program.

    2. A toddler, Pauleen? I wish! I was actually interested in family history when I was still at high school, but until I finished Uni I didn't do much more than ask my parents questions and write down what they told me about their parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles etc.

    3. You were wiser than many of us though Judy to interview rellies...AND write down their stories.

  9. As ever, Pauleen, a thought provoking post. Like you I began my family history research in the "Geneadinarsaur" age and I enjoyed browsing through census returns to get a feel for the community, , type of houses, occupations etc. and sometimes discovered people who were later spouses living along the street. or on adjacent farms. Yes I do look up extended family members in the search for a missing person and search other records on the community. Using the Family Search Catalogue was a new tip for me, so thank you for this. I must admit that I too can be haphazard at times in recording full details of information I find - often because I get stingy in paying for photocopies at Archive Centres - then get home and realise I have missed noting some important fact. I use Legacy as my data base, mainly because I liked the charts it can produce - but I am lagging behind in entering date. My paper mountain is filed in ring binders and boxes by family name, but sometimes I feel I am forever having a "sort out" to little effect.. I tend to start writing up my information in narrative form quite quickly as that helps me identify gaps and points to further sources I should be looking at - this works for me. I now live some distance from my main areas of interest, so digital records are a great asset - after all we are regularly advised not to rely on transcriptions but look at the record itself. In my year of "Revisit, Record, Revise", I have already found digital parochial records on Ancestry invaluable - and these were not available when I started using the web. Also British Newspapers Online is a great resource in digital format, as it can throw a contemporary light on our ancestors and their life at the time..

  10. Constantly reviewing and tweaking the data base. I have lots of digital files that need to be dealt with, that will be my version of the Do Over project. I will blog any cool stuff I find and re-discover as I work.

    And, I will try to do input first and research second.

    OK, who am I kidding, that's never gonna happen! LOL

    Great article, thanks.

  11. When I first started doing genealogy in 1995 I could only go to the library or state/federal archives on Saturday or the local LDS Family History location at limited hours at night. I would scan through tons of microfilm focusing on a specific name. If found, I printed the image and keep rolling the microfilm until I finished that roll and then on to the next roll. It wasn't until database info and digital images were available online that I could really take the time to look at all those other people with my surname(s) I had zipped past on the microfilm, or the pages before and after my ancestor's records.

    I'm doing the Do-Over, but on my own schedule. The biography assignment lead me to start doing the online "Book of Me" prompts. The Research Log is something I need to start. I'm also trying to clean up my digital files to get them all on the same naming system and tweak my source documentation using the EE templates.

  12. I'm trying to assess all my bad habits. Make a constructive effort in organizing. Putting things were they need to go. I do a few onsite research trips every year because I know these Counties are not online. You have to be there to get things. So that takes up a lot of my time. So when Winter comes I can go over all that I have done and add and make corrections. Otherwise my research would be bare. I'm making calls and making sure it's not something I can actually get online. One thing I will never forget and try to tell new researchers. YOU CAN NEVER GO WRONG with the OLD DAYS of Genning. That have what sustained me in this digitized era. Thanks for the tips and information and spouting a few of my sentiments.

  13. I have been ruminating about questions/ideas for a panel session I am moderating at the AFFHO Congress in Canberra. So pleased that I revisited this article because, together with the comments, it has given me lots of fodder for the panel to chew on.


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