Saturday, 4 October 2014

The Value of Online Databases

For almost any subject in genealogical research involving online databases, particularly commercial websites, I have lately seen many comments about how people could not readily find their family members or the names were so screwed up as to be meaningless. These problems were then related back to some imaginary circumstance under which the website owners were really only interested in making money, not in helping people, and were just there to gouge consumers.

I, too, have found errors in indexes and transcriptions. But, as someone who has been involved in transcribing thousands of pages of old documents with tens of thousands of entries, I know how difficult it can be to decipher old style handwriting, poor penmanship, faded or torn originals and indifferent spelling – just to start with. I wonder if those complaining have ever volunteered to transcribe anything. If they had, I think they would be much less critical in their comments about the indexed results in many online collections or of the companies that make the information available to us right on our home computer.

Not so long ago, family historians had to travel across country to visit libraries and courthouses, write letters back and forth and/or spend countless hours in front of microfilm machines at the local Family History Centres, poring through hundreds pages of material, in search of just one name. When material started to appear online, there was no indexing. People had to scroll through sometimes hundreds of images to find their ancestors. But weren’t those pictures great to see!

We are very fortunate to be able to short-circuit the process now with so many online databases for which companies, along with thousands of volunteers have spent so much time and money accessing, copying and transcribing. Transcribers are not always right in their interpretations, but at least the indexed lists are a good starting point. And, if we cannot find a specific name in our initial searches, we can still scroll through the images. As James Tanner recently pointed out in his Genealogy’s Star post, How many genealogy online subscriptions are enough?, subscriptions to many databases can be quite expensive but they pale in relation to the costs of travel to almost any repository.

Of course, companies want to make money from their services. If they did not, they would not be in business and we would not have access to the millions of records and images we presently have. No government anywhere has the resources to put all of their historical information online without the help of private foundations and/or commercial entities.

Family researchers may not agree with all of the decisions taken by the commercial firms about what data they choose to collect or keep, or how they arrange it on their websites. They don’t have to. But they don’t have to put up their own money in support of profit-less enterprises or projects either.

Just try to build your own family tree now without the help of these businesses. You will be like my aunt was in the 1950s, 60s and 70s – having to write hundreds of letters and travel thousands of miles to visit dozens of centres, and maybe then not even find what you want.

Wayne Shepheard is a volunteer with the Online Parish Clerk program, handling four parishes in Devon, England. He has published a number of articles about various aspects of genealogy and is a past Editor of Chinook, the quarterly journal of the Alberta Family Histories Society. Wayne also provides genealogical consulting services through his business, Family History Facilitated.

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