Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The Complexity of Online Digital Records

It used to be not so long ago that our understanding of digital online records was fairly simple.  You remember that time, don't you?  When you were grateful that any records were online! Then FamilySearch started putting an amazing amount of records online.  Ancestry.com put more online as well and others followed suite.

You remember don't you how we classified things?  There were online records and offline records. Yes, it was that simple.

Today, the classification of online digital records is far more complex. No longer can you simply say online or digital records (digital records after all might not be online).  More and more often genealogists have to pay closer attention to understand what they will find before they open a digital online record group.

Here are some of the new categories that we need to sort through.

1) Digital Image / Digital Index

These records, of course, are the Holy Grail.  The record database is indexed (hopefully accurately) and there is a link to an image of the original record.  If we are lucky we can also save the image to our own computers. The 1790 - 1930 US Federal Census records are a classic example of this group. In a few more months the 1940 census will join this category.

2) Digital Index / No Image

This type of record database is very helpful in letting us know whether records exist but they stop short of actually providing the records.  The records may be digitized and available online from another website or they may be not be online at all.  An example of this would be the Massachusetts, Petitions and Records of Naturalizations, 1906-1929 index found on Ancestry.com and the actual images found on Fold3 (though they are indexed on Fold3 as well).

3) Digital Image / No Index 

These records fall into the category of "I'm so glad the images are online but wouldn't it be great if they were indexed. But I'm not complaining."  There are many records sets like this on FamilySearch.org.  Probate records are prime candidates for having images available but not being indexed. Illinois Probate Records, 1819-1970 are an example of this type of record.  Sometimes the records are sorted by county as in this particular case and sometimes they are alphabetical or chronological.  That does help narrow down the needle in a haystack but prepare yourself for a lot of work.  However, the alternative of not having them online is worse.

4) Digital Index / Transcription

When I think of this category I imagine Findagrave.com where you can search the database but what you might end up with is a "memorial" with a text "transcription" (or perhaps just some information not an actual transcription) and no photograph.  This kid of online record is helpful because it lets you know the record (or headstone as the case may be) exists. Also, the transcription is helpful as a starting point but in most cases you'll want to verify whether the transcription is accurate or not.

5) Online Catalogs

Let's not forget about online library or manuscript collection catalogs! This is an important resource that often gets overlooked.  Many records, documents and manuscripts that are not digitized have an online presence in the form of a library catalog. The ultimate catalog is the WorldCat index. I find I rely on this more and more because it does not reflect the regional bias that my own local library network tends to show.  And if I provide my local zip code, WorldCat will even more impressively tell me where to find the nearest location of the book I am looking for.

As you can see searching online is not as straight forward as it used to be.  We have to be more aware of what is being provided and try not to overlook important resources like online catalogs.

Have I overlooked any categories? Can you throw anything else into the mix?

Continue to Part 2 for a look at the levels of complexity within individual online records and the difficulty it presents in extracting information.


  1. Not sure this is a different category, but what about the "snippets" on google books? Or e-books and pdf books that are images that are every-word searchable.


    1. smj,

      I think I would classify them as either #1 or #3 depending on whether the books are searchable. Some books don't have searchable pdfs but luckily they do have the printed index in the back of the book which we can just read. So for me these would still fit into the categories above.

  2. How about 'born digital' records? For example, current phone books might qualify, I know a lot of current government documents going to archives now are, all sorts of membership databases that may one day become genealogy resources. There would be lots of other examples that will become more relevant to genealogy over time.

    1. Shelley,

      If you can go to site and search for the name as in a phone book then I don't see any difference with a site like ancestry.com. It's the individual types of records that I'm breaking down rather than the types of websites that hold the records. For me it's whether the records are searchable and whether we can see the original document content or not. Government documents would print from the original software (word processor or whatever) to pdf. I imagine that phone books are they same way in that they are created in a database and instead of sending the database to print on paper they are now just creating searchable databases online. But you're right, that one might be another category because we are no longer viewing an image of the original printed version but simply viewing the raw data. We might lose something in that. I'll have to think about that one more!

  3. In which category would you place cousin bait blogs and personal family websites? I've come across a few that delivered original content that can't be found anywhere else.

    1. I'm not really sure whether to give them their own category or whether to lump them in with #4. I think they probably should be in their own category because in my own experience they are presenting *some* of the records (the ones that relate to their own family) rather than an entire record group as with the Ancestry.com and FamilySearch. In a way personal sites are very much (though smaller) like Findagrave.com because they are limited to what volunteers choose to put online rather than consistently contributing all records for a cemetery.