Time to improve online coverage details

This is cross-posted from Celia Heritage’s blog.  Celia is a Tutor with Pharos, a member of AGRA and runs a family history research and teaching business in Kent.

 

Celia says:

It is my opinion that genealogy websites should provide full source details and coverage dates for each of their databases. They should also clearly state where a database is not yet complete.

While there is a wealth of genealogical and historical data now available online courtesy of websites such as Findmypast, Ancestry, TheGenealogist and FamilySearch it is becoming increasingly difficult to accurately determine what exactly the various databases include and, in some cases where they came from, thanks to the inadequate or inconsistent detailing of their sources.

This is caused by several factors but the main two are as follows.

• A lack of information as to where the information came from and the coverage dates and any gaps within the coverage. Source data should be clearly visible for anyone using the database or at least for anyone who wishes to make the effort to check the details.

• Inaccurate or unhelpful title names indicating complete coverage where coverage is not in fact complete are misleading.

Let us take parish registers as an example. Neither Ancestry nor Findmypast has a complete county-by-county listing of what they hold. If I am searching for a missing baptism, burial or marriage I need to know exactly which parishes for a certain county or counties are available online and for which dates. Once I know this I can work out which are not and will potentially have to be searched in the record office. However, since neither company provides a county-by-county listing of which parish registers they hold it’s not easy to check this.

I emailed Findmypast to ask if they had such a listing on their website as I know that they do sometimes issue such lists when new databases are released. This is the reply I received:

‘We are sorry but the website does not have a full list of coverage for the parish registers. You would have to check the search form for the parish and then carry out a blank search. Once you have done this you can change the results page by clicking the sort order at the top right – relevance. If you change this to ascending/descending you will see the years covered.’

This seems a very long-winded way of established county coverage, especially when they must have such listings in existence! Ancestry collections are better detailed but they still have no means of checking county coverage in one go. Similarly, the Family Search Wiki is a quite good way of determining which parishes have online coverage, but I don’t believe this is entirely up-to-date and this is again not as useful as a county-by county- listing, as each parish has to be searched individually to determine online coverage.

To my knowledge the only major commercial website to offer a county-by-county listing for parish registers is TheGenealogist which has its ‘List of all datasets’ at the bottom of its home and search pages. This provides a full list of which parish registers it offers and the coverage dates for each type of event and, for logged in users, this can also be accessed from the ‘Search’ tab, entitled ‘What’s included in my subscription?’ The list naturally covers all its other datasets too, not just parish registers, although some of the other categories are not as detailed as they should be.

In order to prevent the online world of genealogical sources descending into chaos, I call upon the major genealogy companies to make it quite clear what information their datasets do and do not include. Surely this is not too much to ask?

If you would like to join me in my campaign to encourage companies to improve the quality of their sourcing details and a new openness about which records they do and do not offer, please spread the word and encourage those interested in family history to email the companies concerned as well with this simple request. Let’s start with a request for full county-by-county parish register listings. Please share my blog with the genealogy world  and you can also follow my posts on the subject on Twitter @CeliaHeritage and Facebook. Your examples of inadequate source detailing and coverage are most welcome.

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Please let’s help Celia achieve her aim!

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14 Responses to Time to improve online coverage details

  1. Guy says:

    I agree. In addition, I often find it difficult to know what I am searching because the subject title isn’t always the same as the title as used in the archive and archival references are often not obvious. It is important to know provenance (source of the data), full archival reference and if possible internal reference such as register number, page or folio number. You should also be able to find records by archival reference.

  2. Nancy Frey says:

    As OPC (Online Parish Clerk) for Ansford & Castle Cary, Somerset, I tried very hard to have this information entered on transcriptions being done for these parishes which would later be uploaded to FreeREG as well as the OPC site. I was met with great resistance to the point that I resigned from having anything to do with the transcriptions. Needless to say, the information as to where the information came from does not appear anywhere. I sympathize with your cause.

  3. kewforage says:

    It’s not just parish registers – it can be hard to find out what exactly is in a collection of military records (and I am sure in other types of records as well). In this respect The Genealogist is particularly bad, but Ancestry and FMP are also pretty awful. Personally I think is down to the fact that they don’t employ people who know the records. What the companies want to do is to put up as many names as possible. They are not interested in provenance or interpretation, because they know their customers generally aren’t as well.

  4. helenosborn says:

    I couldn’t agree more, in fact I have written an article for Who Do You Think You Are Magazine on the subject of finding out the gaps in the records before you search. It has become so complex that I almost feel as if we are going backwards, not forwards, or as if there is a diminishing return with haphazard heaps of information, because the sites add collections willy nilly and at an increasing rate.

    Guy, I totally agree about subject titles. Why can’t we have some kind of standard? This is also a big bug bear of mine at the moment.

    And, I am finding it more and more difficult to get across to students the complexity of the sets of records that go to make up Ancestry/Findmypast. Mostly people do not want to hear that they have to do any thinking or go back over their research to corroborate what they have pulled together.

  5. Jana Last says:

    Hi,

    I want to let you know that your blog is listed in today’s Fab Finds post at http://janasgenealogyandfamilyhistory.blogspot.com/2015/09/follow-friday-fab-finds-for-september.html

    Have a wonderful weekend!

  6. armillard says:

    As well as parish records this is sadly true of probate records as well. Too many collections claim to index a court’s records but actually index only the wills without the administrations or inventories. And the Government’s Court Service claims its index covers the UK when it is only England and Wales! Origins.net used to have detailed descriptions of the probate courts and the coverage of their indexes, but FindMyPast seems to have discarded all that information since they acquired Origins. TheGenealogist has scans of some printed Prerogative Court of Canterbury indexes listed under Kent; they told me: “As Canterbury comes under Kent these indexes will be located here.” They didn’t seem to want to know that these are for Archdiocese of Canterbury which covers a bit more of England than Canterbury, and the records ought to be categorised with their own PCC indexes and images.

  7. jaygen2014 says:

    Aaaah the frustrations of online genealogy! I too have found this a problem ever since I began researching my family tree.

    Familysearch was excellent at giving the source of their online records, but all that changed when they updated their site a few years ago. It was wonderful to find burials for some of my ancestors, apart from the fact that they only revealed the date and the city, not the cemetery! When I inquired about this, they told me I’d have to go to a family history center 😦

    It appears that even The Genealogist’s ‘List of all datasets’ page was out of date until prompted by this March 16th article on The Everyday Archivist: https://everydayarchivistblog.wordpress.com/2015/03/16/family-history-websites-which-one/#comments

    Personally, though it takes some searching on both FMP and Ancestry, I find that Ancestry is more clear about coverage.

    If you don’t do your research, it’s very easy to be MISLED – for instance The Everyday Archivist had listed Manchester parishes under FMP, but as I pointed out…

    “ANCESTRY is a MUCH superior source if you need parish registers for Manchester –
    Their Manchester baptisms collection contains OVER 60 PARISHES from Abbey Hey to Worsley and cover 1541-1812 and 1813-1915. They also have a separate search for the registers of Manchester Cathedral itself, as well as Non Conformist registers.

    Whereas FMP’s Manchester baptisms appear to cover
    Giles Shaw Transcripts for Oldham St Mary 1662-1826
    John Owen Transcripts for Flixton, Gorton and Newton 1571-1785

    This seems rather puny in comparison and they’re only transcripts not actual images that you can search through on Ancestry. So, I really feel that the Manchester registers should be listed under Ancestry not FMP..

    ….To find out what’s covered on FMP, you have to go to the search for that data set, read the description and then click on ‘Browse the parish’. You’ll see that for ‘Manchester’ baptisms only two parishes appear St. Mary, Oldham and St. Mary’s Oldham.

    This is not what you would imagine Manchester to be (more like a little bit of Lancashire) and you would be very disappointed if you signed up to FMP for Manchester registers.”

    Finding a particular parish and it’s coverage can take at least 6 clicks from Ancestry’s Parish collections’ page. http://www.ancestry.co.uk/cs/uk/parish?cj=1&sid=skim725X175X67a5c9131555ec71132b8a90d96555af&o_xid=0003662453&o_lid=0003662453&o_sch=Affiliate+External

    • helenosborn says:

      Andrew & Jaygen

      I have to agree with everything you say. Only a few people really understand the importance of these distinctions, and obviously the customer service departments of FMP and Ancestry do not, but it is really important. It is actually a type of dishonesty on the part of the websites.

  8. I completely agree. I wrote the above article that Jayne mentioned above when I was deciding which subscription to take out. I have to say without a subscription it was hard to find details of the records they had online and almost impossible to work out the coverage of the databases. It took me quite a few weeks and a lot of delving to compile this table and I still missed or got some things incorrect (see Jayne’s comment) and I knew what I was looking for. Now I have subscriptions to both Ancestry and FMP and I have to say I have found it just as hard. Ancestry do list their sources at the bottom of the database transcripts and there are archive references on some original records, but not all. FMP is worst and I find it hard to find out where records have come from let alone references. Both sites are bad at coverage and it is very misleading when they say they have added e.g. Manchester, England, Marriages and Banns, 1754-1930 only to discover the database is far from complete (sometimes this is because they add it in stages). Don’t get me wrong, it is brilliant that more and more records are available online. Also I appreciate it takes a lot to digitise items and even more to make sure they are accompanied with the appropriate metadata. It does however seem like quantity over quality. After using the sites for a couple of months and even though I have found many original parish records and more for my ancestors, which I would not have seen yet otherwise. I still don’t think I will feel completely happy confirming details until I have visited the appropriate record office and been through the microfilm, especially pre 1837 / 1841.

    • jaygen2014 says:

      Everyday Archivist, I’ve posted a link to your page twice now because I think you’ve done an amazing job of comparing what the popular paid websites have to offer, and it’s so helpful for everyone to be able to see that comparison. However, I know it must have taken a lot of hard work given the scope those websites offer and more to the point, the difficulty in finding a detailed description.

      The only reason I knew that Manchester was better served by Ancestry than by FMP was my familiarity with those websites and my many Lancashire and Manchester ancestors. Because of my Cheshire ancestors, I know FMP is superior if your ancestors were from Cheshire.

      I agree it’s good to be able to check the microfilms in the local archive if you can. For one thing, I know that records can be missing even though a website may indicate that they have fully transcribed a parish register.

      Several years ago, I searched Family Search for the baptism of an ancestor, George Colebourne born in Mackworth, Derbyshire. Though the parish register at FS apparently covered the right time span, his baptism was missing. Searching the census for other Colebournes born in Mackworth, several others appeared to be missing also. I knew George’s baptism must be there, so I contacted the archive in Derbyshire and asked them for a copy of his baptism – sadly, they said there was no record. It’s my guess that, all they did was check on Family Search first, rather than check the microfilm. In the end, I had to buy a CD of the Parish and lo and behold, there was his baptism along with several other Colebournes.

      So, as you say, even with a full description of what a parish covers, there’s no guarantee;-)

    • helenosborn says:

      Everyday Archivist,

      Thanks for your input. We will link back to your blog as it looks very useful.

      It is definitely quantity over quality.

      I think Ancestry is a lot better than FMP for the source information, but it still requires a deep knowledge of the genealogy world to untangle some of what they list, for example very few people will know what the ‘Tyler Collection’ actually is. They do give its provenance as from the IHGS, yet you need to know that Mr Tyler who compiled the index went around some East Kent parishes simply extracting names that were of interest to him. So it is one of those horribly gappy incomplete indexes and probably shouldn’t be used by anyone.

      I much prefer to use a single dataset online, such as FreeBMD, where the provenance is known, and there are no results from other datasets muddling me up. The other good one is BMD Registers at http://www.bmdregisters.co.uk/

      I am concerned by Nancy’s comments, I would have hoped that FreeREG might have been more interested in making sure they were accurate and complete about information.

  9. Jaygen, Thank you. Even though I did it for my own curiosity I am glad if it has helped people. Where I could find it, I quoted the source and reference number for the records/records series, so people could search the holding institution for more detail if they wanted. It was interesting to see that sometimes the databases on the different sites are the same thing even if they had slightly different titles (This was especially true of those held by The National Archives).

    Helen, Thank you. Yes indeed. The general searches throw up a lot of information, which can be useful, but also very confusing without knowledge of the types of records that were being produced at the time being researched.

  10. hjl says:

    I would also like to point out that not all parish record images on Ancestry and familysearch are indexed. I found my 7 x great grandparents marriage in 1694 by getting into the register with another entry that I stumbled across for 1680, then scrolling through page by page till I came to 1694. It is wonderful to be able to find them though.

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