Thursday 16 August 2012

Online records - never mind the description, look at the source

The great news for genealogists is that more and more records are being digitised, indexed and published online. Every few days, it seems, FamilySearch, or one of the major commercial websites announces the launch of a new collection of records, or a significant addition to an existing one. And then you can look at each site's master list or news archive for earlier releases for all the launches that you missed. There's a lot of stuff out there.

There is so much, in fact, that it is not easy to work out exactly what is available, and how complete any collection might be. Reasonably enough, you can start by looking at the description of a collection, but that isn't always very helpful. Sometimes a site fails to provide an adequate description, and in fairness, this may be because an accurate description would be so long that you would lose the will to live before you finished reading it - I defy anyone to give a decent account of FamilySearch's  'World Misc' collection, for example.

Newly-added collections tend to have better descriptions, but they still can't be absolutely accurate, for the reasons I have just given. Some of the most useful, and most popular, sets of records being added to sites like and are the collections of digitised and indexed parish registers. They are usually classified by county, which is the most helpful kind of brief description, but you shouldn't take these at face value; don't assume that the newly-released collection of parish records for the (fictional) county of Borsetshire will include all records for all parishes and for all dates. A more  accurate description might be 'Baptism, marriage and burial registers for the ancient county of Borsetshire 1538-1925, except for those parishes in the Archdeaconry of Felpersham which are held in the Dean and Chapter Library there, the parish of Borchester whose records remain at the parish church, and the parishes of Penny Hassett and Waterly Cross which were transferred to the Metropolitan County of Shakespeareland following boundary changes in 1974'

See what I mean? Many online collections on Ancestry and Findmypast will make a lot more sense if you look at the record offices, because that's where the parish registers are held (and many more records besides). So each online collection will relate to a record office's holdings, which may or may not coincide with an actual county. The bottom line is, there is no substitute for knowing something of the history and geography of the place where your ancestors lived. For England you can find out where records are held for any parish using one of my favourite resources, England Jurisdictions 1851 or for anywhere in whole of the UK and Ireland there is GENUKI.

Ancestry has a number of collections whose descriptions give a good indication of what they contain, but which need closer attention. For example, the West Yorkshire collection consists of records from the West Yorkshire Archive Service, covering most of West Yorkshire but not all of it; the area round Sheffield and Doncaster has its own record office, and these records are not included. Its London Collection is from the holdings of the London Metropolitan Archives (LMA), covering most of what is now Greater London - roughly the historic county of Middlesex with parts of Surrey, Kent and Essex. But this does not include the City of Westminster, which has its own separate record office, Westminster City Archives  (although the LMA holds some bishop's transcripts for Westminster parishes).

St James Piccadilly,
part of the Westminster Collection
The Westminster Collection itself is online at Findmypast. This collection includes lots of other material, mainly poor law records, but not school admission and discharge registers. These are held at the LMA, because they are part of the records of the London School Board. So you need to go back to Ancestry...

Other collections may be from printed, ie secondary, sources, or they might be incomplete for some reason. You will only know this if you take the time to read the source information. Different sites have different ways of providing this, but it is usually there. I am always grateful for any information that I find online, but unless I am confident about the source I treat it as a clue, not a fact.

It's easy to blame websites for making us lazy, and thinking we've done a comprehensive search by typing a name into a search box on a single site. But we shouldn't blame the internet for everything; before there were any genealogy websites some people thought they had searched a whole county's registers  by looking at the appropriate section of the IGI on fiche. And I'm sure that even longer ago some searchers used the many printed parish register volumes published by record societies and others, conveniently forgetting the less accessible registers that were still kept in parish churches. That's human nature, it's always tempting just to go for the low-hanging fruit.


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