Saturday 14 January 2012

Abundant Genealogy - Week 2 - Paid Online Genealogy Tools

Paid online genealogy tools are essential to the researcher today, but the choice can be bewildering, especially for the beginner. I am sometimes asked 'Which is the best?', but there is no simple answer. First of all you need to ask yourself what records you need to look at, and then find the site or sites that have them. Some popular records, like the census. are on multiple sites, so you have a choice, but many others can only be found on a single site, so if that's what you need to look at, then that's where you need to go. Decision made. The other choice you may have to make is how to pay for the records you want to access; you don't always have a choice, but sometimes you can select different subscription levels or time periods, or even a pay-per-view option.

I am most familiar with British records, so these are the examples I am going to discuss here, starting with the census for England and Wales. Indexed census images are on a number of sites, such as,, Genes Reunited , or British Origins and they all have their strengths and weaknesses. Apart from 1881, where everyone uses the same set of transcription data, you will find some differences in the transcriptions. Even where the data is the same, the search engine on one site may work better for you than another. So whatever site you use, it is often worth checking one of the others if your search is unsuccessful.

For most other records you will have fewer sites to choose from, because there is much less duplication. So you need to work out which site has, for example, the baptism, marriage or burial records you need. This may be easier said than done. When I do any genealogical searching online, I want to know exactly what I am searching - is it a single register, or a collection?  Is it an original church register, or a copy, or a transcript? If it is a transcript, is it from a printed source such as Phillimore's Marriages? If it is a transcript, are all the fields indexed? What are the coverage dates, and is it complete for those years or are there gaps? These are the questions I would ask when searching parish register material, but the same principles would apply to any kind of record - probate, military service, poor law and  so on. When I find a record, I want to know where the original record is held, the document reference so that I can cite my source properly; giving a web link is all very well, but these, and even whole websites can be ephemeral, while the archive reference will be constant. No matter where you look at a page of the 1891 census for England, online, on film or on fiche its unique reference will be RG 12/ followed by a piece number, a folio number and, ideally a page number too.  

Sadly, none of the commercial genealogy sites meets all these criteria. Sorry guys, but a collection description that reads "This database contains information extracted from birth and christening records from various counties in England and Wales. The records date from 1530 to 1906. The records included in this database do not represent all localities in England and Wales and for any given area, coverage (both records within a year and total year range) may not be complete. Some parishes and counties are more complete than others." just doesn't do it for me. But what annoys me most is a site where I can't see a list of its datasets without signing in or subscribing.

Finally, there are some useful British records that you may only find on a single site, and that may not be familiar to you. Service records (mainly pension records) for men who left the British Army before 1913 are on service records for the Royal Navy, the Royal Marines and a number of other records relating the armed forces are on DocumentsOnline (pay-per-view only), as are Prerogative Court of Canterbury wills (you can also view them on, by subscription) There is more useful probate material on British Origins along with some other resources you won't find anywhere else. These are just a few suggestions, and you should find even more once you start looking beyond the better-known sites.

Happy hunting


1 comment:

  1. Thanks for these tips on British records. It is always good to read the opinions of others.