Are You Missing Most of the Available Genealogy Information?

I recently received a message from a newsletter reader that disturbed me a bit. He wrote, “I have been doing genealogy research for 10-15 years but only through the Internet.” He then went on to describe some of the frustrations he has encountered trying to find information. In short, he was disappointed at how little information he has found online.

I read the entire message, but my eyes kept jumping back to the words in his first sentence: “… but only through the Internet.

Doesn’t he realize that 95% of the information of interest to genealogists is not yet available on the Internet?

To be sure, many of the biggest and most valuable resources are now available online, including national census records, the Social Security Death Index, military pension applications, draft cards, many passenger lists, land patent databases, and more.

The national databases were the “low hanging fruit” a few years ago as the providers of online information rushed to place large genealogy databases online. These huge collections benefited a lot of genealogists; these databases were the first to become indexed, digitized, and placed online. We all should be thankful that these databases are easily available today and are in common use.

As the national databases became available to all, the online providers moved on to digitize regional and statewide information. State or provincial censuses, birth records, marriage records, death records, naturalization records (which originally were recorded in many local and state courts), county histories, and much, much more are still being placed online.

Of course, this is great news for genealogists who cannot easily travel to the locations where the original records are kept. For many of us, this is even better than having information on microfilm. Most of us don’t have microfilm readers at home, but we do have computers.

Yet, I am guessing that 95% of the information of interest to genealogists has not yet been digitized. Why would anyone want to look for genealogy information “… only through the Internet?

State censuses, birth records, marriage records, death records, naturalization records, county histories, and more are all “work in progress” projects. That is, they are not yet complete. In fact, I doubt if all of them will be available online for at least another two decades! If you only look online, you are missing a lot.

In many cases, church parish records, local tax lists, school records, land records (other than Federal land grants), and many more records are not yet available online and probably won’t be available for many years. If you are limiting yourself to “… only through the Internet,” you are missing 95% of the available information.

If you have the luxury of living near the places where your ancestors lived, I’d suggest you jump in an automobile and drive to the repositories where those records are kept. There is nothing that matches the feeling of holding original records in your hand. Make photocopies or scan them or take pictures of them or do whatever is possible to collect images of the original records.

If you do not know where to start, I would suggest reading Begin your genealogy quest at https://familysearch.org/learn/wiki/en/Begin_your_genealogy_quest for some great “getting started” information. Also, check out the links to many valuable tutorials and reference material in my earlier article, Are You New to Genealogy?, at https://blog.eogn.com/2018/06/08/are-you-new-to-genealogy.

Which option would you prefer: accessing 5% of the available records or 100% of the available records?

23 Comments

The other sad thing is that of that 5%, there is some pretty appalling indexing. So even if the records are available on the internet, researchers may never “stumble” on them. Quantity above quality, and with no discernible and rigorous checking of data has created this land of false promise.

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    Bang on “Quantity above quality” – while I don’t default the transcribing folks (in many cases, volunteers) or OCR-enabled processes, at times they create more trouble than they are worth with the wrong/loose “interpretation” of the hand-written records.
    Be very careful with the indexed records that you find on-line: they are NOT perfect and definitely incomplete. There is no substitute to visiting the place/s, you may learn something useful!

    Liked by 1 person

I’m an ex-pat living in Europe. Without online information I would never have been able to do any family history. In connecting with distant cousins I’ve been able to access the information they have accumulated, again thanks to the Internet.

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rolling my eyes, Curt Witcher spoke at Rootstech 2018 about other places where more records are held. It is pretty much the same I will be giving lecture about, next week. (for the deaf).

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    Hi David, I’m a sign language interpreter–I live near and work in Rochester, NY. I’m curious about your lecture! Are you Deaf? Are you a genealogist/historian? I am starting a YouTube channel that is centered around history and genealogy, and I love connecting with people who love history/genealogy, but also have other things in common, such as language!

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Without a doubt Dick is right the big however is that I’m in New Zealand and most of my ancestors came from the UK, not a quick ride down the street.

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Now just a minute. You make it sound like if we go to the “sources” we will be granted access…… when I call about using the “sources” I am told THEY will look for what I want….. heck part of going to the sources is to see what is there and what I may find. Then I pay them and they will send it to me in 3-5 days….. so it is not simple. Wish me luck as I am going 1,000 miles to the “source” or half dozen of them this summer………

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    Be sure to write a letter to the mayor of the town requesting permission to use the records. Include the family names you are researching in a particular town. If you have research qualifications and be sure to include them in the letter to the mayor.

    Liked by 1 person

    I don’t know if you need to contact the mayor, but finding out what the rules are before making a long trip is definitely a must-do. Also, a lot of placed won’t let outsiders at the raw records because of the bad behavior of previous genealogy hounds, behavior ranging from leaving things in a muddle through cutting out pages and stealing entire document books. If you are given access to records somewhere, remember those who may follow you and be careful with the documents, to rephrase an old cliche “take only photocopies, leave only kind words.”

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Peter Scarborough June 13, 2018 at 8:01 am

Of course your point is dead on, but in my case, and I am sure many others, distance and travel costs make it extremely difficult to view records at a location far from home. With the nearly complete demise of RAOGK, it can be challenging to find someone to research for you, at a price you can afford.

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So true. For example, I was able to accomplish more in two days in Salt Lake City than several years of other research efforts. Worth the trip.

Liked by 1 person

In NH where I live, many records have been transferred to Concord, the state capital, by counties, things like naturalization records, birth certificates, etc. Unfortunately, when I last checked, those records are in cardboard boxes with no index to speak of, extremely hard to find. The state simply doesn’t have the funds to properly archive them. So that quick visit to the actual documents may very well end in failure or an extremely long search for what you need. THAT is why people prefer the Internet. In other states, there are prohibitive fees and ridiculously complicated ‘rules’ for usage. THAT is why people prefer the Internet.

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In my case, I has a father (only child) who wouldn’t talk / didn’t know about his family. All I had was a fairly common family name and a obituary that said “moved from Philadelphia”. For years I was stuck here, then I took a DNA test and much has been revealed since.

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David Paul Davenport June 13, 2018 at 11:23 am

95% ?? The Internet provides access to most of the most valuable sources of genealogy information. “reasonable exhaustive” research as per the BCG should never be construed as a mandate to personally visit a repository of documents. The vast majority of people don’t have thousands of dollars to make such visits. What is more problematic now is that Family Search stopped providing microfilm rentals in August of 2017 – this is tragic and a great disservice to researchers. The second biggest “tragedy” is not having access to newspapers that should be available on chroniclingamerica, but haven’t been selected for inclusion.

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    The Family Search in a few years will have the information that was on microfilm in digital format to be used by all. I can’t remember the year but it is amazing to think that the first year is almost behind us.

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    I disagree, David. “Reasonably exhaustive” research per the BCG should include visiting repositories. Here’s the difference. The GPS is primarily meant for professional genealogists working for clients and the scholars in the field who publish regularly (think FASG). They should absolutely be the ones visiting repositories, and they usually have more time and resources to do so. For hobby genealogists, even the most serious of us, the GPS is an important guideline, but not realistic. Not to say we shouldn’t be trying to reach that goal whenever we can, but most of our work (and certainly any online trees) can’t and shouldn’t be held to the GPS.

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I agree that not everything is on the internet, but I would hope new researchers would check what is available for free online before paying for things. If you spend $20+ on vital records, as is required in some states, it gets expensive fast. Check if there’s a database that covers the time you’re looking for, or Google/check family trees to see if another descendant has posted it somewhere. See if there’s an index to narrow down the time frame you need to search.

Many public or state libraries give their cardholders access to genealogy or newspaper databases for free, whether from home or in the library. If you work in a different town or state from where you live, you may be eligible for a library card from there too.

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The issue is not only if the records are on the Internet or not. It is also whether or not the on-line records are indexed. Many people will only use the top level search capability at a site and think they have search the entire site. In reality, the site has many records (if not the majority) that have not been indexed for that search capability. As one example, FamilySearch is digitizing its microfilm rolls and posting them as ‘browse only’ collections. Many people completely overlook these files.

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I became addicted to genealogy before records and indexes were available on the internet. It was all those research trips with my sister, mother, aunt and all the new relatives we met along the way that was so rewarding. The hours spent in cemeteries, libraries, archives, at lectures & classes, and at family reunions that made the hobby so exciting. However I am now physically handicapped and can no longer do all those activities, so I am grateful to all that is available on the internet. My family and I have tested with various DNA companies and have many new cousins to correspond with. I can remember when all that correspondence was done via snail mail… So it is all relative, no pun intended.

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I think the important point is to do a combined attack on any possible source–some may be online and some not. Visiting a place may not be possible–but there are many friendly souls out there that do help–Facebook seems to have created opportunities to find them. If you can visit the site, consider joining the local genealogical society or historical society and making friends with locals. The other point that needs to be made is to go back–new resources are being digitized and people clear out attics and donate materials to local societies all the time. Both online and in-person have their places.

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Online research is good but you must make sure of sources, who transcribed, etc. Going thru many Parish Records, have found even Priests transcribes incorrectly and one must remember that those entering into the Registration Records are given the info that Informants have provided which may or may not be accurate. I do enjoy going thru Parish records, cemetery “hopping”, local history books (which again are correct and incorrect / as I have found) but any source of info should be used wisely. Local history book says my grt grandfather died much earlier and where he lived in the 1940s, but he died 10 years after moving to my hometown / have obit, cemetery pic as proof. So check and double check sources. Have a good day/week.

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I began my research in the mid 1990s during a visit to Ireland where 3 of my grandparents and all of my great-grandparents were born. After getting baptismal records in St. Colman’s Cathedral, Cobh, Co. Cork, and the Church of SS Peter and Paul in Cork City, I picked up what turned out to be an invaluable resource, John Gresham’s Tracing Your Irish Ancestors. Gresham led me to the National Archives in a search for census records and the GRO for birth, death and marriage records. For the next few beautiful, sunny days in Dublin, I spend my time inside. Going to the index, ordering records, waiting for the records to be brought from files, reviewing them, sometimes getting a hit, more often not and having to put in the next request. And at the Archive, I was given the actual, original census forms from 1901 and 1911. How wonderful. For years, I would only do research while in Ireland. Now, I do what I can online and make trips back to my ancestral home to find what I can’t find otherwise.

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I think the 95% of information not on the Internet is misleading. For U.S. immigrants, for each person of interest, I’d say you can find about 80% of what you need. Using the FamilySearch catalog to search for records in the appropriate area and searching digitized books and newspapers are big helps. Asking for assistance from Facebook groups like the German Genealogy group turns up digitized foreign records. Even when you can’t find records on the internet, you can find records through the internet, such as when you contact a library, archive or genealogy group.

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