Why Was the Information Removed from Online?

NOTE: This is a slightly updated version of an article I published three years ago. I have added a new section about the restrictions recently added by the European GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation).

Several newsletter readers have sent messages to me expressing dissatisfaction with records that were available online at one time but have since disappeared. I am offering this republished article as an explanation about why we should not be surprised when that happens. I will also offer a suggestion as to making sure you keep your own copies of online records that are valuable to you.

Two newsletter readers sent email messages to me recently expressing dissatisfaction that a set of images of vital records has been removed from a popular genealogy site. Indeed, removal of any online records of genealogical value is sad, but not unusual. Changes such as these are quite common on FamilySearch, MyHeritage, Ancestry.com, Fold3, Findmypast, and many other genealogy sites that provide images of old records online. Removal of datasets has occurred dozens of times in the past, and I suspect such things will continue to happen in the future. I thought I would write a brief explanation.

Contracts

In most cases, information of genealogical value obtained from government agencies, religious groups, museums, genealogy societies, and other organizations is provided under contractual agreements. The contracts specify what information is to provided, how it is to be made available, and what price the web site owner has to pay to the provider for the records. All contracts also have a defined expiration date, typically 2 years or 3 years or perhaps 5 years after the contract is signed.

When a contract nears expiration, the two parties usually attempt to renegotiate the contract. Sometimes renewal is automatic, but more often it is not. Maybe the information provider (typically an archive) decides they want more money, or maybe they decide they no longer want to supply the data to the online genealogy service. For instance, in the time the information has been available online, the information provider may have learned just how valuable the information really is. The information provider may decide to ask for more money or may even refuse to provide the information any more since the provider may have a NEW plan to create their own web site and offer the same information online on their new site for a fee.

Sure, that stinks for those of us who would like to have the information everywhere; but, it makes sense to most everyone else. I am sure the budget officer at most any state or local government archive thinks it makes sense.

Every contract renegotiation is different, but it is not unusual to agree to disagree. The contract ends, and the web site provider legally MUST remove the information from their web site. The same thing frequently happens to all the online sites that provide old records online.

GDPR

Another issue that has become a problem recently is the European GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation). These new rules apply to all public records in Europe. These regulations arose because of the concept of the “right to be forgotten,” mostly concerning people who had legal problems in the past but have since reformed and do not want the old records to constantly create new problems. The regulations are generic and open to various interpretations. While not specifically requiring information about ancestors of 100 years ago or even earlier to be removed from public view, many people and organizations have taken a conservative approach and deleted any record sets that are even slightly questionable under the new rules.

A full discussion of the GDPR would consume hundreds or even thousands of web pages so I won’t attempt that here. Instead, you can find many online articles that address the issues created by the GDPR by starting at Wikipedia at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/General_Data_Protection_Regulation and then moving on to https://duckduckgo.com/?q=gdpr&t=hi&ia=news.

One problem for web publishers is how to create two separate services: one to display European records that comply with the GDPR and also create a second service that displays records from the rest of the world. Some web publishers have simply removed ALL records that might not comply with the GDPR regulations, regardless of the geography involved.

The moral of this story

If you find a record online that is valuable to you, SAVE IT NOW! Save it to your hard drive and make a backup copy someplace else as well. If there is no option to save, make a screen shot and save it on your hard drive and save another copy in the cloud or some other place where it will last for many years. Just because you can see the record online today does not mean that it will be available forever.

15 Comments

Does that include the records that you linked onto your family tree which are situated on those websites (eg. Ancestry.com) ? What If you downloaded the record onto your hard drive, then add that copy into your family tree on those websites? Will they disappear too?

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    If you already downloaded the record to your hard drive, they don’t disappear.

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    David, I think she means that – If you save it to your tree on Ancestry.com’s trees online, will it disappear?

    In other words, I’m rolling along on ancestry.com – when I suddenly find my grandparents marriage cert. I attach it to my family tree chart online at Ancestry.com.. Will it disappear from my tree that I just added it to as well as in their dataset?

    Dick, can you try and get an answer on this for us? I’m concerned now too. Thanks!

    Liked by 2 people

    Nothing is guaranteed to last online forever. In theory, nothing should be removed. However, in the real world, hardware malfunctions, software malfunctions, and human errors do occur. Ancestry already lost data on their RootsWeb subsidiary. However, the same thing could happen to anybody, including to the hard drive in your own computer.
    I keep all my family tree data in MyHeritage’s online service and I love it. But I don’t trust it to be perfect forever and ever. I still make backups of all my genealogy database records (via GEDCOM files) on the first day of every month. I save those GEDCOM files on my own hard drives(s) and ALSO copy the backups to two different file storage services in the cloud.
    I strongly suggest that every genealogist should always have current backups, regardless of WHERE they store their data. Ideally, those backups should be kept “off site.” That is, not in your home. I also suggest you have 2 or 3 or more backups, stored in different places. Don’t depend on only one backup!

    Liked by 1 person


    Further to this comment Dick would be to clarify that images of any kind linked to ones file be they online or from your own computer are NOT included in a GEDCOM file. A GEDCOM only takes the data. This is why we need all types of back-ups done on a regular basis.

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    —> Dick would be to clarify that images of any kind linked to ones file be they online or from your own computer are NOT included in a GEDCOM file. A GEDCOM only takes the data.

    True!

    For further information, please read my GEDCOM Explained article at: https://blog.eogn.com/2014/05/24/gedcom-explained/

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Thank you for this valuable information. Thank goodness, I made copies of my ancestors’ records on Fold3, because they are no longer available there. I will pass this information on to all my genealogy friends.You are doing a great service to the genealogical community with your blogs.Marilyn

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I believe record images that are linked to a person in your Ancestry tree can disappear. Another thing to be aware of is if you don’t have a subscription to Ancestry, even though you can see your tree, you can’t see any of the images that you’ve linked to at Ancestry.
If you want to ensure that you will always be able to see an image, whether you have a subscription or the Ancestry still has an agreement with an archive, download the image to your hard drive and then back up your research in multiply ways and multiple places.

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I suggest that your readers familiarize themselves with archive.org.If the website contains static databases, i.e., if the information desired is not created on the fly, via a search, you can often find the database via the Wayback Machine. I’ve used it often successfully, like when Ancestry took down the Early New Netherland Settlers database on Rootsweb. I just tried it on a 3 year old http://bklyn-genealogy-info.stevemorse.org database successfully.

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Looked at from the European perspective I find that I am being barred from some US sites (principally newspapers) citing GDPR

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Reblogged this on Robin Forlonge Patterson's Thoughts and commented:
All of ny genealogist friends should heed this article, another excellent piece of writing from Dick Eastman.

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Two questions: (1) I have tried to download records from Ancestry using screenhots but only get a copy of the portion of the page. I’m interested in the full page with neighbors, and a copy of the Source box. If I copy the small full page, I’m unable to read the names, even with a zoom function. I have attempted to copy and paste the page, but only the link to the page shows. Is there a way to accomplish what I have described? (2) I have a Heritage account, but of course, the actual copies of records did not transfer from Ancestry. With Heritage I am shown summary information. In what way does Heritage offer a better download feature of records? Thanks for sharing your expertise.

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    You can purchase a product online called Snagit. It allows you to basically photograph a whole or part of a page displayed on your computer. I’ve been using it for years and love it. There are likely other programs that do the same thing.

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    Beverly: Thank you so much!! I downloaded Snagit and it does the trick. I am very relieved.

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