There are no genealogical records on the internet

There are no genealogical records on the internet. There are garbled extracts, inaccurate transcripts, more-or-less complete copies with (if you’re lucky) an accompanying image. But there are no actual records. For anyone doing research online, this is a very basic point, but one that can be difficult to grasp. The original records are all offline, “reality-based” as Donald Rumsfeld used to say, in archives and manuscript repositories and presbyteries and books.

Bantry July24 1825
An accompanying image: Bantry RC registers July 24, 1825, with the Earl of Bantry’s indiscretion handled very discreetly.

The reason to keep this in mind is the seductive ease of access that the internet allows. This can mask great gulfs in apparently continuous runs of records, or transcription errors compounding record-keeping errors, not to mention large gaps in the search interfaces themselves.

This is most apparent to anyone searching the (otherwise wonderful) Latter-Day Saints’ site, familysearch.org: records are lumped together and described with the broadest of brushes, making it difficult to be sure what exactly you’re looking at. Have I really searched all Irish marriages up to 1898? (No) Are these three separate records of three different events or three different transcripts of the same record?

Luke Roche 1869
According to FamilySearch my great-grandparents had triplets. And named them all Luke.

And the same problems crop up on every record site. Parish registers that are listed as transcribed and searchable are somehow missing from search results, while General Register Office records not listed somehow appear in search results (rootsireland.ie). “Mc Dermott” and “McDermott” are treated as completely unrelated surnames (irishgenealogy.ie). Record images exist online, but for some reason remain untranscribed (census.nationalarchives.ie).

The only solution goes back to the very first principle of all research: know absolutely, precisely, exactly what records you’ve searched, their dates, page numbers, locations, shelf references, gaps, original purposes … If you don’t, and you find nothing, you will certainly end up searching the same records all over again some time. If you do find something, and don’t have details of the record source, it becomes impossible to interpret. And you will certainly end up searching the same records all over again some time.

I know.  I have been both of those researchers.

The rule is very simple: If you don’t know what you’ve searched, you don’t know what you’ve found.

6 thoughts on “There are no genealogical records on the internet”

  1. Yes, a very good point. After 3 years of working, and learning, I am going to start over and journal searches as I go.

    Duplicates occure on Ancestry when you add information from another tree.

    My 2nd GGF told the census that he was from Dunmore, Galway about 1839. That’s where my search began.

  2. I need to start from scratch . I have been showered with information, same names, same dates, different areas of Ireland. It is a bit unsettling to see one of my grandfathers having several different wives and 30+ children! This all came from other researchers with no positive records or dates. Thank you John. I will keep hunting! 😊

  3. You’re not surely suggesting the original record is the truth! “Mother’s baby, father’s maybe”. Would we be more likely to be misled by socially convenient fiction in an original record or a problem with an internet image of the record (not a transcript) not faithfully reproducing the original?

  4. Agree with article contents and would like to raise some points. If challenged, can each of us searching our roots justify the reasons for doing so ? Should every person born in the country past ( where possible), present and future have their BMD recorded ? People records are scattered all over the place so should those of us involved in research be calling for a State department to collect and make available all records ?

  5. Thank you for your service. I do not need it any longer. Please unsubscribe me. I could find no place to do that.

  6. I look at it in terms of probababilities. You can never be 100%, there will always be some human error (in transcription, in keying, in what what was actually reported, etc.). Not all events are recorded. Ancestry.com constantly updates records – without explaining what was updated – when I see the 1850 US Census is updated, does that mean they found new records, did they make new transcriptions, did they find improved scans of some of the images.

    For all of my direct ancestors, I constantly try to add more records – as those will at a minimum give more more assurance that the info I have is correct; often it helps flesh out the life story and sometimes even gives insights into unknown relatives.

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