Friday, June 24, 2011

21st Century genealogists: how websites are failing us

If you've been following this week's series of "21st century" blog posts, you'd see it appears every segment of the genealogy world EXCEPT websites has done a whole lot better about citing sources - making it easier to evaluate the variety of information that is available in a document. (The only exception are those quick-click "genealogy buffs" who still have a long way to go.)

Although there may be some challenges of late about just which of the many citation examples to follow, 21st century genealogists GET IT. They know they have to leave that big audit trail, if for nothing more than to readily compare newly acquired information with what's already been concluded about an ancestor.

This past February, Mark Tucker of wrote A Better Way to Cite Online Sources–Reprise where he referred to his April 2009 video [emphasis added] showing how citing online sources could be done.  It would be a partnership between online record repositories and desktop genealogy software. He even went so far as to "create a prototype close enough to the real thing to prove that it could be done and to help others visualize how it would work." 

Nope. In fact, FamilySearch, one of the largest genealogy sites has totally messed up citations. See GeneJ's posting Are FamilySearch "Historical Record Collection" sources really subject to open addition/edit? After reading GeneJ's comments, Ol' Myrt here must conclude that:
Apparently, FamilySearch trusts every Tom, Dick and Harry out there to be capable of composing reasonably accurate source citations. But if Tom, Dick and Harry don't work for FamilySearch, and didn't physically load the FamilySearch servers with scanned images to match the index, then how can end-users like GeneJ and Ol' Myrt here say for sure what the collection is about?

Also see GeneJ's subsequent blog post, A closer look at FamilySearch 'Historical Record Collection' source. where she writes "I don't know why someone chose to give the wiki a different name ("New Hampshire Statewide Deaths") than the database (New Hampshire Death Records, 1654-1947"). Personally, I found that a little confusing."  Ol' Myrt here couldn't agree more. The title of an index to scanned images should appear precisely in the title of the scanned image collection, and a proper source citation should accompany both.


Aside from poor citation samples online, there is another problem.

Where websites fail is that in printing a typical scanned images from a website, we are left with nothing more than our operating system's default to print the URL across the bottom of the page. That doesn't bode well for researchers who look for complete citations. In a recent Second Life genealogy voice chat, several researchers shared how they get around the problem:
  • If one is printing out a document from a website, put the paper back in the printer, and using a word processing program, insert a proper source citation to print along the margin of the document print-out.
  • If keeping the scanned image in digital format, open it immediately in photo editing software to add a border across the bottom, and then insert several lines of text that comprise the citation.
Competent genealogists have been let down by their favorite genealogy websites when it comes to having citations that "stick" to the online images we choose to  print or save offline. Is this because said websites wish us to rely on their online trees? I sure hope not. I'm never going for that plan, I want more control over my compiled data.

It has been some 2 years since Mark Tucker's suggestion. WHERE are the citation innovators? Maybe it is time to switch working on "improved search engine capability" and deal with citations, eh?

Until genealogy websites step up to the plate making accurate source citations an integral part of our online and offline experience, genealogists will be forced to jump through hoops to figure out the true source of the information each image at those sites provide.

Happy family tree climbing!
Myrt     :)
Your friend in genealogy.