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.


  1. One thing that drives me mad with FamilySearch is that they don't tell you what's in the database online. Not only can you not cite it "properly", you can't even cite it improperly. Many "collections" will state the location, type of record, and a date range, but there's no way to find out which films have been digitized or indexed in each collection, so we have no idea what's been done and what hasn't, or where the records actually came from. I think they sometimes take different groups of records on film and bunch them together when digitized. And when they have images online, the numbering scheme doesn't correspond to the films at all.

  2. Having used online genealogy (carefully) since 1996, I'm ready to weep that after 15 years citations are still in a fail state.

  3. Great article, Myrt.

    It's just time, isn't it.

    Time for technologists and genealogist to come together and get 'er done!

  4. I remember that a while back, Lisa Louise Cooke brought up this topic in her podcast. She tried to get an answer from both Ancestry & FamilySearch & got nothing from them. It would make it so much easier for us if the source was in the metadata...

  5. Boy! I thought I was the only one irritated with FamilySearch & their incomprehensible, incomplete, and (deliberately?) confusing databases. Guess there are LOTS of others that feel the same. While I salute their opening up hundreds of thousands of records, I sure wish they could make it clearer where they came from. I'm not a certified genealogist by any stretch of imagination & since I'm several hundreds and at least 3 states from where the majority of my family records are kept, I HAVE to rely on online records. FamilySearch, for all their help, continues to make it harder than it should be.

  6. Dear Myrt: The work-a-rounds I'm using now to print webpages & images, plus annotate.

    Making My Way In The Technology World Today Takes Everything I've Got.

    You are always an inspiration!


  7. 21st Century Comment-Hungry Myrt,

    One comment, free of charge:
    Perhaps the BetterGEDCOM project can set a standard for web sites and applications to follow?

    - Tamura

  8. I have found the to be one of the most helpful record collections on the web and this is an area they do well in. Whenever you access a record image, they add the individual's name (from the index) along with the GROS record identifier in a bar along the top of the image file; very well done and unobtrusive. I think they've been doing this since 2008 or so.

  9. The biggest problem with FamilySearch is not always that it does not provide citations--the problem is that they are giving us inaccurate information in the citations. See my post "A suggestion for FamilySearch ..." at
    In the post I mentioned that FS had cited a "county courthouse" in the wrong town! After my post was published, someone has now changed it on the FS Wiki, but this causes its own problems. I don't know where they found their records. They should be telling us where they found them!

  10. I am so happy you addressed this subject, I thought it was me not understanding "the how to" when it came to citations. Now I know I'm not alone.

  11. NEHGS did a wonderful with citations on their old web site, I am sorry to see that they dropped this on their new web site. Looks like they are trying to be like all the other genealogy web sites, and that's not what we need.

  12. From Tamura:
    Dearest Myrtle,

    FYI (although I guess you know most or all of this already):

    ourFamily•ology supports sources.
    TNG supports sources. added source support.
    WikiTree was inspired to add sources by "Geniology".

    I'm sure there is more.

    Still, yes, I agree with you, the big players are making kind of mess of it :-(