Irish Roots

July 25th, 2011

John Grenham


There are no genealogical records on the internet. There are garbled extracts, inaccurate transcripts, if you're lucky a more-or-less complete copy with 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. The seductive ease of access that the internet allows can mask great gulfs in apparently continuous runs of records, transcription errors compounding record-keeping errors, and large gaps in search technology.

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? Are these three separate records of three different events or three different transcripts of the same record? 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. Automated variant searches omit "O" and Mac" surnames. Record images exist online, but for some reason remain untranscribed.

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, lacunae, original purposes ... If you don't, and you find nothing, you will certainly end up searching the same records all over again at some point in the future. If you do find something, and haven't kept details of the record source, it becomes impossible to interpret. And you will certainly end up searching the same records all over again at some point in the future.

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


Comments and suggestions are welcome, to irishrootsatirishtimes.com.


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