A Little Birdy Told Me
Online record transcripts created by volunteers have long been treated with wary suspicion by experienced researchers. To our jaundiced eyes, the stereotypical such transcript is a list of some McIldoos extracted by Johnny McIldoo from a bigger list of McIldoos he “found on the internet”.
Like it or not, though, all of us are coming to depend more and more on volunteer transcriptions, so it’s time to try to get a more nuanced view of just how good or bad individual projects are.
Ranked top has to be the Mormon’s FamilySearch.org. All of the billion or so records searchable on the site were created by volunteer transcribers, and the methods used are now second to none: every record is copied separately twice, compared automatically and any discrepancies flagged and adjudicated by a third party. It is as close to perfection as possible and, like perfection, remains theoretical. The problems with the Tithe Books transcripts (titheapplotmentbooks.nationalarchives.ie) are a case in point. And the double-copy method is relatively recent. Searching the extracts from Irish state birth records 1864-81 on FamilySearch can produce peculiar results. Three separate early transcripts of the same record, none of them full, many of them inaccurate, can pop up simultaneously. The attitude seems to be “Let God sort them out”.
Less systematic methods can also produce worthwhile results, but the quality depends entirely on the individual. The best examples include the gravestone inscriptions at interment.net, the passenger lists at immigrantships.net and, especially for Ireland, the county-by-county sources at igp-web.com, where dedicated individuals devote large amounts of time to making transcripts freely available. Their task is Sisyphean, but it is no longer so important that a transcript be complete. If it’s online, Google can find it.
But do remember still that when you’re asked how you know your great-granny’s name, saying “I found it on the internet” is the precise equivalent of saying “a little birdy told me”.