Archivist Palaeographer Historical Researcher in UK Midlands
Pre-census genealogy. Ancestral Biography. Mediaeval & Early Modern Latin translated.
Full of holes
Genealogy on the Web
The World Wide Web has revolutionized genealogical research. Anyone, anywhere in the world can now make a very good start on their family tree, maybe even get back several generations at the same time as e-mailing distant cousins and getting that spooky feeling about our likenesses.
As with other areas of knowledge and human experience, the web can give us an illusory sense of comprehensiveness and completeness. But pre-web genealogists can tell us that there is much much more “out there”. There is far more written evidence in English archives than is currently available on the web, and it can enrich our knowledge if we dig deeper into it. Sometimes the online indices and sources will mislead; checking against primary sources can be a valuable corrective. Background knowledge about a geographical area or source may be essential too; primary sources alone do not make good research.
So where are the biggest holes in online genealogy?
The Index doesn’t tell the whole story
When you buy a book, you don’t just read the index, do you? Many of the online sources are just indexes, but some family historians are quite happy to take information from them, believe them completely, and consider their work done.
IGI (International Genealogical Index)
The IGI is a fantastic index mainly of pre-1837 baptisms, and marriages. It has been created from parish and other registers and from data provided by family historians. http://www.familysearch.org
Check coverage using http://freepages.genealogy.rootsweb.com/~hughwallis/IGIBatchNumbers.htm#PageTitl
Fill the known gaps by visiting archives and searching the registers yourself
There is a lot of detail in parish registers that is missed by the IGI: between 1812 and 1837 baptism and burial registers include occupations and addresses for example, and marriage registers can be very informative from 1754 onwards.
Transcription errors make it imperative that the original records be checked too.
A2A (http://www.a2a.org.uk/) is a growing index of English archive material in local record offices, hosted by the National Archives.
Detail varies, but the serious family or local historian will want to follow up entries in A2A with a visit to the archive.
Coverage is far from complete; if you spot a few relevant documents by searching A2A, you are very likely to discover much more when you visit the archive office personally or using a professional researcher.
The PCC Wills Index is searchable on the National Archives website. Images of documents are downloadable for a fee. But this is a tiny proportion of the wills and inventories available in local archives from the middle ages to 1858. A handful of archives have published their wills index on A2A; the Cheshire Record Office allows online ordering of photocopies. But wills are an essential source for family history that is not yet fully available online. Arrange a visit to the archive or enlist the help of a professional researcher.