Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Ancestry.com Source citations leave a lot to be desired

Reader Lenny left a comment on an earlier blog post (FamilySearch Beta Library Search - FAIL) that said:

"I'm not sure if you take questions on FTM. If not, can you direct me to someone who does (other than the company itself)? If so, my question is: I notice that the the reference on facts taken from public member trees do not reference a specific tree - only "Ancestry.com, Public Member Trees (Provo, UT, USA....". Am I missing something? Is this a source that will ever help anyone else find the record? It seems too vague to me. Thanks much.-Lenny"

The comment appears to stem from data in an Ancestry Member Tree on http://www.ancestry.com/ that was attached to a person in the tree and then downloaded to Family Tree Maker and when Lenny looked at the source of that data, it said "Ancestry.com, Public Member Trees (Provo, UT, USA...."

Lenny really hit the nail on the head, didn't he? It is an excellent set of observations and questions. Lenny, I don't think you're missing anything - it's just that Ancestry.com does a poor job of creating useful source citations for many of their databases.

I tried to duplicate Lenny's problem in my Ancestry Member Tree and, unfortunately, succeeded. There were 13 Ancestry Member Trees that include information about my ancestor, Zachariah Hildreth (1754-1828).

Ancestry.com provided me with a Shaky Leaf Hint and invited me to combine information from one or all of them with my own information. I picked one family tree titled "How Family" and combined the data for Zachariah and his wife to the people in my tree. Here is the Source information for the online family tree that I accessed:

Well, that looks even sparser than the source that Lenny got in his FTM database. I clicked on the "Details" link to the right of the "Source" line, and saw additional information:

This is pretty much what Lenny got in Family Tree Maker. Note that the source citation does not include the name of the particular Member Tree. Why in the world doesn't the source citation at least provide the name of the Member Family Tree that the data was obtained from, and the Ancestry member's name? That information was provided in the "How Family" tree page that I selected from the Shaky Leaf Hints.

Fresh from this frustration, I noticed that there was another Shaky Leaf Hint for Zachariah Hildreth - his birth was in the Westford, Massachusetts Vital Records book. So I attached that hint to Zachariah Hildreth, and took a look at the Source and Citation:

The "Source" line says "Name: Massachusetts Town Birth Records; Repository: Ancestry.com" The "Citation" line says: "Actual text: Birth data: Jan. 13 1754, Birth Place: Westford" and the "Web address: with the URL to the record" (not an image, but the Ancestry created "transcription" of the record).

I clicked on the "Details" link again and saw more information:

They added more details in the "Details" including:
"Author: New England Historic Genealogical Society"
"Publisher: Online publication - Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 1999. Original data - Vital Records of Bellingham Massachusetts to the Year 1850. Boston: New England Historic Genealogical Society, 1904. Vital Records of Granville Massachusetts to the Year "

Huh? I thought the information came from Westford MA, and not Bellingham or Granville? What in the world has happened here? The answer lies in the "Source Information" on the page of the Ancestry record for this source:

The "Source Information" lists seven "Vital Records of [town] Massachusetts to the Year 1850" that are included in the New England Historic Genealogical Society database. That list does not include Westford or the other hundred and some vital records books in the NEHGS book collection. However, the data from those hundred some towns are in the NEHGS database accessed by Ancestry.com.

The Source information and Citation details provided for records in this "Massachusetts Town Birth Records" collection are severely flawed - they don't accurately name the town where the record is from, and they don't provide the citation for the actual book with the information that gets attached to the fact, and is downloaded to the Family Tree Maker (or other software) database.

My advice to Lenny, and all users of online family trees that want satisfactory and useful source citations, is to NOT attach any Ancestry Family Tree data or other database information to your Ancestry Member Tree. If there is data in an online family tree or online database that you want to use, then write it down and add it by hand (or copy and paste it) to your online tree, or to your Family Tree Maker database on your computer. Then create your own sources for that information in either your online tree or your software database, using the principles and models found in the book Evidence! Explained or in the Quick Sheets (both authored by Elizabeth Shown Mills). This is unfortunate, but is necessary in order to avoid having thousands of really bad source citations in your family tree database.

For instance, a Full Reference Note for the Online Tree data for Zachariah Hildreth above might read (adapted from: Elizabeth Shown Mills, QuickSheet Citing Ancestry.com Databases & Images Evidence! Style, Genealogical Publishing Co., Baltimore, 2009):

1. "Public Member Trees," database, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com/ - accessed 11 May 2010), "How Family" entry for Zachariah Hildreth (1754-1828); submitted by [user name], citing New England Historic Genealogical Society. Massachusetts Town Birth Records [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 1999. Original data: Vital Records of Westford MA to the end of 1849, The Essex Institute, Salem MA, 1915.

Will Ancestry.com ever get sources and citations correct in their databases? It's not that hard - even this blithering blogger can do it, but it takes time and practice. The QuickSheets for Historical Resources and Ancestry.com Databases really help.

Thank you, Lenny, for the comment, for the opportunity to constructively criticize Ancestry.com's source citations (and they are not alone!), and the chance to practice my source citation skills! I hope this answered your question.


bgwiehle said...

I've just run into a similar problem with the new FamilySearch vital records databases: e.g. Collection: Ohio Marriages, 1800-1958. Luckily, each entry includes the Source Film Number, which can be checked in the FHL catalog. However, the catalog is not referenced in the pages describing the sources of the collection.

Brian said...

I've stopped doing this awhile back, mainly for the reason stated above. I also didn't like adding other data to my tree on the site, but not in my software (main database) so I add everything by hand to check later.

They could have a wonderfully powerful system with just a few minor changes.

Barbara Poole said...

Randy, I stopped adding online records because it was slowing down my computer, then, when I dropped Ancestry there were problems. Then too, I like to word a source my own way. Your Seavers in my tree are all sourced as yours.

Tonia Kendrick said...

Randy, just wanted to say thanks for the citation example. I have Evidence Explained, but I have always struggled with the best way to cite online family trees. I was not aware that there was a quicksheet dealing with Ancestry databases. This is very helpful.

Geolover said...

Thanks for pointing to this ongoing, plaguey issue.

There are a lot of databases on Ancestry.com that say they are from some contractor's extracts of a microfilm, but when they are LDS-FHL microfilm numbers they are not identified as such.

There are also many subcontractor-compiled databases that even list (say) 20-odd specific churches' records as the source-data, but do not specify which record comes from what church record.

These are just a few of the thousands of such citation problems.

Unknown said...

Thanks for the quick response to my question. It saved me a lot of head banging - because I assumed it was something I was missing. Seems like references (and the pass-through of solid references from tree to tree) should be a strength, not a weakness, of a paid service. I've pretty much depended on Ancestry.com to find my ancestors. My impression is that they have the most data (by far). Maybe I'm wrong about that too. Any good sources besides AdotCom - especially looking for Italian and Irish records. Lenny

Elizabeth O'Neal said...

Thanks, Randy. Just what I was looking for!

Rick Crume said...

Randy, today I'm resending you an e-mail message regarding this posting. Regards, Rick Crume

Peg said...

As a paid researcher in D.C., I can tell you that the majority of the source citations for NARA records at ancestry and footnote are incorrect and useless. They are given LDS microfilm numbers, when it was NARA who microfilmed the original records with NARA equipment, done by NARA employees, at taxpayers expense. The NARA data sets are not only improperly cited at these subscription sites, but they are also incomplete, with indexes and search engines that are so poorly done that they are time consuming and useless. MANY of the NARA records were omitted from these databases because the originals were too dark or too light to scan from the microfilm.

The average person, unless they use the NARA records on a regular basis, doesn't have any idea how many of these source citations are ridiculously incorrect...and the subscription services know this. They apparently don't proofread anything before rushing it to market, the quicker the better, and their attitude is clear from the commercials: "You don't have to know anything!" They prefer it that way.