Monday, May 11, 2009

America's Obituaries - incomplete

So I was visiting a local message board where someone asked for help in looking up an obituary. Being the helpful sort, I checked the St. Louis Post Dispatch indexes, and they were listed, so I knew the exact issues the obituaries appeared in. Since they were recent obituaries (1995 and 2001) and I have a GenealogyBank subscription, I realized I’d be able to make them very happy by sending them the obituaries within a few hours of their asking for them.

But they weren’t on GenealogyBank. I blinked. GB claims they have the Post Dispatch obituaries Jan 1, 1988 to current.

A few quick test searches revealed the issue. GenealogyBank allows you to search by date and state alone, and pull up every obituary they have that appeared on that date in a particular state. Their database isn’t complete.

A search on one date – December 2, 1995 - yielded 10 results in the state of Missouri, and all of them in the Kansas City Star.

The other date – December 5, 2001 – yielded 19 results for the Post Dispatch, but not the obituary I was seeking, and according to the online index, should be there. By 2001 the obituary listings should be over 20 people daily in St. Louis. One week later on Dec 12, there are 72 entries.

It's not GenealogyBank's fault. The source they list for their Post Dispatch obituaries is America’s Obituaries, which is the same one NewsBank uses, so it is the same one I can access for free through the St. Louis County Library’s database, and the same one that the Post Dispatch website’s fee-based Obituary Archive uses. I checked, but unsurprisingly, since they use the same database, these obituaries don’t appear on any of the three sites. I, or another volunteer, will have to look these obituaries up on microfilm.

None of the sites appear to warn the user that the database is incomplete. They all seem to imply that they are complete from January 1, 1988 to current date. This isn't the case.

I suspect this is also true for other newspapers. (For example, I suspect the Kansas City Star had more than 10 death notices on Dec 2, 1995.) So researchers need to know - if a search turns up empty on these databases, that doesn't necessarily mean that no obituary appeared in that newspaper for that person. The particular obituary might just be absent from the database, as the database is incomplete.

No online database should really be assumed complete - as the data is entered by humans, and to err is human. But I think many of us get into a habit of thinking "I searched that database online, so I found all that was there - there's no need to actually look at the microfilm." Sometimes you do.


kinfolknews said...

You are spot on with this blog. I've been searching for Texas obits for sometime and can never be sure that the obit will be found in the online databases. Thanks for the reminder that "everything is not online"!
~ Regina

David said...

The database with the StL Post is woefully incomplete. Finding an obit before the late 1990s seems to be a challenge. It's almost not worth the time. Too bad this problem hasn't been addressed (or that the early years of the Post or Globe haven't been digitized given that StL, once upon a time, was kind of a big deal).

I got over the holes in this database long ago. My pet peeve is that the obits are rarely formatted in the same way they appeared in the paper.