Thursday, November 12, 2015

Not All Sources Are What They Seem

The source information provides on some indexes might be misleading. Extremely misleading.

Take for example this one:

England, Select Births and Christenings, 1538-1975

Reading all the above, without following the link to the FamilySearch website, one would likely assume that all the entries originally came from official birth and christening records. It’s an index, so there could be transcription errors. It’s a secondary source. But it is still a transcription from a primary source, right? Or at least a transcription of a transcription since sometimes those vital records get transcribed by churches and governments. Thinking carefully, we may not know how many transcriptions there have been, but somewhere in the distant past there was a primary record. Right?

Let’s go to FamilySearch
“Vital Records Index” seems self explanatory, and sounds like what we expect. But what is the International Genealogical Index?
The IGI contains individual records of birth or christening, marriage, and death or burial for people all over the world. The IGI was first published in 1973 by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; it was then closed in 2008, which means that no more information can be added to the index. The IGI was created from two unique sources: first the entries from the IGI were abstracted and indexed from original vital records by volunteers. The second was community contributed, which means that individuals would add in their own personal family names, which are not always the most accurate.
Nice use of understatement at the end of the description there. Yes, the database at Ancestry which implies that it comes from vital records includes family tree information provided by individuals with no fact checking and no indication of where the information truly came from.

Here’s an Ancestry record from that database for a great-aunt of mine. I don’t have her birth certificate, but I guarantee you that she was not born in England. Those are her parents’ names though, so it’s not an issue of two people with the same name. This is clearly an example of “community contributed” information to the IGI.

Going to Family Search and actually looking up the Film Number, you can find two entries for Minnie Ray. The Alston, Cumberland, England birth, and a San Marcos, Hays, Texas birth. As I said above, I don’t have a birth certificate. And while both entries are likely “community contributed” only one can possibly be correct. Theoretically, both could be wrong in some fashion. However, the San Marcos, Hays, Texas record, even if not 100% correct, puts you closer by a few miles. (Another use of understatement.)

I would be curious how the community contributor made the mistake. My suspicion is that their notes got jumbled and a place of birth for one person got swapped in by mistake. An easy human error to make. The existence of two entries with the same Indexing Project Number and Film Number suggests they may have come from the same contributor, and maybe they were confused about her birth for some reason and had two entries, and they both got submitted to the IGI.

While I was able to find both of these entries at FamilySearch, I believe Ancestry has only used these FamilySearch databases for non-US data. So the Texas entry didn't come up in my search.


Not all sources are what they seem. The international indexes of Select Births and Christenings, Select Births and Baptisms, Select Deaths and Burials, and Select Marriages that cite back to FamilySearch as their original source? Don’t assume the information in these indexes all come from vital records. How much of the data is based on vital records, and how much was community contributed is unclear.

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