Over the Christmas / New Year break I did a bit more topiary, grafting and such like on my family tree and had cause to look back over a lot of the notes I made a decade or so ago, back when very few records were available online, let alone searchable, and one had to go to – gasp – archives and libraries and trail through indexes, microfiche, microfilm and documents.
Back then, most genealogists in the UK would have had to put in considerable mileage travelling from one county record office to the next, as a great many standard record types important to family history were housed in these regional repositories, and after all, very few of us can claim ALL of our ancestors to have been from within the same county. There were some alternatives to all this travelling, though these did not necessarily cost any less: one could in some cases engage a local researcher or record office staff to undertake searches, copying etc. on one’s behalf, or for certain specific sets of records there might be CDs or microfiche indexes available for purchase from a family history society. In addition, quite a lot of online mailing lists and usergroups for genealogy did exist back in the early Noughties, and the more lively ones were a great way to source local knowledge or ask someone to look something up efficiently and relatively quickly. Software for compiling and storing your tree was also available but had a rather introspective, card-index-like feel to it, on the whole.
I was really lucky back then that my parents had the National Library of Wales practically on their doorstep, (a) because an awful lot of my ancestors were Welsh and (b) since that institution held (and still holds) most of the census, parish, probate and civil registration records for the whole of Wales (and the whole of the UK, in the case of the censuses and civil registration). I could esconce myself in there for days on end, oscillating between the card indexes, reference shelves, microfiche / microfilm readers and the manuscript room, with only the teensiest of coffee and lunch breaks as I Was Busy.
Although there were always helpful staff on hand to help, you really did need to have some specific knowledge of what kind of thing you were looking for, and where, especially if you were interested in e.g. wills or parish records, which are stored in small batches according to name, parish and/or date. A memory of a relative mentioning a particular village as an ancestor’s birthplace, or a detail previously discovered in another source, could prompt you to order the box of parish records for that area from around that date – the ordering and the waiting for your order to arrive was an art in itself – and in my case I generally made sure I went through said box in detail, looking for any mentions of the family or families in question. You could strike gold and go home with a notebook full of a few generations of new family members, or you could draw a blank and have to go back to square one for the next onslaught. Additional frustrations might be posed by problems of actually reading the damn things due to challenges such as poor or unfamiliar handwriting (here I was hugely advantaged by my training in paleography but still hit a brick wall at times), faded ink, mouse-nibbled, water-, mould- or fire-damaged paper/parchment and a whole array of other inconveniences. Sometimes it was a relief to return to the microfilm reader…
Nowadays people researching their UK ancestors can access the fully searchable 1841-1911 censuses online (mostly by paid subscription), as well as large banks of digitized and/or transcribed parish records, civil registration indexes, wills, military and criminal records, to name just a selection of kinds of records available. With the kind of “global” search options that are often available, you can type in a name and find a distant relative in a corner of the country – or indeed a different country – that you hadn’t thought of looking in.
I’m sure I don’t need to explain the ways in which all this can make searching for ancestors quicker, more convenient, in certain senses easier and rather more likely to pick up some random far-flung offshoots of a family. But in looking back at my old handwritten notes, photocopies and typed up lists of data gleaned from library visits of yore, I realized that what is undoubtedly technical progress doesn’t always equate to a greater success rate or improved methodology for the genealogist.
Back then, I carefully noted down everything I found that I thought was relevant. By hand, initially, at the library, together with the precise details and order slip for the batch of documents consulted, and later typed up at home. And I still have all that today. With online searches, though, it can so easily occur that you modify your search terms so many times that you have lost track of what you’ve actually looked for where. Or you close a tab by accident, or your search times out, and then you might as well start again in some cases, if the design of the search function is poor. But finger-pointing aside, being overwhelmed with data can simply make you lazy about recording it efficiently, and I have to confess that the thoroughness of my own methodology has not always kept up with the pace of “technical progress”.
Another important point is lateral thinking. I have written in a previous post about why this is indispensible in genealogical research, but its particular relevance here is that the human brain is – at least at the time of writing – simply more adaptable than the most sophisticated of search engines. If you encounter a funny spelling of a name in a manuscript source but are nevertheless at least semi-convinced that it is a name you are looking for, then you note it down. Some of the genealogy websites have tried to take this into account by allowing soundex or metaphone searches, for example, but I have found that even the best of these can deal only with fairly “standard” variants on a known name or similar names, but not with the weirder attempts that can arise from unfamiliarity, semi-literacy or problems in interpreting a regional pronunciation or foreign name. To give just one example, some of my ancestors had the family name Everson. Not a hugely problematic name for an English speaker, you might think, and yet I have come across spellings ranging through Evarson, Evanson, Evison, Eveson, Evenson, Evason, Evinson, Eberson, Heberson, Iverson, Iveson, Ibyson – I’m probably forgetting a few – for members of my family, and even the best-adapted of search functions will only pick up a fraction of these, while there are still plenty of sites where you will only get hits that are 100% identical to what you have typed in as your search term.
And this leads on to a related point: other people’s transcriptions. For (most of) the censuses available on the FindMyPast or Ancestry sites, for example, the digitized images of the original census return books are available, but in general you need to enter search terms in order to turn up hits that might then lead you to look at the original images. And the problem here is that all of the personal and placenames have been transcribed and fed into the index / search engine, but in addition to the points of “natural” variability outlined above, there seem to be quite frequently errors in the transcriptions. Which once again means that you can’t find the people you’re looking for. The fact that a standard transcription of a given (and known) placename is also often lacking does not make it any easier in some cases to narrow down your search geographically. You simply can’t find Llantrisant (normal spelling) on some of the censuses, as they have consistently transcribed the place name as “Llan Trisant”, “Llantrisaint” etc. Or someone has misinterpreted a county name abbreviation and your Monmouthshire-born ancestor will only appear if you type in Montgomery as their county of birth. This necessitates a great deal of lateral thinking as a result of someone else’s carelessness or lack of local knowledge. Sites that have used non-moderated OCR for the purposes of indexing / making searchable content of e.g. newspaper articles produce similarly problematic results, albeit for different reasons.
One’s own laziness or haste can also become a problem when it comes to the online census records in particular: the transcriptions are (except for problems just mentioned) so beautifully legible and cut-and-pasteable that I’m sure some inexperienced researchers might dispense with looking at the actual census images altogether. But even if you think “Bingo! I’ve found the family I was looking for and all the information is there”, you’re missing so much if you don’t look at them in their neighbourhood context. SO many families in the nineteenth century lived close to relatives and/or other families with a similar (or, equally telling, vastly different) social status, and there is much to be learned from this, just as you learn so much more about life in an individual parish from trawling through the hatches, matches and dispatches over a course of years, than if you clinically cherry-pick all of the interesting names in an online search.
Having said all of this, there is no way I am going to turn my back on online genealogy research with its rollercoaster of instant revelations just sometimes being tempered by clanging orthographical frustration or the results of someone else’s inconsistency. Like hundreds of thousands of people around the world with this interest, I am tremendously grateful for all the effort, time and dedication that has been put into providing databases, transcriptions and the like, a LOT of this provided by volunteers who do it for the love of it and because they know what it’s worth to others. But for all the ease of access and wealth of data available, validation and documentation of sources has never been more important, particularly with the growth of social media applications enabling amateur genealogists to share their own data with the world.