Using Off-beat Record Sources in Genealogy

One of the points the National Genealogical Society makes in its “Standards for Sound Genealogical Research” publication is to:

“seek original records, or reproduced images of them when there is reasonable assurance they have not been altered, as the basis for their research conclusions”.

is a good one. One of the major sources of genealogical information is They offer a huge amount “reproduced images” of “original records.” The images however, have sometimes been altered to show ownership of that record. This is an improper practice given that the original has been modified in ways that sometimes cut their validity and use as primary sources of information.

Notwithstanding the policy of Ancestry, Inc. to give accurate records, they are claiming ownership of materials that are in the public domain and/or not eligible for copyright protection. These records have become compilations, according to the NGS’s standards.

“use compilations, communications and published works, whether paper or electronic, primarily for their value as guides to locating the original records … ”.

By citing directly to the record compilation as provided by, one is effectively using a secondary source. Even though Ancestry does offer a clue about the original source, it remains a fact that their records are only “guides to locating the original records”.

Many genealogists find that the records provided by to be enough for their purposes. This is unfortunate, however, as using this record group is only one step in the research process. Finding the record closest to the original is the next step.

Using the census as an example, one would best go to the nearest National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) facility to view the record on microfilm. This is what I do for my research and I cite the record as such. I also do this research professionally for those researchers who prefer the best sources available.

The records from are useful only as “contributions to the critical analysis of the evidence discussed in them”. This analysis aspect is good for all records found online as the majority of records we use as genealogists are not found online. The originals are found in repositories such as the NARA facility in Seattle, Washington where I do my research.

As a genealogist for hire, I find an obligation to do this type of research not only for myself, but also for others. It is one way to give back to the community. Although I do ask that my expenses be covered, as a professional ought to, it is a business transaction of the simplest sort. You can contact me and arrange for lookups in a number of primary records available through NARA or another repository in the Pacific Northwest region.


© 2012 N. P. Maling — Sea Genes Family History & Genealogy Research


3 thoughts on “Using Off-beat Record Sources in Genealogy

  1. First, let me say to anyone else who is reading this, that Mr. Maling has done excellent and well documented research on branches of families that we share, but has also done research for me on other branches of my family that happened to be in the Pacific Northwest, and his work is meticulous, well documented and logically analized. Anyone seeking a genealogist in that area would be well served to seek him out.

    As to this post in particular, I think it depends on how intensively someone is searching, or whether they are attempting to take a scholarly approach, whether or not they need to refer to census films rather than scanned images of the census. The further back research takes one, the greater the need to verify and examine the actual sources.

    I think much more dangerous on Ancestry is the ease with which material is incorporated,
    seemingly almost on auto pilot, from one tree to another. In this area in particular it is essential that that information be used simply as a research guide, and perhaps as a way of contacting others to inquire into the sources of the information they have posted. If they have documentation such as family letters, or Aunt Sally’s notes, can these be cited? If copies can’t be obtained, can they be cites as , for example, letter from X to Y, as cited by ….

    If newspapers are scanned and available, either on Ancestry or another source, does one need to go further? If a birth or death record is scanned and available on FamilySearch is that sufficient? Obviously, again, the further back in time one goes, the fewer records exist to be scanned, and is not more productive to assume such scanned images are accurate and continue to work backward in time? Death certificates are only as accurate as the informant’s knowledge, but the originals won’t provide any added benefit, will they?

    It’s 4 a.m., and I’m not re-reading or spell checking, so forgive me for anything that might have benefitted from a good editing.

  2. Well said. I make every attempt to get the original or a copy of the original. If it is a family record I make a note to the fact. Thank you for posting such great information. If I had connections in your area, I would definately feel comfortable with any work you would do for me.

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