Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

The Challenge of Using Online Records

A patron at the Mesa Regional Family History Center asked a question that pointed out one significant challenge in doing online and microfilm research. She asked me about some land records in Maryland and was puzzled by a reference to the "folio" number. In doing online or microfilm research there is frequently a dislocation between the physical condition of the source and the records viewed. This question by the patron is a good example, she had no idea that likely the land records consisted of separate pages of deeds and other documents which could either be bound in a book or kept together in some sort of folder. The folio number is usually the number of the page of the document in the collection. Folio could also refer to the size of the documents and historically a folio could be a large piece of paper folded in half to make four pages.

In the case of land records the most likely use of the term was to number the various documents that were deposited in that particular Maryland Court record.

Now, that said, the challenge presented by electronic viewing of records is that we miss the association with other records of the same type which may be physically located next to the ones we are interested in and we also miss the seeing exactly how the documents appear in their actual physical location. Both of these pieces of information are extremely valuable to researchers. For example, if I am looking at land records online, I find the one document I am interested in and may even have a scanned image, but what if right next to this document, in the repository, there are several others dealing with the same transaction? Many times the physical association with other documents is lost entirely through the electronic scanning.

The same thing can happen in a cemetery photo, I may find the photograph of the gravemarker of my relative, but lose the fact that there are several family graves in the same location. I must depend on the person taking the photo or scanning the document to give me this additional information. Unfortunately, the larger databases have a tendency to obscure any associative information that could have been obtained from looking at the actual physical record or document or gravemarker.

What all this means is that there is still no complete substitute for going places to look at original records. The bare transcription of the written word or even a photo of the page will not give us all the information that may be available by looking at the documents themselves. So when people ask me whether or not to travel to a remote location to look at records, I tell them to make sure they know what is online first, but that there is sometimes no substitute for seeing the record, the gravemarker or the having the deed in your hand.

1 comment:

  1. You are absolutely correct on this. Many local courthouses, libraries and archives hold items that are not microfilmed, never mind digitized. In addition to actually seeing and touching an historic record, I find it invaluable to visit the locations my ancestors lived to seek out original records. Who knew there was an actual record book with burials recorded in my hometown? Not me--until I got there and nosed around. I had missed some important burials using a printout from the city's electronic database that I found in the library. I found those in the original burial logs. Funny, there weren't any computers when the cemetery was founded, nor for the first 150+ years of burials.