Genealogists of the online variety are all wrapped up in exploring online digital sources. But it is important to understand their basic limitations. In some cases, finding a digitized source may simply be the very first step in a reasonably exhaustive search. Here is a step-by-step examination of document reliability including moving the image of the document to a digitized online database. You will note that at ever step there is a possibility that the information may be unreadable or incorrectly categorized.
Phase One: Creation of the Original Document
The original documents media and format will depend on the time depth of its creation. Obviously, genealogical research can go back over a thousand years. Now, there are several things that can go wrong with the document at the time of its creation. They include the following:
- The creator of the document copies down the wrong information
- Names are misspelled or even incorrect
- Dates are recorded incorrectly
- Places are misidentified
- The creator of the document procrastinates the creation and works from a faulty memory
- The creator of the document cannot write legibly
Phase Two: Preservation of the Original Documents
Once that original document is created, it must be preserved. Once again the obvious fact is that failure to preserve the original will make it unavailable for research. Of course careful conservation of the document is ideal, but in many cases original documents and files are stored in less than ideal circumstances. Natural conditions in most parts of the world are not conducive to the preservation of original documents. Even if the documents are stored in the best possible manner, the natural process of deterioration may make the originals unreadable. For example, newsprint has a life expectancy of no more than about 100 years even if conserved properly. Photographs fade. Other chemical and physical changes take place. Inks fade and paper yellows. Many people looked at lamination as a method of preservation, only to find out that the lamination material often deteriorated faster than the documents themselves. Over the years, I have fought with many a photo album where the mounting method virtually destroyed the photos. I have also dealt with mold, water damage and many other "preservation" hazards. The danger here is that the document becomes unreadable.
Phase Three: Investigation of the Original Documents
Even the act of doing research in original documents can be destructive. At one time, conservationists believed it was necessary to use white gloves to handle any old documents. That belief is changing as they find that the fibers from the gloves can do more damage than clean hands. Use of the document or file it is stored in may damage the document and make it unreadable.
Phase Four: Copying the Original
Historically, valuable documents were copies by hand. For example, many parish registers now exist as Bishop's transcripts. These manual copies basically put us back in Phase One, with all the possible errors of the original plus the fact that the original may be unreadable. After about 1850 or so, it was physically possible that a copy could be made photographically. Beginning in the 1930s microfilm became the media of choice for preservation efforts. In some cases, original documents now only exist in microfilm copies. Finally, in the late 1900s, beginning in about 1960 or so, it was theoretically possible to make a digital copy of the original. This process was first used as wirephotos, images that were sent by news wire services telephonically. Later the signals were captured by computers and digital images were possible. Subsequently, the process of digitizing both original documents and copies of the originals including microfilm were developed. No matter what method was used to copy the original there was always the danger that all or part of the information in the original would be lost.
Phase Five: The Digital Image
Guess what? Having a digital image is not the ultimate answer to the problems. At this point you might begin to believe that it is nothing short of a miracle that any original documents are available today. You might be right. But remember, digitization depends on all the preceding phases having resulted in a readable copy or original. There is an old statement I use frequently, you can't get blood out of a turnip. This statement means that absent a readable copy or original, you can't get a readable digital copy. Yes, there are image enhancement processes that can be applied that in some cases are remarkable, but for run-of-the-mill documents, this type of enhancement is not usually available. So now you have your digitized image online, so what? You must still look at it, analyze it and determine if the information is accurate and consistent. Plus, you have all of the time between the creation of the original and today to make the information useless.
Having a digital image of a document is only the bare beginning of the genealogical research process. How you manage the documents and what you do next determines if you are a genealogist or merely a name gatherer.