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Evaluating databases

Evaluating databases
The word Evaluate written on a blackboard
© Mathias Rosenthal,

As we’ve seen, genealogy databases are extremely numerous and varied and so it is important to be aware of the points to be considered in deciding whether a particular database is suitable for your research needs.


Most important is the coverage. Does the database cover the sources which could potentially provide the information you are looking for? If so, does it cover all the relevant surviving sources or only some of them, and are all the details from these sources made available in the database?

The three major international providers: Ancestry, Family Search and FindMyPast, host many large data collections with often fairly general titles which may not clearly convey their coverage. For example, the England & Wales marriages, 1538-1940 collection on Ancestry includes information “extracted from marriage records from selected various counties in England and Wales.” However, there is not a list of which counties are covered nor the time periods of coverage for each county.

It is important to seek out the full details of exactly which sources are covered and for what periods of time, as this can tell you why there is no information on an ancestor in a particular data collection. This information is usually provided on the providers’ websites, but may need some hunting for.

Transcriptions: amount of detail given and error rate

There is also the issue of how full a transcription of the source is actually given. Particularly in the case of Family Search, which returns search results in a fairly restricted format, some details may be left out, such as information on occupations and residences which can sometimes appear in the original church records.

This leads on to consideration of transcriptions and images of original sources. In very many cases, databases include both a transcription and the image of the original source. Although the value of a transcription is that it makes it easy for the researcher to read, as the original may be rather difficult to read, there are also disadvantages. There is scope for errors in any transcriptions and the error rate in some databases has been found to be quite high. Because the indexes used to search the databases are built from the transcriptions, this can result in entries for specific individuals just not being found.

Whenever there is the opportunity to access the image of the original source, this should be done, to check that the transcription is accurate and also because not everything on the source may have been transcribed. If you have a problem in finding a record of an individual in a particular source, it may be that the same source is also available on another website. If so, try searching there also, since a better transcription may have produced a more accurate index.

Cost considerations

There are, of course, other considerations which may affect your choice of databases, such as the cost. Much of the data held on the Family Search website is free to access as are the indexes on FreeBMD (and its associated indexes FreeCen and FreeReg), but accessing full transcriptions and images of sources may often require payment. Providers tend to offer different subscription packages and pay-per-view options and so an awareness of what can be accessed free and which providers offer the most appropriate payment options to suit your needs is important.

The user friendliness of various sites as far as the availability of search options, detailed information on the coverage of databases and general site navigation may also influence which providers you use most often.

© University of Strathclyde
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Genealogy: Researching Your Family Tree

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