"Every Genealogy Record You Need is Online" - I Beg to Differ!

I want to apologize in advance for this long blog.  Possibly, this should be two or three but due to the importance I don’t want to break it up. 

Recently, I've heard and read in a number of places that there has been so many additions of records online that there is no reason to search elsewhere.  I vehemently disagree!  

I wasn't going to blog about this topic because I am so adamant that the statement is wrong I don't even want it out there as a meme but I changed my mind due to the frequency this belief has been expressed lately. Here's where that information popped up just in the past two weeks:
  • A listserv to which I belong 
  • Two emails I received from hobbyists
  • The 18 May 2016 Legacy Family Tree Webinar by James M. Beidler
  • A volunteer genealogist at my local Family History Center
My own experience has shown me that there is nowhere near enough online "that many genealogy scenarios could be taken care of from start to finish using just online sources."  I will agree that there is A LOT of records that are of value to genealogists that have been uploaded from a variety of sources since the beginning days of the internet.  I will also agree that someone COULD build a tree with just online sources. I know that practice is happening frequently but that doesn't make it right.  In fact, I believe it's not advisable to do that for many reasons.  

Before I discuss the reasons to venture offline in your search, I want to identify why there's this mistaken belief.  I've come up with the following:
  • Time - we live in a fast paced world and with all the day to day pressures we face to earn an income it is often not easy for us to visit an archive to check out documents that may or may not be available.  (One of the comments on the listserv was that it was a waste of time to look for an unknown record.)
  • Money - genealogy can get expensive and frugal genealogists don't always have funds available to fly off in search of a record.  (One of the emails I received mentioned a fixed income limiting travel. That is a valid reality so I'll be blogging soon about ways to maximize your income source so you can pursue genealogy.)
  • Advertisements - simply perform a search for "genealogy records" and you'll receive 36,000,000 hits.  The first one that appears advertises a company that boasts "6.1 billion records & newspapers.  Powerful search technology - Start   2 billion profiles - Over 6.3 Billion records - 31 million family trees."  No, that wasn't even for Ancestry or Familysearch. Those large figures give the impression that there is everything in one place so you won't need to look elsewhere. Don't fall for it!
  • Ease of Access - why go in search of the unknown if you've got a known at your fingertips?  Plus, "millions" have already posted your family tree online which you can view and copy.    
Putting that all together the thought process becomes that those billions of records are right there in front of you just waiting for your click! You've spent quite a bit of cash on membership so you want to get your money's worth, which is understandable.  Why reinvent the wheel, just copy from someone else's posted family tree and voila, you're a genealogist.  From my experience that is far from reality and I know others have had similar situations that back up my claim.

Please be aware that I value online genealogy sources and highly recommend them as a starting point. Occasionally, if a client limits my time, I may have to just perform an online search.  I clearly note, though, in the report that further hours need to be spent performing a boots on the ground search.   You can’t be reasonably exhaustive unless you’ve done so. 

I do look at unsourced trees online.  "Look" is the key word in the previous sentence!  Once I look I think about the validity and if it's plausible, I'll add it to my research plan to search for records.  Records is plural - I don't rely on just one source.  

For my Kinship Determination Project (KDP) portfolio submission for certification through the Board for Certification of Genealogists, I selected a family I am not related to but had much data previously found while researching online.  I started out by printing all of the documents and assembled them in folders by generations.

When I began to analyze the info I noticed in the second generation's wife's obituary that she had been a member of a particular church for many years.  Huh?  I had her online baptism record from a different denomination, marriage record (handed down through the family) not specifying a denomination and she was buried (online sources) in the same denomination as where she was baptized.  Did I have a mix up in identity?  Her maiden name was common but her married name was not.  So I got the cemetery record (NOT ONLINE) and then investigated the cemetery; it contained many different denominations and it was where her parents were interred.  That made sense.  I next decided to contact the church mentioned in the obituary where she had been a long time parishioner for any records.  It took me months to get a response.  Finally, I was told by the acting minister that a former parishioner might know where the old records were housed.  Contacted her and she didn't but she had saved on CD old church newsletters from the 1990's which contained transcriptions of a diary (NOT ONLINE) that had been donated to the church about the beginning days of the denomination in that area.  It turns out that the diary writer lived across the road from the family I was writing about and was related by marriage.  The writer mentions the family numerous times throughout and I was able to locate deeds and estate paperwork (NOT ONLINE) that was somehow omitted in the county's online index.  I also better understood why the family relocated to the area.  Making an analysis from simply looking at online sources would have given me the wrong reason for the move. Additionally, all the online sources had a child that died at birth but the diary had recorded specific information as to the cause of the child's death three months after birth.  The cemetery record only listed the year of birth and death so it appears online sources assumed the child had died at birth by just looking at the tombstone picture posted but that wasn't the case.  The numerous online trees are wrong because no one looked for a record that wasn’t digitized.

Nondigitized records enabled me to discover church records in another state that identified previous generations. Those records are NOT ONLINE.  I was also able to find pictures of one of the individuals from a church's commemorative book that was NOT ONLINE.  This led me to find more pictures at a local library that also were NOT ONLINE.

The biggest find, though, was for a related line in a prior generation.  The author mentioned her sibling.  NO ONLINE source ever connected the author (who was not in my tree) to her sister (who was in my tree).  The individual who had children died before mandatory state record requirements so there was no death record that named parents or place of birth..  The NOT ONLINE cemetery record had a maiden last name but not place of birth.  I obtained the diary writer's death certificate and the maiden names did match, a place of birth was noted and it was not in a state I had searched for the sister's record.  After I submit my portfolio, I will happily begin researching that line in a different state.  

I understand how this happened.  Individual 1 had no children so no one ever bothered to obtain her NOT ONLINE death certificate.  Individual 2 had children but no death certificate.  Lots of trees online for both but no one had ever checked for nondigitized records of Family-Associates-Neighbors. 

It is true that the nondigitized information was not quickly accessible.  I did invest a lot of time and a little money, about $8.00 for the death certificate, but the effort was well worth it.  It enabled me to correct wrong online information, connect branches and gain a better understanding of the family dynamics. 

What I overheard at my local Family History Center a few days ago made my blood boil and was the last straw for me regarding this topic!  A newbie couple had come in for help as they had found numerous online trees that connected them to a turn of the 20th century gateway ancestor.  Believing the unsourced trees were accurate, they booked a flight and headed off across the pond to visit the ancestral home, a small village in the Mediterranean. Although they do not speak the mother tongue they met a family with the same surname who shared documents that took the family back centuries.  The problem was that those documents did not match birth and emigration records they found online when they returned from their trip.  I could spend another blog going over all that is wrong here but for time sake, I’m just going to mention the comment made by the volunteer genealogist – something to the effect that the online unsourced birth date must be accurate because it had a day, month and year.  Huh?!  Finally, another volunteer recommended that the newbies contact the posters and ask where the date came from.  Not surprisingly, they had and no one responded. None of the volunteers offered to the newbies that perhaps the same surname people they had met and the online posters were not of their line nor that people post wrong information all the time. 

What I wanted to hear was “Take that birth info out of your tree until you can prove it.”  Or how about making recommendations to newbies about where they can find additional information, like church records, emigration, naturalization, census, land, probate, etc. and show them how to analyse what they discovered.  If that was too overwhelming then refer them to someone who will do the research accurately.  Perpetuating the myth that online data is correct is wrong!

Will we ever reach a point where one can comfortably say all you need for research is online?  I doubt it.  How could one know what remains out their in the future to find?  No one knows what is hidden in a box in someone's attic, has been donated but not cataloged in a repository hundreds of miles away by a descendant who left the area or for sale in an antique store somewhere. 

Mining  every reasonable location for existing records by following the breadcrumb trail to people and places is critical and always will be necessary.  The reward is worth it.


  1. Lori, I agree with you 1000%. It is so frustrating to hear people say they have a brick wall and nothing can be found because it's NOT online.

  2. Yet another person in agreement. After online became widely available, whether when I worked as a genealogy librarian or at the family history center where I have volunteered for 30 years, it ground my gears to hear "I've looked everywhere" and determined that they had only checked one (or two) of the biggest commercial sites. I try my darnedest to open up people to looking in real life for good info. In NY state it is MANDATED by law that everywhere have a local historian. Guess what? Almost none of their collections are online anywhere.

  3. How to Research Your Family Only Using Online Sources:

    Today’s “on-line only” family researchers are not going to change and there are exponentially more of them than there are of those trained and practicing genealogist who improve us all by following GPS principles.

    I am a careful researcher and I have still not run out of online sources after 8 years of inquiry. My goals are to verify that the person exists and then start to get the documents that put the person in the family I’ve tentatively placed them in.

    One of the back bones of my primarily on line research success, is unsourced trees often with no documentation. They have been my most helpful resource in adding a new branch to my working family tree.

    What I do is create a brand new on-line tree compiled from the sourced and the unsourced trees, then find many additional online documents just by creating that tree. I prune and I edit making note of what vital records, census and obituaries still need to be found. I keep it private because it’s a roadmap only and full of pot holes. I am grateful that so many others make their trees public. Thank you!

    What I always have, 100% of the time, is a tree with errors that has saved me years of trying to piece things together. I have the equivalent of a family tree sent to me by a distant relative. I have a tree to research, prune, document (found mostly on line) and then analysis to go with it. Not GPS but in-depth notes about my concerns and issues same names, same places etc.

    I start with the most recent relative on this compiled tree and connect how they may be related to me. Carefully working back in time. I make notes right on that online tree of conflicting or unsourced dates and places. I look for sources back up the vital dates and families. I graft this sucker right on to my tree when I have a reasonable amount of records to believe I’m on the right track. It gets grafted with on with blemishes and all. Because I’ve noted what basic documents I missing, it makes my online research more effective. Everything is one place.

    Even with my attention to detail I know I haven’t met the GPS standards but boy do I have a tree, with online documents and sources that any practicing genealogist would love to research, complete with notes about where I’m unsure, and what I think might be true.

    Will online researchers be converted to GPS standards? Nope. Can we help them see what they really have and how to improve on it with on line sources only? Yes.

  4. Great reminders and examples. Would-be researchers need to keep that imagination to investigate the off-internet.


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