Elizabeth Shown Mills' latest QuickSheet, Citing Ancestry.com Databases & Images, illustrates a basic citation template using the "Afro-Louisiana History and Genealogy, 1718-1820 (Slave)" database. Unfortunately, a search of the Ancestry.com catalog shows Ancestry.com doesn't have this title. It's a shame that Mill's has given Ancestry.com such exposure and yet Ancestry.com's practices negate some of the value freely handed to them. Anyone experimenting with the "Basic Templates" example from Mill's QuickSheet will come up empty. Any QuickSheet user intrigued by the title who comes specifically looking for it, may decide the example is hypothetical.
Genealogists familiar with 18th-century Louisiana research will immediately recognize the title as one of a pair of well-known databases by Dr. Gwendolyn Midlo Hall. The stature of Dr. Hall's work may have prompted Mills', herself a specialist in Louisiana research, to highlight this database. A Google search for the title shows the databases are freely available at www.ibiblio.org/laslave . A careful examination of the site shows that the title page has been changed. The beginning year has been changed from 1718 to 1719. The title page now reads, "Afro-Louisiana History and Genealogy, 1719-1820." The remaining pages of the website continue to show 1718:
Could that be the cause of the missing Ancestry.com database? A catalog search on Ancestry.com for "Afro-Louisiana History and Genealogy" shows the smaller database of free Afro-Louisianans is available on Ancestry.com with the new "1719" title. But the slave database is not.
A catalog search for "Slave," filtered to the 1700s, reveals what might be the missing database. A database called "Louisiana Slave Records, 1719-1820" has the expected size and publication date. Hovering over the title shows the database was updated on the ambiguously formatted date of "2/11/2009."
Date Formatting Best Practices
Since so many American's have European ancestors, most genealogists soon learn that "2/11" means "2 November" in some places. That is why spelling out the month is a genealogical best practice. When a genealogy website displays dates ambiguously, users quietly—or not so quietly—question the organization's competence. One day I will discuss my theories on why Ancestry.com and FamilySearch hire decision makers without genealogical credentials, how the occasional genealogically-incompetent product, feature, or format sneaks out, and the cyclic frustrations experienced by experienced genealogists in these organizations.
This article was supposed to be a review of an Ancestry.com database before it became an editorial against renaming titles. I won't let the non-best-practice date format problem push me even further afield. But the database review is definitely on hold.
Was Lost, Now Found
A couple of paragraphs ago I was about to conclude that we had found the lost database under a new name: "Louisiana Slave Records, 1719-1820." Investigating this database shows in every way that it is "Afro-Louisiana History and Genealogy, 1718-1820," with a new title.
The source information for the Ancestry.com database does not explicitly name the original database. As I write this, the source information states, with my editorial comment inserted between [ and ]:
Hall, Gwendolyn Midlo, comp.. Louisiana Slave Records, 1719-1820 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: The Generations Network, Inc., 2009. Original data: Hall, Gwendolyn Midlo, comp. [We would have expected Hall's title of the database to appear here. But it is missing.] Database downloaded from http://www.ibiblio.org/laslave/, 2003.
The URL gives us the ultimate proof, linking Ancestry.com's "Louisiana Slave Records, 1719-1820" database compiled by Hall with "Afro-Louisiana History and Genealogy, 1718-1820," also compiled by Hall. The missing title further implies that Ancestry.com renamed their copy of the database, because common practice is to drop the title from the "original data" portion of the source citation if it is redundant.
Ancestry.com renamed the database, but failed to notice that it needed to fix the source information accordingly. Since the title is no longer redundant, the source information should be (using their style, not Mills'):
Hall, Gwendolyn Midlo, comp. Louisiana Slave Records, 1719-1820 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: The Generations Network, Inc., 2009. Original data: Hall, Gwendolyn Midlo, comp. Afro-Louisiana History and Genealogy, 1719-1820 (Slave) [database on-line]. Downloaded from http://www.ibiblio.org/laslave/, 2003.
How Invariant, That Title?
I find Ancestry.com's practice of renaming databases to be troublesome. I confess to hold the belief that titles are sacred and shouldn't be touched. That is based on several beliefs:
- It is easier to identify two copies as being the same record, book, or database if they retain the same title. I believe this reason alone warrants banning the practice of renaming databases in most cases.
- An author, compiler, or other responsible person has the moral right to choose the name by which her work is known. In this particular case, Gwendolyn Midlo Hall placed her team's work in the public domain for the good of all. While legal, it is a disservice to ignore her title choice.
- The Ancestry.com card catalog does not support alternate titles, as do the catalogs employed by libraries.
- Because Ancestry.com renamed an existing database, the example given in Mills' QuickSheet is now invalid. Should she change it to reflect the change on Ancestry.com? What if Ancestry.com decides it was a mistake to change the title and they change it back?
- Changing a title "breaks" every existing source citation, whether in a publication from someone famous like Elizabeth Shown Mills, or in the genealogy of an ordinary person like you or me.
- I have been told that Ancestry.com used to try to hide the source of its databases so that subscribers and potential subscribers were more dependent on Ancestry.com. I don't know if that is true. The evidence given is that back in those days Ancestry.com never displayed source information, published a lot of information freely available elsewhere on the net, and always changed the titles of records. True or not, publishing records with titles different than the originals certainly raises suspicions.
- Neither NARA nor Ancestry.com subscribers appreciated the magnitude of NARA records available on Ancestry.com until Ancestry.com provided a lookup table that provided the corresponding Ancestry.com title for each NARA title present. Now, Ancestry.com is saddled with the expensive and detailed task of keeping the table current.
- It may be difficult to identify all changes necessitated when renaming a title. The www.ibiblio.org/laslave website is one case in point. The incorrect source information on Ancestry.com for this database is another.
Reasons For Title Changes
There are reasons why titles are changed. How valid these reasons are subject to opinion.
- Some times an online collection is composed from several, even thousands of individual titles. By necessary, a new title must be composed rather than use one or all of the titles of the individual components.
- Some times decision makers recognize that a record title preferred by experienced genealogists is unnecessarily complex for beginners. Genealogy is already too intimidating to a potentially larger audience. Anything to make it simpler is justified.
- Ancestry.com and FamilySearch use database/collection titles as the primary finding aids for helping users find content of interest. (Actually, global name search is probably considered the primary finding method by both organizations.)
FamilySearch's Record Search depends entirely on alphabetically ordering to place related titles together. When the number of Record Search collections was very small, and consisted mostly of census records, a chronological organization worked best. The census date was placed at the beginning of the title. Growth in vital record collections added many collections that couldn't be organized chronologically. Users of my Record Search Collections widget saw the 13 April 2009 update of a large number of collections. I believe some, if not all, of these updates were the result of moving the census date to the end of the title. As a result, collections are now named so that all records for each state are listed together.
Ancestry.com's New Search UI includes a multi-faceted catalog search/browse capability like modern library catalogs. As a result, Ancestry.com titles no longer serve double duty as title and finding aid.
- Without a card catalog that supports alternate titles, sometimes a collection's alternate name or nickname is included in the title. Examples on Ancestry.com include the Barbour Collection and the Drouin Collection. An example from Record Search is Ellis Island passenger lists.
- Some collections change over time. Do you make titles as specific as possible so users know what geographies and time periods are currently covered? Or do you use titles that are general enough to avoid frequent title changes as content changes?
For example, the State of Utah releases death certificates for public access after 50 years, so an additional year is made available each year. By naming the Record Search collection "Utah Death Certificates 1904-1956," FamilySearch has made it necessary to rename the collection when new years are added.
On the other hand, the generic titles in Record Search for "England Marriages 1700-1900," "Germany Burials 1500-1900," and "Netherlands Births and Baptisms" make it unnecessary to retitle the collections when new content is added. Each of these collections contains the sum total of all the extraction and indexing projects completed in these areas during the past 30 years and new content will be added as additional FamilySearch Indexing projects are completed. But these titles are likely to elicit complaints from patrons who feel the titles are overly vague, or even deceptive.
- If I'm not mistaken, in Evidence Explained Elizabeth Shown Mills advises users of Family History Library (FHL) microfilm to compare a record's actual title to that found in the FHL catalog. If the FHL changed the title for the catalog, you should ignore it and use the record's actual title, along with the FHL film number. This is a bit antithetic to the principle of citing what you saw, but the film number can get you to the proper catalog entry and the record's actual title can get you to the original record.
What do you think about title changes? Justified or not? Leave a comment at the Ancestry Insider.