Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Afro-Louisiana History and Genealogy, 1718-1820

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:

Inconsistent titles on the Afro-Louisiana History and Genealogy website

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.


  1. Thank you for this post. I would skip the slave database on Ancestry due to the citation given. The way the citation was formed led me to believe that the database was incomplete and inaccurate on Ancestry.com. I'm glad to see someone else noticed, too. I've opted to go directly to the source, instead of Ancestry for any information available in this database. Thanks again for the post.

  2. PS. April 26, 2009 Family Tree Magazine was listed on Topix Genealogy Wire whereon March 26th Family Tree Magazine cited the original slave database - not Ancestry.com's version.

  3. Insider,

    Very nice post on an important issue, i.e. titles. The most important issue though is Ancestry giving customers the ability to determine the individual titles within a broad collection. That way it does not matter as much if the collection title changes, because part of one's citation should also be the actual underlying title.

    An example of this is Ancestry's title called "Civil War Prisoner of War Records, 1861-1865". This is a mini-collection composed of 3 titles for Confederate prisoners (Union records), and one for Union prisoners (Confederate records).

    Each of those 4 titles has a description which refers to the underlying NARA publication. And nowadays it even has frame numbers for unpaginated collections. Sounds pretty good right?

    Well not quite. Because Ancestry's pervasive worst practice of microfilming comes into play where they do not film everything from cover to cover including blank and spoiled pages. So one cannot determine that a title is missing pages many times. Though perhaps that is by design.

    So two things need to be done:

    1) give the ability to determine all the underlying titles in a collection;

    2) microfilm everything in a source from cover to cover *and* don't provide an alternate arrangement that upsets the original ordering (as witness the mess in the census collections).

    Actually there is another thing:

    3) Include in the collection description, including for those obtained from other vendors, whether the collection is complete on Ancestry, or rather must be consulted elsewhere to find all the records.


    today's captcha: esspin

  4. This is from Gwendolyn Midlo Hall about my two databases and what happened with Ancestry.com
    Like much work published online as open source, I did all the work and ancestry.com collected all the money. The original databases were published on CD by LSU Press. Then a front page story appeared about my slave database on the front page of the Sunday New York Times on July 30, 2000. I had to go into hiding from the media. A lot of people bought the CD but almost no one could figure out how to use it. So when ibiblio.org (which is maintained by the University of North Carolina, not in Utah) asked my permission to put my databases on their web site, I agreed provided they created a search engine. They handed it over to a graduate student who evidently thought a female septuagenarian (me)had nothing to contribute. So he created a search engine only for the slave database, not the free database and left out some important fields and created that confusing "General Search" button. But I managed to stop him from removing the "race" field. "Racial designation" had been too long for dBASE for DOS. He insisted that I remove the "race" field because there was no such thing as race. So I changed the title of the field to "racial designation" which fit by then.
    Then ancestry.com asked my permission to incorporate both databases into their search engine. I agreed provided they did not charge the public for using it. But at best, they used it as a come-on. They charge a fortune to their users. Their change of name might involve other slave databases they added to mine and broadened the name, but it seems to be restricted to the same place and dates as mine.
    I hope others pick up the expansion of slave databases over time and place. There are several projects out there but they can't speak to each other. No one has ever funded me to do it. I was a finalist with the ACLS this year but I didn't get it. NEH didn't even inform me I didn't get their grant, but they announced who got it and I was not included. The technology does not have to be very fast, complicated and expensive, but everybody is in the business of trying to make as much money as possible.
    For more than you want to know about me but in a relatively small package, check out my Wikipedia page. My email address is ghall1929@gmail.com Much thanks.
    Gwendolyn Midlo Hall

  5. Thanks for an interesting blog- I have just happened on it

    One interesting thing which you have not mentioned is the disappearing databases from Recordsearch.

    First one was Unindexed records from Cheshire in England. This was fantastic but was soon pulled - I heard say for legal reasons.

    Then the 1916 partial Census for Canada was on, at first with images, then the images disappeared, and then the index.

    Recently there have been sore Irish BDM records - which have also gone!

    Is this a pattern?


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