Earlier this year at the Ancestry.com Annual Bloggers Day Todd Jensen briefed us on their new NARA scanning facility in Washington D.C. (I alluded to the presentation in one of my articles. I was waiting on Ancestry.com for photographs before I wrote my article. Now I probably can’t remember enough to do the presentation justice. But I digress…)
At that time I asked if Ancestry.com still dropped images from NARA collections when they published them. Andrew Wait assured us that their policy has always been to publish every image. Another Ancestry.com employee in the room (I don’t remember who) leaned over and whispered some circumstance in which they had dropped images.
My hearing isn’t all that sharp, so I didn’t hear the circumstances mentioned, but it is well known by most Ancestry.com subscribers that Ancestry.com has always done so. Ancestry.com seems to feel they are doing everyone a favor by chopping and dicing up census microfilms:
- Dropping images with no legible names:
- microfilm headers
- NARA publication booklets
- census totals
- blank forms
- pages that can’t be read because they were imaged too dark, too light, or too blurry
- Rearranging census districts according to alphabetical jurisdictions
- Preventing going past either end of a group of images
These changes are perfectly reasonable to decision makers that dabble in genealogy just enough to be dangerous.
And, in fact, these changes might indeed be an improvement if Ancestry.com also allowed unimproved access. The former without the latter has serious repercussions:
- Removing context removes information
- Tampering with evidence decreases its evidentiary value
- The changes rob users of any way to detect documents that were inadvertently dropped
- Removing illegible images gives NARA staff members no way to know that access to the originals is warranted
For these reasons, members of the Association of Professional Genealogists (APG) have criticized Ancestry.com’s practices. Last year Peggy Reeves pointed out that all but one of the first 25 soldiers from roll 402 are missing from Ancestry.com’s publication of T-288, General Index to Pension Files, 1861-1934. If Ancestry.com allowed unimproved access to this NARA publication, Reeves would have discovered one of two things. Either the images were illegible, or Ancestry.com had inadvertently left out all the index cards from “Charles Roe” to “Allen Rogers.”
That’s a lot of missing documents.
Digital publishers might want to take a lesson from microfilming practice. FamilySearch (as the Genealogical Society of Utah) always filmed every document, but when an original document was illegible, included a label indicating “Illegible Original.”
Next time I’ll share what NARA had to say about all this.