19 January 2017

Do I Need Designer Records for Genealogy?

This is an updated post of an article originally published on my business blog called "How to Do Genealogy on the Cheap, the Right Way." If you think you can save by not buying "designer" records, you need to read this post.

Still Not Convinced You Need to Spend the Money to Order Records?

My original article was inspired by a great post on the Preserve the Pensions blog. It highlights some great finds in War of 1812 pensions involving neighbors of the applicant/soldier. Why do you care about the neighbors? Your ancestor might not be the soldier but the neighbor.

Since this post is about spending money on genealogy records, though, you'll probably only pay up if you think the soldier is a relative. The neighbor might be related, too. I routinely check for other relatives (of mine, not just the soldier) giving testimony.

Most people don't get a mail order bride. Family is likely to live nearby. Testimony could come from a father-in-law, or brother-in-law, or an unborn-great-grandson-in-law's mother. You don't know unless you check.

In the case of pensions, if the family moved since the service was performed, testimony about service may have to come from someone who lived nearby at the time of service. Who would a family keep in touch with? Not their frienemies, their family. This isn't always the case but it's always worth considering.

Finally, identifying neighbors in original records, like a pension, also leads you to new records. You can't be sure census households are enumerated in geographical order. You can't be sure who are really the neighbors without using additional records. Someone stating in a pension they lived within half a mile of your ancestor is a neighbor. That means your ancestor is his neighbor, too. You can work this system from the other side, now.

Identifying neighbors is just one of the many benefits you'll often find when you use/order original records.

The above-mentioned post on PreserveThePensions.org includes a link for a little more info on cluster research (the technique using neighbors to further research on your ancestor).

Don't Stop at the Index

The War of 1812 pensions are being digitized [the project has been fully funded since I originally wrote this article but digitization is still on-going].

You do know most genealogy records are not online, don't you?

Even if they are online, they may not be images or they may not be searchable images. You can read another post about unindexed images, here. You can also read my post about Bounty Land Warrant Applications, which is related.

Some genealogists find an index or database entry and stop there because it's not always easy or cheap to order the original record. They treat the original likes it's the designer or name-brand version of the index. It's not.

Getting the original is definitely worth it. You're going to have to order some records if you want to further your research.

The Problem with Indexes and Databases

I routinely order original records for clients because it's necessary. When you copy information from a record in any form other than a photographic copy (photographic copies include microfilm, photos, scans, etc.), you introduce a chance for an error to be created. Indexes and databases abound with examples.

Even with a photographic copy, there is a chance important information is left out. In some cases, information is intentionally left out when "select" records are copied. Indexes always leave information out and most databases are abstracts which by definition exclude information.

I've found some of the most useful information or clues only in an original record. Although the body of the information may have appeared elsewhere, something vital was only in the original. Indexes and databases are a finding aid. They are a tool to help you find the original. They aren't meant to replace the original.

So to directly answer the title question, no, you don't need designer records, because there's no such thing. You can't exactly make this analogy work because designer or name-brand products have a name on them. They might be the original (others are nockoffs) or they might be the same with a fancy label sewn on.

If you don't understand how genealogy records are different, you need to learn about evaluating evidence. It's a topic for another post but will make a world of difference in your success with your own research.

Genealogy Costs Money

Here's a well-known fact among successful genealogists, and a little-known fact among the unsuccessful, genealogy is expensive. Luckily it isn't an expensive hobby. You can spread your expenses out into little bits (this will slow your research, but that's OK).

Sure you could easily spend a chunk (equal to a golf club, or a whole set, or for a better genealogical analogy, equivalent to climbing equipment) but you can also start with photocopies ($0.10 to $1.00 ea.) then order some less expensive vital records (some still only cost $5.00). Libraries usually offer great rates on copies of records in their collection, whether an obituary or a family file.

The War of 1812 pensions being digitized by the fundraiser mentioned at the start of this post are being placed on subscription site Fold3. However, they will always be free due to the fundraiser. You've got no excuse there.

Unlike the rock climbing analogy, original records are not like designer quipment (is more money really getting you more?) versus store brand or second-hand. In any sport, you can go really far on skill and practice.

Not ordering original records isn't the difference in two brands, it's the difference in trying to climb with half a rope. It doesn't matter how naturally skilled you are, or how many hours of genealogy you do, there are brick walls too tall to scale just with half a rope indexes.

Not ordering original records isn't the difference in two brands, it's the difference in trying to climb with half a rope.

Research Planning Can Include Budgeting

If you do have to order a more expensive record, plan ahead. Create a budget and save up if you have to. I have a three part series just about budgeting, that starts with this post.

Every professional genealogist has to budget as part of their planning. Rarely do you get a client that is literally throwing money at a project so you plan and budget. Even if a project does have sufficient funding, you still need to plan and order records in a reasonable order.

If you're short on genealogy funds, you do the same thing. It will just take longer than a well-funded project would. Start planning your research and include a budget if the cost is what's stopping you. Here's a short list of "budget" options for original records (similar to the list in part one of my budgeting series, linked above).

Budget Research Options

  • Your local library. If they don't have a genealogy room with records related to your interests, they may offer free access to paid subscription websites. (Remember FamilySearch.org is free, use it from home if you haven't been!)
  • Your local library, use Inter-Library Loan (ILL). There are a few libraries that loan significant genealogical material although most keep "reference collections" which don't circulate. The Library of Virginia loans their microfilm via ILL. Ask your librarian for more information, he/she may refer you to a different branch where you can get the best assistance.
  • Your local Family History Center. You order microfilm of your choice via FamilySearch.org and it is delivered to your chosen Family History Center for you to use. If you local center isn't extremely close, it's gotten easier now that you order online.
  • Other public libraries. See what the library local to your ancestors' residence has available to order. This varies widely but is absolutely worth checking.
  • "Local" libraries that aren't "your" library. If a library in an adjacent county (or whatever jurisdiction is appropriate) offers services just to their patrons, see if you can pay a fee to become a patron. I've seen this option in county libraries and university libraries.
  • Society libraries. This could be genealogical, historical, or any other type of society. For your local societies, they may offer services your local library doesn't. You should also check societies for your ancestral locations. This last item also applies to genealogy/historical societies that might offer research services even if they don't have a library. Some societies offer genealogical research at an hourly rate at the local courthouse or local public library.
  • Hire a professional. Some professional genealogists will take jobs copying records for less than they would charge to do full research. I used to do this when I lived outside of Washington, D.C. Some of my services were cheaper than what it cost to order the record from the National Archives. Not every genealogist does this; it's not always financially profitable (or even reasonable) for them. You can search for a genealogist in an area on the Association of Professional Genealogists website. I recommend using the advanced directory search instead of the "by location" search or use both. There are many researchers at the Family History Library that do this type of work but it may or may not be cheaper than ordering the microfilm yourself (if you need a book, ordering it yourself is not an option).
  • Batch your research. If you plan ahead and keep yourself organized, you can create batches of records you need. You can batch these in various ways. Personally, I like to save up research to justify a research trip. This may or may not be in your budget but I always like to look at the records myself, if possible. You might also batch records to order microfilm or ILL materials. This is the most budget conscious way to do this so you don't end up ordering the same material again. You may want or need to batch records if you're going to hire a professional. If you need simple records where you have an index (or there will be one on site), you may need to request multiple records to meet a minimum (usually a minimum number of hours of research). It may be cheaper to request multiple records instead of individually, too. Note that you usually are not allowed to do batch requests when requesting copies from government run repositories. If they charge you an hourly fee, you may be able to but usually, there is a maximum number of requests at one time if you are just requesting copies. Depending on your request and the repository, they may or may not be flexible on maximums.

If you want to do genealogy on the cheap, you can't also do it on the fly, not if you want to be successful. Learn how to create a research plan and include a budget as part of your planning. If you decide to save money by only using indexes and databases, instead of ordering original records, you will eventually hit a brick wall you can't climb.

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