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I'm Jennifer, and I'm an Occasional Genealogist... sort of. For over ten years I've been a professional genealogist. I started researching my own family nearly 30 years ago. Like many of you, I started as an Occasional Genealogist. I had to squeeze research in while in school and while working full-time. Then I got my first genealogy job and for awhile, it was genealogy all the time. Now I have two kids. I do other people's genealogy constantly but my own? Coming up with ways to do great genealogy, despite all the interruptions, is now mandatory.

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That's Not a Genealogy Source!

Big genealogy websites are not a genealogy source. In this post we'll look at how understanding what they are helps you use them more effectively. That means you'll bust more of your brick walls and grow your family tree!

That expensive genealogy website you have a subscription to, it's not a genealogy source. If you're trying to figure out how to cite it, you're wasting your time. If you're trying to find more sources like it, you're wasting your time. If you're following our Brick Wall Solution Roadmap and reviewing it as one of your sources, you're wasting your time.

Understanding why it's not a source and what it is might even be the secret to helping you bust your biggest brick wall.

Before we leave all these negative "what it's not" statements behind, let me be clear. Ancestry.com is not a source. FamilySearch is not a source. I can go on listing subscription genealogy sites and free sites that aren't sources (the Georgia Archives website is not a source, nor is the National Archives website).

So what are you supposed to do if all these websites aren't sources? Am I telling you to give up online research? Are you supposed to be relying on online trees? What's up with this advice?

This is a crucial, but almost subtle, semantic issue. You might already start to see the "answer" from some of those free sites I said aren't sources.

Large websites like Ancestry.com are repositories, just as an archive is a repository. They hold multiple sources. And that's what's critical to understand.

image of the National Archives and a book with text a physical repository and a physical source are pretty distinct

When online research first started, we did treat Ancestry.com as a source. We cited it like a single source. That's because what it held was nothing compared to what it is today.

That also means there are websites that are sources. You don't need to learn to identify a repository, you need to learn to identify a source. If a website contains several sources, it's a repository.

Learning to recognize what is an online genealogy source

The easiest way to determine if a website is a source or a repository, is citing it. But usually this works the other way around. For most genealogists, you need to know if it's a source or a repository so you can cite it correctly.

So I'll try and give you some different advice.

It can be really tricky to determine if a small website is a source or a repository and you can actually cite many of them either way. Technically you could cite Ancestry as a source but that would be a terrible (i.e. imprecise) citation.

I could get really technical about how to identify an online source (versus a repository) but that's not the point of this post. This post is for people who are treating a mega genealogy site as a source. If you're ready for all the technical jargon, you better be beyond thinking FamilySearch or Ancestry.com is a source.

So let's relate this to something you are hopefully more familiar with, while still possibly learning a new genealogy skill.

Hone this genealogy skill...

First, this still comes back to citing sources because honestly, if you don't care about citing sources, just copy some random tree you find online and call it your own. If you want to continue to grow YOUR tree (i.e. the tree that is correct for you), you need to develop your skills, including citing sources.

One reason we cite our sources, and what is important when we're talking repository vs. source, is to evaluate how good that source is for providing the information it provided. In order to do this, we need to be really precise about what the source was. We'll get back to "is it a source?" once we've covered the evaluating aspect.

Online sources for genealogy are usually a double layered citation. If they are an image of a census record, one layer is the census record citation. The other layer is the online source citation. If you used an image of a published book, it might be a three-layer citation. One layer is the online source. One layer is the book that was digitized. The third layer is the original source, if you know what that is.

Being so precise, including all the relevant layers, is part of how we can evaluate our sources, or the sources used by someone else. Then we can determine what to do next. That might be "accept the information and move on" or it might be "do more research, this information is questionable" or it could be "redo the research, it might be OK but I need to find the original to be sure."

These are options when we evaluate the research we've done or when evaluating research someone else has done. As in most of life, you don't need to reinvent the wheel (i.e. redo good research). But you also can't drive with square wheels (bad research). You have to evaluate and then decide what to do.

I'll give an example to bring this back to why it's important you recognize and treat a website like a source or a repository as is appropriate.

Evaluating Example Source

My favorite example source for evaluation is a death certificate. Genealogists love finding a death certificate. We're more likely to find them than birth certificates and they are a source that can provide a date and place of death, a date of birth (and some type of place), the names of a spouse and parents. That's so much a genealogist could wish for in one source!

But you need to evaluate this wonder source. A death certificate has a really good chance of providing the correct date of death, since it's usually filled out very near the time the death occurred. But that also usually means it's not filled out near the time of birth and the person isn't there to provide their own birthdate or the names of their parents. 

Heap on that a second (or third or fourth) spouse who they only recently married and the parents might not be listed or might be wrong and the spouse listed might be correct but isn't your biological relative. 

You don't know all these issues when you see the death certificate. You can evaluate how likely it is the information is correct for the question you are working on (or for each piece of information). You can also do additional research to determine if the information is (or is likely) correct. What research is partially determined based on your evaluation.

You should always look for a death certificate if there's a chance you'll get so much info in one place, just don't stop there. But what does this have to do with repository versus source?

Evaluating Example: Source vs. Repository

You can find death certificates on mega sites, let's consider FamilySearch. If you treat FamilySearch like a source, you'll struggle to include the appropriate details in the citation OR you aren't even aware the details matter.

Instead of citing the image of the death certificate, which includes that layer with all the details for the death certificate itself, you might list your source as "FamilySearch.org" or the better "Death certificate of Louis Smith, FamilySearhc.org, accessed 2003."

That is what you have to evaluate the quality of any information you found. You might not see a problem. But I picked FamilySearch as the example based on experience.

It has images of death certificates. It has abstracts of death certificates. It also has databases with death information from unknown sources.

Each of those are a separate source.

You would evaluate the information from them differently.

What if my citation looks the same for any source I find on FamilySearch? If my citation is "Death certificate of Louis Smith, FamilySearhc.org, accessed 2003," that's a citation treating FamilySearch like a source (to equate this to a citation format you may be familiar with, the "page" in the book is "Death certificate of Louis Smith").

This citation doesn't tell you if you looked at an image, a transcript, or an abstract. If you created a citation of this type, you might even be citing death information that didn't come from a death certificate at all (you just assumed that or used the word "certificate" when "record" was more accurate, meaning any record providing death information).

Abstracted and transcribed records are prone to errors. I've actually found lots of errors in some of the death certificates abstracted at FamilySearch. This is because the originals have such bad handwriting. Someone abstracting bunches of records, not someone looking for the death certificate of a particular person, can easily misread what it says. Computers are now able to do some abstraction---they read handwriting even worse than most people.

If you look at an image of a death certificate and see it was filled out for someone who died in a hospital, and within hours of the death, the death date and place are very likely correct (that is your evaluation). That same death certificate could be abstracted with an error in the date or place, maybe even in the name (I've found this a LOT more than I would have expected). An abstracting error in the name can mean you think a death certificate is for your person and it's not.

Recognizing a source vs. a repository doesn't change the information you're seeing. It can dramatically change how you use that information.

Why is this such a big deal?

When you start doing genealogy, you're a beginner. You do think Ancestry.com is a genealogy source. You might hear you should cite your sources so you cite the website, not the record, you used.

Later, you will have questions. If you have a brick wall, you want to come up with questions if you don't already have them. Questions like, "could some of my information be wrong due to errors in the records I used or my interpretation of them?" That means you need to evaluate the evidence you used. You want to start with your citations (ideally in the reports you wrote to yourself), then go to your notes if you need more information, and only if necessary, look at the source again.

Basically, if you follow the genealogy research process the first time, you have the information you need quickly and easily available. The less you follow the standard steps, the more you will have to redo---that's just wasting time you could spend on something else, like new research.

If you proceed to new research and there are mistakes in your past research, you are likely to get stuck. Worse, you might end up building a tree that isn't yours. That can lead to years of wasted time.

But we all start as beginners. No one does perfect genealogy. You probably had no clue there was a process when you started. The sooner you learn to cite the source, not the repository, the better your starting information and the faster you can review what you did (determining if, yes, you made a mistake, you need to correct it before moving forward, or no, you didn't, you can proceed with the information you have).

You don't have to be able to perfectly cite sources to get the benefits of recognizing the difference between a repository website and an online source.

There's another reason it's important not to treat a repository website like a source that has nothing to do with citations. That's research, pure and simple.

You Missed a Source (or more)

We can exhaust a source. We should exhaust a source. That means we've used it to its fullest. There is no more information to be gained from it for our known research.

You could exhaust a repository but that's a LOT harder.

You haven't exhausted Ancestry.com. You might have exhausted yourself. (that's a joke) You might have exhausted the main search field. 

But that's because you're using it like a source when it's a repository.

You aren't done until you identify all the relevant sources and exhaust them. Exhausting a source is soooo different than exhausting a repository site.

Some of the sources on a repository site are NOT searchable. So if you only search, you haven't even used those sources. I know most of my research in the last 10 years has been in sources that don't come up when I use the main search field. In fact, I only use the main search form (on Ancestry.com or FamilySearch) when I start new research, not for a project where I've finished all the foundational work.

(OK, that's not perfectly true, sometimes I'll search to see if there are new sources, but I prefer to see a list of new sources and go directly to them but I don't always have time for that. That's another good reason to recognize a repository website versus and online source. Repositories are likely to get new records. Sources are not likely to change, although they can. You should routinely check repository sites for new sources. Conversely, determine if an online source could change, if not, don't check it again for the same information. You're wasting your time if you do check it again for the same thing.)

Two Reasons

If you're using large websites like sources when they are repositories, you are causing problems in two different places.

1. You are missing out on most sources completely and only just scratching the surface of some of the most popular sources. This is a problem when trying to do research.

2. You are making it impossible to evaluate the quality of your own work because you don't know what source you used (you either aren't citing your sources at all or you're not citing them correctly, because if you were, you'd know the "source" isn't Ancestry.com or MyHeritage or FindMyPast but the collection within that site that you used). This is a problem when reviewing your research which is vital to reaching a conclusion and determing what to do next to solve tough problems like brick walls.

Why Does This Matter?

Why does it matter if a website is a repository or a source? Although it does affect how you cite it, the important issue is evaluating the quality of the actual source you used. An image of a death certificate shouldn't be evaluated the same as an abstract of the death certificate and definitely not the same as a database entry of a death from an unknown source.

Additionally, a repository contains multiple sources. You want to use every source that will help you. This usually can't be done well by searching the whole repository site. You might need to search individual sources or even browse sources. You have to learn about the individual source to determine the best way to use it and if you've exhausted it (or even if your time is better spent focusing on another source before you've exhausted it).

Genealogy research is not easy. But it's fun and very rewarding. Getting stuck isn't fun or rewarding. Treating a repository site like a single source is a great way to get, and stay, stuck. Free your research and use every source you can. You'll be surprised how much more you discover when you start focusing on identifying and using individual sources, both online and off.

The Occasional Genealogist