Why We Mention Errors and Other Issues at Ancestry

Occasionally I get asked “why” I mention errors and other issues at Ancestry.com. There is really one reason: it’s fun.

Actually that is not the reason. The real reason is that I believe informed users make for better users. It really is that simple.

I do not spend hours trolling a database in hopes of finding a problem I can write about. Issues mentioned in this blog are ones that come up in my own personal research. I like those issues. They are easy to write about because it involves my own family. It all goes back to only writing about what I know something about. And chances are that the issues I encounter are not all that unique.

I also do not expect all errors to be fixed. That’s unrealistic and somewhat naive. A better approach is to remember that errors can be anywhere and can be the reason why our searches come up empty. It’s also possible our relative is not in the record that we the think he should be.

Keep in mind that there are several different kinds of errors at Ancestry.com (or just about any of the large fee-based data sites):

  • errors in cataloging-this covers a variety of issues including items that get “keyed” to the wrong geographic location, are titled incorrectly, etc.
  • errors in transcription-when a name, date, or other item on a record is interpreted incorrectly when being transcribed for an index.
  • errors in digitization-when images from microfilm (or original records) are somehow not digitized or are overlooked.
  • search errors-when an online search query is not conducted the way it should be. Note: this does not include searches where the user is not aware of how to perform searches. Search “errors” can very easily be the fault of the user.
  • database management errors-indexes that do not link to the correct image, missing images, etc.

The number of errors of this type are small. We tend to think there are more of them than there actually are because errors get remembered. Accurate results don’t.

Errors in actual records–those are not Ancestry.com‘s fault. It is not Ancestry.com (or another company’s) fault that the census taker got your ancestor’s age wrong, the county clerk mixed up which child of your ancestor died, etc. Those are errors in the record. If Ancestry.com (or whichever provider) is providing you an image of the record, their job is to provide that image–not to correct errors in it.

And while it is frustrating to find index transcriptions that are incorrect–keep in mind that without the indexes searching many of these records would be an all-encompassing time drain. A huge time drain. Indexes (imperfect as they are) facilitate the finding of records that was virtually impossible twenty years ago. I’m thankful for them. But I am aware of their limitations.

And don’t use the website’s transcription of the record as your own transcription. Read and transcribe it yourself (or at least check the transcription to see if it’s correct). When I get frustrated with errors in index transcriptions, I remind myself of how I found many of these records twenty years ago–page-by-page searches.

Try doing that with a 1920 census for Chicago when the family has moved all the way across town and you are unaware of it and they don’t appear in city directories.

Errors in the tree submissions are the responsibility of the submitter. It’s in the agreement.



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