Is It Worth It?

Curiosity killed the cat, as they say. Genealogical curiosity can kill your budget and bank account.

An earlier post discussed Soundex cards to Baltimore passenger lists in the 19th century. The cards located were for several members of my family. I’ve seen the actual passenger lists for this family so locating the cards for me was an academic exercise.

As mentioned in the blog post, the cards referenced the back of the card in the location where “other family members” were to be listed. The back of the cards were not filmed. Because of how the  cards were created, I decided it wasn’t going to be worth it to obtain a copy of the back of the card.

And then I got emails saying that I should see the back of the cards.

I’ll be honest, I don’t know what it would cost to get the copy of the back of the card. And while I realize curiosity is a good thing for the genealogist, curiosity must be balanced with practicality and reality. As mentioned in the blog post, the cards were a finding aid to the actual manifest. Information on the card was simply taken from the manifest decades later in the creation of the index.

Here is where thinking about how the records were created and why they were created is important. The cards were a finding aid for someone who needed to locate his date and place of entry into the United States. The names of others who were travelling with the person on the manifest were added to assist the searcher in locating the desired name. This way if the “right name” could not be found by searching for it directly (because it was written incorrectly on the actual manifest and hence indexed in the same way), a searcher could search for others that the immigrant remembered traveled with and if their name was located on an index card, the name of the person of interest should show up as someone in the “traveling with” section of the card. It’s worth remembering that these cards were created before computerized database searches and searching for other family members was a good technique. The cards were not created as a genealogical source.

While it may be desirable to obtain a copy of every record created on your relative, there are some things to consider:

  • What is the cost of obtaining the record?
  • Was this “record” really a new record or was it created from information on another record (ie. an abstract)?
  • Is the probable informant on this record one whose “opinion” or “information” I don’t already have?
  • What information is typically on this record?
  • How reliable do I perceive the information to be on this record?
  • How was this record created and what was its purpose?
  • Do I already have this information from reliable sources?
  • Is this record likely to provide really new information?
Of course, sometimes it interesting to have any record on an ancestor and any record can contain new information. But sometimes some thinking and reflection may make you decide if obtaining the record is actually worth it–especially if the cost is significant.
Because we can’t always afford everything.

3 thoughts on “Is It Worth It?

  1. Karen vanHaagen Campbell says:

    So, where does one send away to for the cards so one can see the back of the card? Thank you,

    Karen Campbell

    • The National Archives may be able to help, but there is nothing on the cards that is not on the manifest. That’s where the information from the cards came from. The manifests are online at FamilySearch,, and other sites.

      • It is worth doing a general web search using a regular old-fashioned nonspecialist search engine as well. Many ports have their own collections of local manifests, passenger and crew lists. Even when you have the version that accompanied passengers at their arrival, in cases of misspellings or other problems cross-checking with the document left behind can be worth it.

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