Monday, August 23, 2010

The Limits of Online Research – A Case File

For the 97th edition of the Carnival of Genealogy, the assignment was to put 3-5 hours of online genealogy research into a family line of a friend or co-worker. Something nobody had ever worked on before. I’ve always found it fun to just see where online databases take me, so I was excited about this theme!

However, very quickly into my journey I realized that I wasn’t so much discovering the ancestors of my friend, I was seeing in practice the limits that exist when one does their genealogy research online. Come join me on my journey and I’ll show you what walls I bumped into!

The Beginning

My research started with the bare minimum of facts. I had the name of my starting person, let’s call him ‘Jan’ and when he’d died. I also knew his wife ‘Nelie’ had died after him, date unknown. I planned to see how far back I could fill in the family tree with the basic facts: birth, marriage and death.

My research started off pretty well. On the site of the Regional Archive Leiden I found the birth certificate, marriage certificate and death certificate of Jan. There were no scanned images for me to look at, but the index of the marriage certificate mentioned their ages and birth place, as well as the names of their parents.

Wall Number One

Hoping to find something on Jan’s parents, I searched for them in the database. I found their marriage certificate, but the index didn’t mention anything besides the place and date of the marriage, and of course their names. No image was available. I’d hit a dead end on Jan’s father. With no further data, as I couldn’t find his birth or his death certificate, I couldn’t go any further back. I had no way to find his parents.

This was the first wall I encountered. Had I ordered the copy of the marriage certificate, I would have found more data. His age and birthplace would’ve been listed, and most likely his parent’s names. But since it wasn’t in the index on the site and I couldn’t access the images online, I was stuck.

For Jan’s mother I was a little more lucky. I did find her birth and death certificate, but once again the index didn’t say anything about her parents and the images weren’t available online. I couldn’t go any further back unless I ordered a copy of the certificates I had found.

More Luck With Nelie?

From the marriage certificate of Jan and Nelie, I had found out Nelie’s age and birthplace, so I decided to see if I would have more luck tracing her ancestors. For this I had to go to a different online archive, the Green Hart Archives. This archive does not have any digital images, but it has a different index, so I was hopeful.

I quickly located Nelie’s birth certificate, which mentioned her parent’s names and the age of her father. With this information I found the marriage certificate of her parent’s Klaas and Antje, and the birth certificate of Klaas. No death certificates were located for either of them. I couldn’t find Antje’s birth certificate, but from the information on her marriage certificate I do know her approximate birth year, her birthplace and her parent’s name.

Wall Number Two

I decided to research the parents of Klaas first. I found their marriage certificate, which gave me their birthplaces, approximate birth years, names of their parents and birthplaces of their parents. This is where the trail ends for this line. No more certificates were to be found.

For Antje’s parents, it was almost the same. I did find their birth certificates, along with their marriage certificate. But the information on their parents was the same.

The problem? The certificates I needed had not yet been indexed on the site! All of the missing certificates were ones that hadn’t been indexed yet. So while the index was superb, it couldn’t tell me about certificates that hadn’t been indexed yet!

To find this information, I would have to take a physical trip to the archive that holds these certificates. There I would have to locate the microfiches and search them for the certificates I want.

The Lesson I Learned

All in all, this was a very practical lesson in the limitations of online genealogy. The two walls I encountered are the ones that are exactly why a lot of genealogists don’t put much stock in online research except as a nice starting point.

One: no online images means you get are totally reliant on what the index on the site says, which is woefully little most times!

Two: you cannot find online what hasn’t been indexed yet!

A lot of pro-internet genealogists admit that secondary sources are often not found online. But this enlightening trip through the online indexes has left me with one thing in mind. There are a lot, and I do mean a lot, of primary sources not yet online as well. Not to mention that from the sources that are online, a lot of information is missed out on if you just take what the index on the site says instead of looking at the actual certificate.

As for me? I love spending the whole day in an archive. Internet is wonderful for contacts and sharing with the world, but for my research the old way is truly best.


  1. Very true...not everything about your family tree is going to be found online! Great post!

  2. Even when I've found information online, I tell my friends to visit wherever the vital records are kept to get more information.

    Very informative post!

  3. You're absolutely right. I feel sort of lucky to have started my research in the pre-internet days, when I developed a better sense of what's out there. I'm not sure those who start out with all of these tools at their fingertips know how many records (and how much fun) they're missing.

    Online resources are fantastic, and they're a great starting point...but it's important to use them as a launching pad, not a stop sign.

  4. It was interesting to hear how you do your research in the Netherlands. It's also interesting to hear that your experience in the Netherlands was similar to our experience in the States. Like you, I too could spend an entire day at the library!