Why you should enter your Ancestry.com finds manually

With its huge database of documents and information Ancestry.com is one of the required services for genealogists today.  Since they also own the Family Tree Maker program they have been able to to connect the service and the software to make moving data between them easier.  When you install Family Tree Maker and start looking up records you learn that you can have the program automatically download them from Ancestry.  This is very convenient and you can get a tree built up really fast.

What I’m going to suggest, though, is that instead of using the automated download that you instead enter the information into Family Tree Maker by hand.  While the process is slower, you get some real benefits:

  • The information you download had to be transcribed by someone, and may or may not have been done correctly.  If you get the information off the document yourself you will be sure of what you have in your database.
  • Ancestry does not always transcribe every field of the record.  You could be missing important information about the person.
  • You can do better citations than Ancestry.  Ancestry nicely includes citations in the downloaded records, but they are a bit vague and mainly tell you that the record came from ancestry.  It does not point to the specific entry in the record or back to where the record came from.  I should point out, though, that this is true of other big record services like FamilySearch and the NEHGS as well.  They give citations on their web pages but they tend to be specific only to the type of record.  You still need to build you own specific citation for what you got.
  • Working off the image yourself can turn your  source from derivative to original.  For example, I just pulled down a census record from Ancestry and got this for a citation:
Ancestry.com, 1900 United States Federal Census (Provo, UT, USA, Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 2004), http://www.ancestry.com, Database online. Year: 1900; Census Place: Mobile Ward 6, Mobile, Alabama; Roll: T623_31; Page: 24A; Enumeration District: 103.

Here’s what it would look like in Evidence Explained format:

1900 U.S. census, Mobile, Alabama, population schedule, Mobile, enumeration district (ED) 131, sheet 24-A (penned), dwelling 496, family 564, Micheal McGovern; digital image, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 16 June 2012); citing NARA microfilm publication T623, roll 31.

I’m not going to go through all of the differences between the two citations, but the key one I want to point out is that Ancestry’s citation only gives you credit for looking at an online database, but if you get the information yourself from the image you can put “digital image” in the source.  This means that you are dealing with a facsimile of the original and not just a typed copy.  This gives you more confidence in the quality of your information and provides the same for anyone you share your tree with.

  • Looking over the document while you enter the facts can lead you to other helpful information.  For example, it is helpful to look at other names on the page for possible relatives.

Having said all this, you will need to be able to do your own citations to do all this successfully.  This is not an easy skill and you may not be ready for it.  As an intermediate step, go ahead and download the information and image from Ancestry into Family Tree Maker.  After you have done this, go into FTM and copy the source that Ancestry provided.  Then look through the original record and do two things: correct any transcription errors that Ancestry made and add any fields that they missed.  Paste the citation to the new facts so that they have a source.  Also look over the form for neighbors that could be relatives or other connected people.

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12 Responses to Why you should enter your Ancestry.com finds manually

  1. Christina says:

    Thanks this really helps!

  2. Sheryl says:

    I’ve also found that I notice new details when I’m transcribing information. The process of transcribing forces me to go slowly (and not skim). I’m constanting amazed at how many things that I originally missed suddenly pop out.

    • Good point. That reminds me how I read something a couple of years ago by a genealogist who loved transcribing everything. At the time I thought she was being impractical, but now I understand why she does it, for reasons like yours.

  3. What a great post!! I agree with you on doing your own citations.

  4. Chantel says:

    When you say do your own citations, do you mean just looking at the digital copy (like a census) you can see on Ancestry or another service? Or do you mean going to a library and finding an original source copy? I’m pretty new to the genealogy world and I did build up a fairly sizable tree relying on other trees and documents in Ancestry. I understand that’s not the best practice now, but I didn’t have any idea of how to get started. I’m doing my best to go back now and try to verify that what I have is correct. But I don’t have access to any of the libraries right now.

    • What I’m referring to specifically is to build the citation from scratch rather than accepting what Ancestry.com puts in when you do an automatic download. Since you are new to genealogy, you might want to use any citation-building templates in your genealogy software as an aid to citing your source. The key thing is that if someone sees the citation later on it should be specific enough that they can find the source.

      Regarding your citation updating, if a clear digital copy is available online then there is no need to go to the library, especially for things like the Census, where you can only get image copies no matter where you go. If the citation is from a book, you might check Google Books, Family History Books or archive.org to see if they have the book images online. Finally, if you are having trouble verifying their citations, go ahead and do your own research to prove or disprove the information. You may find other things that they do not have.

  5. Great post. I agree Ancestry.com’s citations are atrociously bad. My own workflow involves using the website interface to locate new info (e.g. clicking on the little green leaves), downloading and saving the images locally, then importing them into Family TreeMaker, building the citations manually. Finally, I sink everything back UP to my Ancestry.com tree. I never sync down from Ancestry.

    In addition to the benefits you’ve mentioned, it allows me to maintain consistency in my sources, makes working with the source tab in FTM easier, and avoids data lock-in. If I decide to switch from FTM in the future, or if (as happened last year with FTM 2012) software glitches completely destroy my online databases, I’m not up a creek. My data is portable, my sources are readily accessible (even offline) — I could quickly leave Ancestry.com entirely with no loss of data.

  6. Magda says:

    This is so true and very important to know : Enter Manually !

  7. Lionel Thomas says:

    Interesting article. However I thought that the citation of a source should enable one to find the image. If one goes to ancestry.com and tries to find the image from the citation examples how does one do this. Microfilm references are practically useless. Shouldn’t we be referencing images through the ancestry links so that one can find them. I would like to see some realistic citations that work for digital data.
    Best wishes,
    Lionel Thomas

    • The problem is that it is often hard to reference images directly. The URLs usually have long random strings of characters that make a printed URL difficult to type. Also, the long URLs are not guaranteed to remain the same over time. For this reason the goal is to explain how to find the entry rather than enter a specific URL.

      • I understand that URLs are impractical. Since images are tied to events why not reference them by the details of the event. This is what one enters into the search engine to find the image in the first place. Also, the family tree programs provide a specific index to images. Why not use them.

  8. That’s what my example does. The event was a visit by the census taker in 1900 in Mobile, Alabama. You can either search for the person and narrow down the results to get the 1900 US Census in Mobile, Alabama or you can go through the source types to get the the US Census, 1900, Alabama,… until you get to sheet 24-A in ED 131. It is fine if you want to take advantage of the software’s ability to link to the image for your own purposes, but this won’t help should you need to share the information with someone else, which is a common goal for those doing genealogy.

    BTW, this doesn’t mean that I never use URLs in citations. If they are short enough to type easily I do include them. I just don’t use the long ones.

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