Context is Key: Understanding the Record within the Record Collection

Records don’t exist in a vacuum. (For the purposes of this post, I am referring to microfilmed images of records we have located online). It’s important to understand the record in terms of the collection it’s found in. Once we’ve located a record, we need to ask ourselves questions about the record and the collection. Questions such as:

Who created this collection?
Does my record fit in this collection?
Is there anything unusual about my record that other records in the collection don’t have?
Is something missing that should be there?
Is the record an original or a copy?
Are there gaps in this collection?
Does the collection have an index and if it does, was the index created at the same time as the record?

We can answer those questions in two ways:

First, by studying our record image and the images that come before it and after it on the microfilm. We can compare handwriting – is it all the same in the collection (indicating perhaps a clerk copied the information from elsewhere)? Have we gone to the beginning of the film (or the beginning of the Item number on the film) and studied any images that may appear of the book cover that our record comes from? As we do so, we gather information which helps us place our record in context.

Second, we can study the collection description, which is what this post focuses on.

Where to find collection descriptions?

A quick example using Ancestry

One of the results in a search for Patty Dawley, born about 1771 in Vermont, is a death record.

Context 1

The top red arrow in the image above points to the title of the collection that the record is found in. In this example, the record is in Ancestry’s collection titled, ‘Vermont, Vital Records, 1720-1908’. The red arrow in the middle gives us further source information on the collection, including where the original data came from and which repository was responsible for first compiling the collection.

The red arrow toward the bottom points to the description of the collection and this is where Ancestry does a decent job of describing the collection further. Click on the Learn more… in the blue circle and a page will appear with a search box at the top, allowing you to search only within this collection. But page down, past the Source Information we just saw on the previous page. Here we are given more information (see image below) about the collection, including a brief history of when vital records were kept in Vermont, when the law came into being which dictated the keeping of those vital records and the availability of the records. Any known gaps in the records are also given. All of this information helps us to place into context our specific record. Perhaps even more than that, the description of the collection allows us to determine whether a record we are seeking exists in this particular collection.

Context 2

Another example using FamilySearch

Familysearch.org offers excellent descriptions of its record collections. Begin here at the Category: FamilySearch Historical Records Published Collections. This is an alphabetical listing of all the FamilySearch historical record collections (only the published ones). Find the collection you are interested in and click on the link provided. We’ll use the Arizona Marriages collection as an example:

Context 3
Image showing Category: FamilySearch Historical Records Published Collections

 

Context 4
Image showing Arizona Marriages collection description within the FamilySearch Historical Records Collection

There is a wealth of information on the individual collection page. The red arrow above points to the Contents of the page.  Of great importance is the general collection description which states that this is an index only collection so we will not find images of the actual marriage documents here. There is a coverage table and map showing which counties are covered by this index. There is information on what to do if you are unable to find your ancestor in the collection. The blue arrow points to the ability to access and search the collection from this page.

When we understand the record collection, we are better able to understand our specific record. Genealogists consider the weight of evidence in each document they use. Understanding why and how that document was created aids in being able to effectively weigh the evidence the document provides.

As important as it is to understand the collection our record is in, it is equally important to understand the laws at the time the record was created. Next week’s post will focus on how the laws of the time influenced the records created by our ancestors.

Locating Original Records for ‘Text Only’ Indexes on Ancestry

We’ve all seen them. Those Ancestry search results that pop up with a few details but without an image attached. They provide tantalizing bits of information but thorough researchers know that they need to find the original record, if at all possible.

Index
Image from Ancestry.com

These ‘Text-only’ collections can often be used as a finding aid to the original record. I was surprised to learn how many people don’t realize that there is another, more important, step to take.  The clue is in the FHL film number given.

Index arrow

This is where we head over to Familysearch.org and using the top menu, hover our cursor over Search. A drop-down menu appears, and we select Catalog. A search page appears with various search options. We want to search by Film/Fiche Number.

Index Catalog
Image from Familysearch.org

Click on Film/Fiche Number and enter the FHL film number which you located on the Ancestry ‘Text-only’ record. Familysearch.org displays a list of the microfilm/s with that number and which contain the original records.

Index Films

The information we found on the ‘Text-only’ record tell us that the birth date of the Craft child in question was 17 October 1883. We can see in the image above that the first film covers birth registers for the years 1880-1913, and this is where we will find the original record. Once we click on that film, we are given a screen which displays the Film/Digital Notes.

Index film notes

The second entry shows us it is for the Register of births, no. 1-2 1880-1900 and we are in luck, as a small camera icon is displayed. This means that the film is available to browse online. Clicking on that camera icon will take you to the original microfilmed images and it is a matter of navigating through the film to 17 October 1883 to find the entry for the child. Always take note of the Item number/s on the film (in this case, Items 2-3) as they will guide you to where those records begin.

Tip: You may be tempted to click on the magnifying glass icon shown in the image above as this indicates a link to a Familysearch index. But be warned, if you do so, you will find yourself looking at the indexed entry again with no image.

Index May

Having the original record in our hands, we might think we have completed our research with this film. But here is another tip … if the film also contains an index to the registers, it is always worth searching it! Going back to those film notes, we can see that this film does contain images of the original Indexes to the Register of Births.

Index film notes green

This is how I discovered a previously unknown child. By searching the microfilmed indexes under C for Craft (and knowing that this family remained in the same place for several years), I was able to confirm all the births of the known children. However, I found one more entry in that Index to Register of Births  for a child that I had no knowledge of.

Index Unknown

By going back to the film and navigating to entry 2501 in Book 1, page 192 as was shown on the Index to the Register of Births, I was able to find a male child (unnamed at the time) born 8 January 1894. This child must have died as an infant as he does not appear in any further records for this family.

Index Craft child

My tips:

  • Sound genealogical research means we should always try to locate the original record from an indexed entry.
  • If searching on Ancestry.com (or anywhere else) and you find a FHL (Family History Library) film number, head to Familysearch.org and locate that film. If you are lucky, it will be available to view online.
  • Always check the Index to a Register, if filmed, for the name you are researching.