18 September 2008

Ancestry.ca

Hard news or even soft news in the world of genealogy was certainly not one of my precepts for blogging but the Ancestry event in Toronto on 16 September begs comment.

Ancestry.ca widely publicized the launch of its new database and the digital imaging of incoming ship passenger lists to Canada from 1865-1935. This is a stupendous achievement and deserved as much feedback as it could get from the media for which the launch event was primarily intended. I did count the Toronto Star, Toronto Sun, and Global Television among sites that had features at the end of the day or following. I’m sure I missed some.

Perhaps less obvious was the quiet establishment of a Canadian office in Toronto. Or reference to the parent corporation called The Generations Network (TGN), based in Utah. Appropriately, the spotlight was on those Canadian passenger lists and the fact that maybe one third of living Canadians have ancestors appearing in them. The original documents are held by Library and Archives Canada (LAC), our national archives in Ottawa, a (necessary) partner in the project. Oddly, the reception was not held in Ottawa nor did LAC have a representative at the event.

Originally we genealogists knew Ancestry.com as a subscription website where we could newly access wonderful things that had never been indexed for names before. From its American origins Ancestry has grown at a phenomenal rate to special sites for and in such countries as Canada (“dot ca”), the UK, Australia, Germany, and others—probably more even as I write. The rapid global growth of the TGN corporation indicates strong commercial recognition of the interest in family roots. A lot of competition and even more specialized websites/databases are developing to capture your interest.

How do you “find” an ancestor in one of these databases? You key his name into the searchable database. Or how you think he spelled his name. Or how the person actually writing it down for a record spelled it. You take your chances on finding an ancestor who “fits” what you already know about him. If you don’t already know something about that ancestor, you could be up a gum tree as my Mom would say. If you don’t have some experience with genealogy, you might not know that there are six or ten or twenty different ways to spell his surname. For starters.

What I’m saying is that the end result of this database creation is founded on names, especially surnames. The user often has an assumption that what was written on the original record has been exactly entered into the database. The original record may have its own inherent faults regarding spelling and identity—regular issues for family historians. The experienced among us recognize that human beings transcribe and decipher and do the data entry. We understand that it’s no easy job to read records that are almost illegible, poorly microfilmed or in unfamiliar context or language. Yes, even in Canada, imagine a francophone priest struggling to record the names for Highland Scots baptisms in Upper Canada or the Irish-born census-taker enumerating German-speaking immigrants. Local nuances can make a big difference for ancestor identity.

Who are the people doing all this yeoman work for Ancestry? At the 16 September event, Josh Hanna, Ancestry's Senior Vice President for Europe, Canada and Australia, responded to a question by confirming that Ancestry outsources the reading, indexing, and data entry. Furthermore, he cited confidence in the 1,500 paleographers hired in Beijing for this purpose.

Ancestry has an outstanding vision and we are the beneficiaries. Not to denigrate their accomplishments, but couldn’t important factors of the operation be moved closer to home?

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