Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Commentary About FamilySearch Cooperative Project With Ancestry.com/The Generations Network

Commentary About FamilySearch Cooperative Project With Ancestry.com/The Generations Network by Dick Eastman
Today's announcement from FamilySearch, the genealogy department of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and The Generations Network, owners of Ancestry.com, may be monumental for genealogists.

First of all, these two organizations are the biggest competitors in the arena of supplying information to genealogists. The two have not always agreed on various projects and goals in the past. In my mind, that's not surprising; I wouldn't expect a commercial corporation to have the same goals as a non-profit organization owned by a religion. The lack of agreement has created bits of friction from time to time, although the two organizations obviously do not discuss their differences in public.

I think today's announcement is great: these two powerhouse organizations have decided to work together, not on one project, but on many. Each brings certain strengths to the table, strengths that may complement the other's offerings perfectly or nearly perfectly.

Let's closely examine a few items in today's announcement.

First of all, let's examine the announcement that the two organizations will work together to improve their U.S. census records. First, it is no secret that the census images on Ancestry.com are lacking. In fact, when you stop to consider that those images were mostly scanned nearly ten years ago, using state-of-the-art technology available at that time, we shouldn't be surprised that the images are not perfect. The technology has improved a lot in ten years and images scanned today should be much better than those made ten years ago. After all, today's technology is better.

Next, it is always possible for any organization to go back and “scan it again” after a lapse of ten years. However, doing so is expensive. When trying to allocate the funds in this year's budget, any organization will be hard pressed to go back and “re-work” something already performed when there are new projects waiting to be done. After all, new projects are usually more successful financially than re-visiting old projects. The announcement shows that FamilySearch will be giving newer images to Ancestry.com essentially free of charge. Ancestry.com will have to spend some money integrating the new images into existing indexes but I bet the total cost will be a fraction of that of a total re-scan.

Next, the indexes will be merged. Nobody will remove any data but new information will be added to both sites. For an example, let's say that both sites contain indexes of a typical Irish neighborhood in a big city in the eastern U.S. One particular census page is difficult to read, perhaps the census enumerator had poor handwriting. One site may have indexed a family's surname as “Harrigan” while the other web site has it indexed as “Hannigan.” Which one is correct?

Who cares? Under the new system, that particular census entry will be indexed BOTH as “Hannigan” and as “Harrigan.” Anyone searching for “Harrigan” will find that entry as will anyone searching for “Hannigan.” This may not be a correction but it is very effective nonetheless. I think this is a great, low-cost solution.

The new indexes will also have more fields available for searching. You will now be able to search for names, as before, but also by ages, sex, marital status, and other fields that were not searchable before.

Finally, it should be noted that today's announcement is clearly labeled as work that will be accomplished in the future, not an announcement of work that has already been completed. The work will begin within a few days but will probably require at least two years to complete. We will see some improvements soon but not all the improvements will be online within the next few months. The first project will be improvement of the 1900 census images with other projects to follow soon after.

All in all, I am delighted to read today's announcement. Any time the two largest organizations in genealogy announce that they are working together to improve their products, the result is better information for all genealogists.

Posted by Dick Eastman on July 21, 2008 | Permalink

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