Are Published Transcriptions Still Necessary?

The advent of Internet genealogy and the rapid growth of online databases of original records have facilitated genealogical research in ways that previous generations could never have imagined. For a small monthly fee, researchers can sit at home and access thousands of census records from around the world through online databases, not to mention military records, city directories, and a growing number of other records. With a few keystrokes and the push of a mouse button, they can contact distant cousins and share information, a process that once took days, if not weeks. They can access digitized copies of hard-to-find out of print genealogies with little more than a Google search.

With all of this emphasis on digital research, should traditional methods be ignored? Specifically, do we still need printed publications, like records transcriptions? To answer those questions, we must consider the nature of both digital and traditional genealogical research.

Personal computers and the Internet have certainly revolutionized our world. Never before have we been able to communicate at such a speed and with such ease, nor have we ever had such ready access to a wealth of information. Organizations like Ancestry.com and FamilySearch have gone to a great deal of trouble to digitize records, index them, and place them online, all to the benefit of the at-home researcher.

Unfortunately, these digitization projects are not without two major drawbacks: first, due to the time and expense involved in digitizing records, whether from the original or a microfilm copy, only a small percentage of all available records have been placed online (to be fair, that number is growing steadily); and second, the online indexes to these records have been created by individuals who do not necessarily have the skills needed to read and transcribe the names mentioned in said records, resulting oftentimes in indexes that are so flawed as to be unusable.

Traditional research, either in microfilm or original records, is certainly slower and can be more costly, either in time spent travelling and researching, or in money spent hiring a professional genealogist to retrieve records or conduct research. Even for those who are fortunate enough to live near a large records repository or a Family History Center, the costs involved in photocopying records (where digital microfilm readers are unavailable or when original records are used) or ordering microfilm can, at times, cost more than the typical low-end database subscription.

Further, many of these records are poorly indexed, if at all. Most have never been transcribed, and many are stored away in dusty vaults or, worse, in off-site storage facilities. In some cases, all of a county’s records have not been microfilmed.1 There can be no doubt that research in original records is tedious, time-consuming, and often messy. Yet, there is still a great value to these records, which often contain information crucial to not only extending lineages, but in reconstructing the identities of our ancestors.

Published transcriptions perform several functions. They publicize extant records, so that researchers are aware of what’s available in or for a particular area, and where the original records are physically located. When done well, they provide an excellent index and allow researchers to easily access a record’s contents, whether from home or through a library. Published transcriptions can be costly, true, but are downright handy when one’s ancestors congregated in a certain locality.

Additionally, published transcriptions allow researchers to supplement their incomes.2 Often, these researchers donate their publications or a portion of the sales to local libraries and historical societies, which helps keep these organizations afloat.

Even in an age where information is available literally at the tips of one’s fingers, a well-made transcription, abstraction, or index of a complete records set can nicely bridge the gap between traditional and online research, for all of the reasons named above, which boil down to this: Whether the original is accessed on site or online, a published transcription when done well can help researchers go to exactly the records they need, even (or perhaps especially) when performing complex research, thus saving time, money, and frustration.

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1. Case in point, the writ records of Rabun County, where I found the complaint (petition) mentioning Jemima Kell. That case was not entered into the minutes of the Superior Court, nor into any of the contemporary Superior Court dockets. If I had not been transcribing the writ records, I might have missed that record all together. Not to hammer the point home, but this is where a reasonably exhaustive search comes in handy: When researching court records, make sure you examine every type of record created by the court in that era, where available, and not just the court minutes.

2. Disclaimer: I depend upon published transcriptions to supplement my income. Even if I didn’t, I would still hold these opinions and I would still advocate for the creation of published records transcriptions.

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