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Dodgy Transcription Hindering your Research?

The internet has revolutionised the way we all do our family history research. It's easier than ever to log on from home and browse through census returns, passenger lists or naturalisation documents. So why is it not always easy to find the person you are looking for? Are they really absent from that census - or is it dodgy transcription holding you back?

How The Commercial Sites Index Records

The idea of indexing is to make a searchable database. This is what all of the large sites do, so that when you enter a name, place, or date of birth, the site will present you with a list of all records containing that information. Not every piece of information will be indexed, so you then have to click through and see the full record.

The difference between the sites is HOW this indexing is done. The big commercial sites, like Ancestry and FindMyPast generally use a technology called OCR, or optical character recognition to index their documents. This means that a computer "reads" the document and converts the writing into digital information. This technology works well when you have a typed document, not so well with handwriting. FamilySearch, which is a free acess search website run by the Latter Day Saints church, takes a different approach. Their indexing project allows volunteers to sign up and transcribe record sets. One volunteer transcribes the records according to the FamilySearch rules, then another more experienced volunteer reviews their input and corrects any errors. The same crowd-sourced approach is taken by FreeCEN and FreeBMD.

Transcription Errors Affect Your Research

OCR technology is not perfect by any means. We've all seen handwriting which is hard to read, and if you're struggling, the computer will be too. Yes, Ancestry and FindMyPast have buttons on the website which let you submit an alternative for a record which has been mis-transcribed, so if someone else has looked at that file before and sent in a correction, you may find what you're looking for.

Finding the record in the first place is the difficulty. I recently came across an instance where the name Jane INGLIS had been indexed by Ancestry as Leine NYHI. Researchers who have been around for a while know all about smart searches and wildcards. They may well have entered "J*e" to bring up all first names starting with J and ending in E like Jane, June, Julie. Or entered "In*" in the surname box to bring up all names starting In - Inglis, Ingram, Inman etc. Neither of those smart wildcard searches is going to bring up Leine Nyhi, and even if it did, the chances of you realising that you are looking at Jane Inglis is remote.

Advice for Searching Online

The key take-away from this is to always, always look at the originals. If you're struggling to find someone on a census but can find their wife, or a child, click through and see the original schedule and they might be there, but mistranscribed. This is a problem with Scottish census returns, where only the index is on Ancestry/FMP rather than scans of the original documents.

If you're hitting a dead end on Ancestry, try the same search on FindMyPast or Scotland's People as their indexing may be more effective.

Always correct errors when you come across them as this will help other researchers. Remember that if you can't find someone, don't assume they are entirely absent, they may be there under another name. Getting a second pair of eyes to take a look might turn up a record you'd previously overlooked.

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