Online Record Access Isn't Always Forever

Online Genealogy Records Can Disappear: Simple Ways to Protect Your Research

By Janet Meydam

These days, millions of people have family trees online, with facts and sources gathered from the many online databases that are available via paid subscription sites and free genealogy archives. If you yourself have created a family tree with numerous records to prove your facts, you’re doing a great job. Adding sources to your tree is one of the most important things you can do for your research.

But, be aware, some of these sources could just disappear. No warning, just gone – because online record collections are not guaranteed to stay online, or publicly accessible, forever. If you’re not downloading the records that you use as sources (and are simply linking to them as many people do) you could find that you lose access to these sources in the future.

This article will explain why this happens and what you should do to protect your information.

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Why Genealogy Record Sources Disappear

Genealogy websites strive to provide large numbers of records from many different sources to make subscriptions to their websites more attractive to users. However, even genealogy giants like do not own most of the records they offer. Instead, many of the records you find online are provided in partnership with other organizations and government entities.

Often, a database is owned by the municipality where the records originated. If not, it may be owned by a library, historical society, church, school, or archive. These organizations own the rights to these databases and control who gets to use them.

So how do genealogy websites offer access to these databases?

They purchase the rights to access databases through license agreements with the database owners. This type of agreement allows a genealogy website the right to link to and display a set of records for a set fee and a set period of time. The genealogy website then turns around and offers access to the records to its subscribers. Genealogy websites may arrange license agreements with individual database owners, or they may contract with content providers to purchase multiple license agreements for many databases.

The problem occurs when these license agreements expire. Most agreements are renewed with updated terms and the records continue to appear on the genealogy website as usual. Sometimes, though, the genealogy website and the database owner or content provider cannot reach an agreement on new terms to continue the license. When this happens, the license expires, and the genealogy website no longer has rights to access the database, so the records must be removed.

Legal battles over access to records may also play a role in some cases. And, in others, sites may choose to remove access to collections or community information they no longer want to support – or move a collection to a new location.

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How to Protect Your Family Tree from Record Loss

There are several things you can do to protect records and photos that you have added to your family tree through a genealogy website.

Download Images of Your Records

Yes, it’s time consuming and sometimes a handful to organize, but if images of your records are available, you should always download them. If your record is an image – such as a scanned copy of a vital record, census record, book page or photo – it can be downloaded and stored in a folder on your computer. If it is simply an index or transcript you can copy the information into a document or notepad on your computer (just don’t forget to copy information about the source as well).

This way, should your source database disappear from your genealogy website, you will still have the image of your ancestor’s record (or index/transcription) from that database, and therefore your proof of your fact. This is the absolute best way to ensure that you don’t lose access to your records.

Just be sure to back your records up! Find out how here. 

If you are worried about storage space on your computer, or primarily work on a Chromebook or mobile device, you can save your record images to online storage sites such as Google Drive. These sites usually offer a limited amount of storage for free. See this guide to free storage options for genealogy.

Saving images this way also makes it easy to share your research with others. Please read Quit Attaching Records to Your Family Tree and Do This Instead for help on how to ensure ongoing access to your source records by storing them in the cloud.

If you’re not sure if you’re downloading OR simply linking to your sources you should know that the standard on sites like Ancestry is to link to records when you add a source to your tree. When you find a record and add it to your tree it is not actually attached in the same way that a record would be if you downloaded it to your computer and then uploaded it again. That means that if a record is removed from Ancestry, or you lose access because you let your subscription lapse, you will no longer be able to view the records. See Stop ‘Saving’ Records to Your Ancestry Tree Until You Read This for more help on this topic.

Make Sure Your Source Information is Properly Cited

Citing sources is correct genealogical practice, as you always want to give credit to your sources so that you (and others) can reference and verify your source material. Citing will also help you locate records that may have moved or been removed from online repositories.

Even when records are deleted from a genealogy website, the facts entered in your tree and the cited source information is preserved. If your source information is recorded properly, you can look up those sources and possibly reacquire your missing images through other means.

For help citing sources and many other topics see Family History Daily’s online courses.

Search Online for Your Missing Database

If the records you want have disappeared from your genealogy website, chances are the owners of the rights to those records have either signed a contract with another genealogy website or published the records online themselves.

Take the title of the database from your source information and conduct an online search for the records. This should help you to determine if the database is published online in another location. You can then plan to access your records through that alternate site. Checking libraries and archives in the region where the records originated is a good place to start.

If you take these steps, you will minimize the damage to your family tree if records suddenly disappear on your favorite genealogy website. Download your records sources now to avoid this loss in the future.

Happy researching!

Janet Meydam is a freelance writer who has over 40 years of experience in genealogy as a hobby. Her knowledge includes researching many different records from the United States, Germany and Poland. She is also a co-author of her parents’ family history book “I Come from a Long Line of Dilleys.” Janet works as an occupational therapist. She and her husband Tim have three adult children and live in Wisconsin.

Image: Elderly woman, full-length portrait, seated in chair, in bedroom, with crutches on low piece of furniture in front of her.[between 1890 and 1900]. By Charles Henry Currier. Library of Congress

5 thoughts on “Online Genealogy Records Can Disappear: Simple Ways to Protect Your Research”

  1. Patricia G Anderson

    thumbdrives are cheap and will hold LOTS of info and pictures—create several, just in case one goes bad–put in a safety deposit box–and send to relatives who will care and take care of them. Depending on how much things change–redo every year to be sure all is updated. Copy pages of websites onto word or adobe–make them searchable, then thumbdrive. Clouds can also go away. Have you heard that shutterfly just dumped permanently thousands of photos for customers that had not ordered in 2 years. Keep your stuff safe on your own person, dont depend on someone else to do it for you,

  2. I’m loving this thread. I once cared about saving photos for my kids, grands, etc.. and still fight to retain an interest in future generations. But I trash boxes of photos as I plan my next “downsize,” while saving a precious few that I care about today, knowing that the younger generations prep for survival w/ few storage facilities. Mine, no doubt, will go in the trash with everything else when my end comes.

    And now I see the end of life on earth coming, at the same time my own end is in sight and most of the family have cell phones for photos, which are then spread around via facebook. So why save these old pics when the end is coming in more ways than one? If the end does not come and there is still electricity, all those cell phone pics will surface and clutter up the simpler life as the tides rise and people finally get interested in survival. If no electricity –except in the posh areas, naturally–day-to-day will be way more important than the past. And people will want to try to keep their blood lines alive. The future will count a whole lot more than the past.

    Sorry, I think, therefore I try to imagine the future. A curse on that part of my brain. It destroys the dreams of world-wide survival and business as usual. But I find much to mull over as I age. Thanks, Ms. Maydem, for your interesting contribution to my mulling.

  3. Good ideas. Also CLOUD storage. You may not be home to “grab and go” when an emergency occurs. The more backups the better if your research is important to you and your descendants.

  4. I really cannot agree with this totally. Yes we MUST safely store our records but to download and store them on your computer is one of the worse places to rely upon.
    Computers Fry
    Fires and floods happen.
    Thefts occur. These and more happen daily. In fact just look at the recent California fires. I know of many people that have lost decades of research when they had to escape with the clothes on their backs. Even placing items in personal “fire proof” safes proved they were not fireproof. One man opened his up and discovered his entire life saving gone.
    Whenever you are downloading anything place them on Ancestry, Familysearch and a portable drive….in fact 2 drives. Place one in a bank vault….not one in the house. Keep the other for a grab and go. And you can even create an extra portable drive and send it to a family member to keep just in case.
    Make copies of your favorite family photos….full size even if they are large…..and hand them out to family for presents. Spread the wealth!!!
    Lets face it. Many family members already think you are a crazy person so prove the right……….grin while you are doing it and also dont forget to ask for their family information.

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