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.
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 Ancestry.com 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.
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.
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.