Wednesday, May 20, 2015

The troubling trend of online 'experts' with seemingly little or no expertise


In the realm of family history and genealogy, in some cases, is online marketing taking the lead over expertise?

The impetus that spurred the question:

Around the time of St. Patrick's Day, I was contacted by 'Patricia', a very frustrated researcher who told me that she had attended an online family history/genealogy learning session on Facebook, featuring 'experts' from FindMyPast. 

Patricia attended the session because she had questions about ancestors in County Mayo. Specifically she was searching for a parish marriage record for a couple in her paternal line whom she believed were married in Westport, County Mayo. The 'experts' running the session advised Patricia to search on the free Irish government website, telling her and others — and I quote — ' remains the best place to find baptism and marriage records.'.

Indeed, the free Irish government run is a good website, but NOT for someone in search of a County Mayo parish marriage record. The website is very clear about what it offers, and there is even a link entitled Current List of Available Parishes which offers details about the Catholic, Church of Ireland, and Presbyterian parish register records that are currently available on the site. These include the areas of Carlow, Cork & Ross, Dublin and Kerry, as you can see from the screen shot below. 

As I mentioned, this is a screen shot, but on just click on the brown buttons
for details about the records offered and the dates covered.
'Why on earth would these 'experts' have instructed someone looking for a County Mayo parish record to use this site?', I wondered as I read her email. Patricia sent me to the Facebook page on which the session had taken place. As I perused the questions and answers, it became clear to me that this session was first and foremost about marketing FindMyPast. 

Marketing people, before you get your knickers in a knot, and consider penning a nasty comment or sending me a patronizing email, first know this, I GET IT

FindMyPast is a business, so of course they are going to market their product; however, it appeared as though many of the people attending the free session had absolutely no idea about how to find the records for which they are searching. Many of them were genuinely looking for assistance, and perhaps naively expecting to get it. 

It seems not only unfair, but in my opinion is bordering on unethical, to promise 'answers from experts' to attendees, when it appears as though these so-called experts had limited expertise, and were simply bent on promoting their website. 

FindMyPast Ireland happens to be a site I like. They offer a great collection of Irish records, some of which cannot currently be sourced elsewhere online. However, if they advertise a 'learning session with an expert', then they should have on hand someone with expertise.

As it turns out, I am familiar with the locale in which the marriage of Patricia's ancestors took place, and was able to advise her about how to contact the church in which they were probably married. A connection was made, and now a transcription of the marriage record is on its way to her.


In the title of this piece I make reference to 'a trend', so unfortunately that means we have to look at another one. My friend Aisling, who knows how misinformation makes me stark raving mad, brought this one to my attention.

There is a relatively new player in town by the name of Crestleaf. According to their twitter page 'Crestleaf is the world's leading free collaborative genealogy site with over 90MM records.' The source of their records is the Social Security Death Index (SSDI), originally compiled by the U.S. Social Security Administration. Crestleaf uses the version of the index from 22 June, 2011, which comprises 89, 835, 920 records.

Yes, apparently there is a lot there, and the site is free.

Well, not quite.

Crestleaf offers what they call 'Premium Archive Plans' and does offer free accounts, but 'reserves the right to terminate Free Accounts at any time, with or without notice'. Here are their full Pricing Terms and Conditions.

Again, I GET IT. Crestleaf is a business, and as such, marketing is job one, especially given that their chief, cook and bottle washer, is a marketing executive.

Before Aisling drew my attention to this company, I had already had an exchange with this fellow. He asked me to promote a 'free chart' to my readers. Given that this blog is not a platform for advertising, my answer was 'no'. Apparently that didn't sit well with his nibs, because he sent me a somewhat condescending email assuring me that I wouldn't be promoting his business, just bringing attention to his 'free chart'. As one of my favourite Irishmen, actor/writer/banjo player Chris O'Dowd, would say, 'Really?'. It was like a virtual pat on the head.

The page that Aisling suggested I view is a 'helping hand' page on their blog with a list of 70 Irish ancestry resources posted around the time of St. Patrick's Day. 

The problem I have with this page is two fold. First, it is clear from even a cursory glance at this list that most, if not all, of the legitimate links are not based on the author's own research experience, but were lifted from elsewhere. Second, if you choose to make a list off the backs of others, then you should be sure to know at least a little something about what you're poaching. Once again, this appears to be a case of an expert or experts with seemingly little or no expertise in the field of family history/genealogy. 

That lack of knowledge bears out in a number of problems with some of the collections recommended for research. Here's just a small sampling:

1. Researchers are directed to the website of the "National Library of Ireland Catholic Parrish [sic] Registers".

Problem: Aside from the obvious misspelling of the word 'parish' as 'parrish', currently — until 8 July — there are NO parish registers on the NLI website. (Recall that Crestleaf posted this information on St. Patrick's Day.) There are PDF listings available, which detail the parish registers that are on microfilm for in-person research, and you can download these PDFs free of charge. The programme for the digitization of microfilm is apparently close to complete. The parish register site has been beta tested by the eminent John Grenham, so as of the promised date of 8 July, presumably we will be able to view the registers on microfilm online, but not before then. 

Also, rather amusingly, Crestleaf refers to the NLI as a 'genealogy library'. Referring to the National Library of Ireland as a 'genealogy library' is like referring to the U.S. Library of Congress in the same way, albeit the NLI operates on a smaller scale.

The National Library of Ireland does hold material of genealogical import, but it is the library of the nation of Ireland, whose mandate is 'to collect, preserve, promote and make accessible the documentary and intellectual record of the life of Ireland and to contribute to the provision of access to the larger universe of recorded knowledge.'.

As well, the Genealogical Office, the Office of the Chief Herald, and the Manuscripts Reading Room in Kildare Street, and the National Photographic Archive in Temple Bar are all part of the National Library of Ireland.

2. Researchers are pointed to a records search on "The General Register Office Records Search – Irish birth, marriage and death records occurring since January 1, 1864"

Three problems with this one:

1] You cannot conduct a 'records search' on the website of the General Register Office of the Republic of Ireland to which Crestleaf has linked.
2] Copies of GRO records can be ordered online, but the dates for what can be ordered are limited. Death records from before 1924 and marriage records from before 1903 are not currently available for online ordering. (See links below). Copies of registration for the full complement of dates can be applied for by post, but not online.
3] Not to put too fine a point on it, but in-person research includes non-Catholic marriage records that date from 1845.

For the 26 counties of the Republic of Ireland you can order copies of civil registration records online via the website at As I mentioned, this site currently does not offer a search option, so you must have in hand the details of the record you want. See this link for details about the information required, and this link for full details with respect to exactly which records can be applied for online.

For the 6 counties of Northern Ireland, you can both search for and order copies of civil registration records online via the website of GRONI, the General Registration Office of Northern Ireland at

Indexes for Irish civil registration are available on and on at

3. Crestleaf recommends "The UCD Library: Irish Newspaper Collection" on their list of newspaper collections with online access.

Problem: Only registered University College Dublin students and members of Edugate, Ireland's Higher Education data services federation, can access this particular online newspaper collection. 

4. Researchers are directed to The Irish War Memorials website which Crestleaf claims "includes photos of each memorial and grave site details"

Problem: The Irish War Memorials website is exactly that, a website of Irish War Memorials. There are no grave sites on this website, as is very clearly stated on their 'How to use this site' page: "Graves are not included in this inventory, nor are memorials to military persons who did not die on active service".


Obviously, both FindMyPast and Crestleaf are not philanthropic ventures; I fully recognize that fact. These are full-on businesses born out of the recognition of a lucrative space in the marketplace.

The apparent misinformation posted on the learning session conducted by FindMyPast may have been a fluke, I do not know. It appears the details of the session are no longer online, so hopefully they have recognized the errors of their 'experts'.

(Post-post edit: As Kat pointed out in her comments on this post, perhaps the FMP experts were not directing people to birth and marriage records, but instead to the index of civil registrations. If that was the case, then they should have been explicit about it. The index leads you to information you can use to obtain a record; however, precisely speaking, a civil registration marriage index entry is not a parish marriage record.)

In the case of Crestleaf, I'd like to give them the benefit of the doubt, but admittedly find myself wondering if this is not purely a marketing enterprise. I believe it will be to Crestleaf's benefit to develop a knowledge base about family history/genealogy before they present themselves as experts in the field.

Increasingly it seems, the market place is being encroached upon by such ventures, staffed by ‘experts’ with seemingly little or no expertise in the field of family history/genealogy.

Some questions spring to mind here:

Shouldn't we hold such companies to a high standard, with respect to the way in which they negotiate within the space of family history/genealogy?

Doesn't it make sense to expect full disclosure from persons/companies who present themselves as experts?

Often I hear from people — some with very little research experience — who are concerned about the best sites in which to invest their often limited online research budget, so shouldn't we encourage full disclosure in order to be of benefit to these inexperienced researchers?

If we say nothing, then are we not just letting such persons/companies run rough shod, luring in the less informed, and possibly ruining for those people the joyous undertaking of family history/genealogy research?


To be perfectly honest, I debated with myself over publishing this post. The last time I critiqued information presented online by so-called experts (see Falsehoods, Fibs & other Fabrications...), I was paid back for my trouble with the loss of three followers on my blog, one of whom felt it necessary to send me a rather vicious email as he 'left the building' because one of the so-called experts is a friend of his who was 'trying her best'. Apparently, I have different standards, because I expect someone who is a paid expert to actually know what he/she is talking about.

Be that as it may, I think this is an important topic for discussion, so I'd really like to know your thoughts about it.

How would you answer the question:

In the realm of family history and genealogy, in some cases, is online marketing taking the lead over expertise? 


Saturday, May 16, 2015

Sepia Saturday #279: 'What was, that is, but isn't': Marrying past & present

A city should be a living, breathing entity which is allowed to stretch and change in order to remain alive; however, some of us who want to preserve the past cringe when we see beautiful old buildings torn down in favour of 'new builds', some of which seem put up for utility rather than looks. So too, sometimes what is left from the past is not always as beautiful as we might hope.

The inspiration image for today's Sepia Saturday reminded me of those wonderful instances in which developers decide to marry the old and the new. They are able to maintain the living city, by renovating and refitting the structures of the past for modern day usage, while still preserving the best of what once was, and in some cases, even greatly improving on it. So, my contribution for today's Sepia Saturday features some of the spaces and places in Dublin, which exemplify a happy marriage between past and present.

Most striking among these is a metal structure — the old gasworks in Ringsend, Dublin — near my mother's childhood home on Gordon Street. When I was a child I loved the structure, because it looked to me like an enormous cage, perfect for capturing dragons and all sorts of other fantasy creatures. Thought by some to be an eyesore, in recent years it has been transformed into an apartment complex. 

The gasworks, towering over the row houses of South Lotts Road, 1950s.
From a similar perspective, over 60 years later, the gasworks conversion finds the neighbourhood little changed.
Built in 1881, the George's Street Arcade, also called St. George's Market,
is Ireland's first purpose-built shopping centre.
Photo, circa 1895, NLI.
The upper facade of the complex remains little changed. Unfortunately, the awnings are long gone,
as are the tram tracks of South Great St. George's Street.
Powerscourt Townhouse,
home to Richard Wingfield, 3rd Viscount Powerscourt (1730-1788), and his wife Lady Amelia.
Lord and Lady Powerscourt bought the townhouse so that they could entertain guests
 'in town' during the Parliamentary season.
They were renowned for the parties they hosted in this home.
The street is now much more narrow, but the Powerscourt Townhouse facade remains virtually unchanged.
Inside another sort of party goes on, with all manner of wares to delight shoppers.
Be sure to stop by the Sepia Saturday blog to connect with others and see how they have been inspired by today's posted image.

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