Why Don’t You Just Use Ancestry?

I get asked that question a lot, and in light of what’s been going on with the proposed Indiana state budget, I thought I’d take an opportunity to discuss why local history and genealogy departments cannot and should not be replaced by Ancestry.  I’ll be focusing on Floyd County, Indiana, as that is where I am.

The first thing I want to talk about is access.  Most of our library’s (New Albany-Floyd County Public Library) patrons, and this is probably true of most people, can’t afford the subscription to Ancestry.  They come to our library to access Ancestry Library Edition.  While this service would continue without the library’s Indiana Room (for local history and genealogy), the vast majority of the patrons who use it do so in the Indiana Room.  Why?  Because the Indiana Room staff know what databases are available through Ancestry and how to perform a search to yield the best results.  It’s true that this training could be given to Reference or Circulation staff, but, as genealogists know, if you aren’t into genealogy you aren’t going to provide the best genealogical services for your patrons.

This brings me to my next point.  Patrons utilize the Indiana Room because they can get help and advice from staff members.  We offer beginning genealogy courses at our library and are just starting to implement genealogy for kids, genealogy for teens, and more specific classes, such as Irish genealogy.  This allows first-timers, or those who just want a refresher, to get an idea of what is involved in the process and get one on one time with someone has been doing genealogy for years.  We also assist walk-ins and schedule one on one time with patrons.

It may be that you are researching someone who served in the Civil War.  You’ve typed his name in the search box on Ancestry and you’ve found him listed in the Report of the Adjutant General of the State of Indiana and maybe a couple of other things.  Is that all there is?  Probably not.  At the library, we have microfilmed local newspapers with an online index.  Your ancestor’s obituary might include his military service.  We also have Floyd County Civil War soldier records on microfilm (I have yet to find these on Ancestry, but maybe someday).  In some instances, we might have an archive collection that has information or even artifacts.  These are all things you wouldn’t know if you didn’t have someone to ask, and as great as Ancestry may be, contacting them is difficult at best.  Some of these things are also things that Ancestry just doesn’t have, at least not yet.

Another issue is that sometimes you can view an image and sometimes all you get is a transcription.  I searched for “Rakestraw” in the Indiana Marriages collection on Ancestry.


I clicked on the marriage record for Adalino Rakestraw and Henry Hardy, and this is what it showed.


The problem with this is that there is no original image.  Adaline Rakestraw married Henry Hardy, as the image from the microfilm at the library will show.

Floyd County, Indiana Marriages, Vol. 3, p.101, Stuart Barth Wrege Indiana History Room

Floyd County, Indiana Marriages, Vol. 3, p.101, Stuart Barth Wrege Indiana History Room

Ancestry is a wonderful tool, but it really needs to be viewed as a virtual library.  The same rules apply to it that apply to libraries nationwide.  Every library is unique.  While some libraries have duplicate information, such as Census, each library has something that other libraries do not have.  In our case, we have quite a bit, but to name just a few:

  • Asylum Records, 1866-1900
  • Cemetery Records
  • Church Records, 1816-1990
  • Cornelia Memorial Orphans Home Records, 1877-1954
  • Diaries & Journals
  • Family Bibles
  • Letters
  • Newspapers, 1817-2015 (with online index)
  • Yearbooks

Should you use Ancestry?  Absolutely!  Just don’t forget to visit your local library, historical society, or genealogical society.  As genealogists, it is our responsibility to be thorough in our research.  This means we need to use all repositories at our disposal for research.  At present, no single repository contains every piece of genealogical information available.


As I read Amy Johnson Crow’s Are Your Ancestors the Average of 5 Records?, I thought about my own recent discoveries on John Bridges, and a book about Rebecca Gilbert’s family, which is a topic for a future post.  The first time I read the book, I wished I had a book for each of my ancestors, something to give me an idea of who they were and how they lived.  With John Bridges, finding out there was more to the man than the family legend suggested was an eye-opener.  To borrow from David Walton, learning about our ancestors is more than names and dates.  (Ok, so this is a bit of a plug too, since I’m one of the reenactors, but it’s relevant nonetheless).

My grandpa loved to tell stories and he had a million of them.  I wish, now, that I had recorded or written down more of them.  As we were going through some of the things in his bedroom, my uncle found a few stories that my grandpa had written down.  I never knew that he had and it was a treasure to see them.  I’m a journaler by nature.  I keep a journal of everyday events.  I may write every day for a week and then I may not write again for a month.  It doesn’t really matter how often it’s done, just that it is done.  While my journal might not mean anything to anyone now, one hundred years from now, it may be a treasure to a descendant.  It may provide clues to family relationships that couldn’t have been found otherwise.  Part of the reason I started this blog was to put family history in a place where it can be easily accessed and not lost.  I encourage the patrons, where I work, to write down their stories too and I encourage anyone reading this to do the same.

Stories are important.  They give our ancestors character, a voice.  They make them relatable and significant.  They make them real to us in a way that just the dry facts cannot do.  I’ve made it one of my goals to research and write a story for each of my direct line ancestors (at least).  It will only be a snapshot of their lives, but it will be more than I had before and it will give me a sense of who they were.  If finding out who our ancestors were as people isn’t one of the primary goals of every genealogist, it should be.